Broadway Liturgy

So we have these debates about ‘full participation’ at the Mass and it seems to me that an awful lot of American Catholics have been educated at the Broadway School of Liturgy, and that ‘full participation’ means that everyone possible must sit as close as can be to the ‘stage’ and that the actors must come down the aisle as often as possible in wonderful costumes in order to ‘engage’ with the audience. Full participation requires that as many people be involved in the performance as possible and that all of the audience should join in with chants and cheers and whoops and tears, with rollicking music and a game show host style of celebration on the part of the priest.

To achieve this ideal the Broadway Liturgists insist on building round or fan shaped churches so that everyone can–’fooly participate in the liturgy.’  But even if this is the ideal, does a big fan shaped church make this happen? I’m talking to my favorite friendly architect who was explaining to me the dynamics of the fan shaped church. Sure, everyone can see the altar, but in a fan shaped church that seats 1200 people, there are always going to be a good number of people who are far away from ‘the action’. Furthermore, although they seem to be sitting in the round and therefore relating to one another the reverse is true–and here’s why:

As the seating in a fan shaped church goes further back the pews have to be longer and longer. Consequently, because of building codes, they also have to be further and further apart from the pew in front in order to allow that many people to get out quickly. This means that a large number of the people are actually sitting further apart from the rest of the worshippers than in a straight ‘up and down’ type church where shorter pews are equidistant. In this sort of church the space between the pew in front and the next pew is about 3′. At the back of the fan shaped church the distance is as much as 3’8″. So what you ask?

Well, the psychological guys say that the more distance there is between worshippers, the more cut off they feel from each other. Furthermore, the more distraction they have from the focus of attention, the more cut off and disjointed their experience and therefore the more distanced they are from one another. On the other hand, when worshippers in a ‘straight up and down’ church are in the pew they are not only closer to one another, but they are all facing the same direction and the same focus is on the altar–and not on one another (or the choir, or the cantor, or the windows, or what on earth Mrs Florsheim’s wearing this Sunday!)

This closer proximity and shared focus actually draws the congregation together more effectively than the seemingly obvious circle or fan church. Think of it like this: I get full participation from the congregation when they are seated close together, all focusing on the same object of worship–Christ made present at the altar. Furthermore, when everyone is focussed on a shared object (any object) outside themselves they are drawn out of themselves to that object, and in that process draw closer to one another. Think of ten people going on a journey from different starting points to the same destination. As they journey they will draw closer to each other by virtue of all heading in the same direction.

So, in the traditional style of worship we have ‘full participation’ in the liturgy in a much subtler and complete way than simply making as many people as possible take part in the procession, sing in the choir, be ushers and lectors and so forth. What we get is full participation in a corporate sense–in which each individual gets caught up in the action of the whole community as we worship the Almighty.

And isn’t that what the trendy liturgists wanted in the first place?

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  • Ttony

    "And isn't that what the trendy liturgists wanted in the first place?"Not quite, father: it's what they wanted us to believe that they wanted, and finally you're calling their bluff!Ad multos annos.

  • Katherine

    I find it ironic how all attempts to make people participate more in the Mass have basically made people more aware of themselves and less aware of each other by making them less aware of God. Last weekend we had "Haitian weekend" at our parish because our parish has a wonderful partnership with a school in Haiti. However, they brought in the Haitian choir from D.C. to sing all the music, complete with drums. No one sang and the only word I understood was "Alleluia" though a few people had trouble not bouncing their knees to the rhythm. I couldn't help but notice the irony that the argument for fuller participation in the Mass that made possible the use of the vernacular was completely negated.


    That "Mass in the round" style looks very much like a newer, million dollar parish built in our town. I attended Mass there once & found it too distracting. Additionally, a whole section of the seating has you sitting with your back to Our Lord in the tabernacle.

  • skeeton

    The irony here, Father, is that the progressive concept of participation smacks of elitism, while traditional participation – true actuosa participatio – is far more egalitarian. Here's why: The progressive wants "as many people as possible" to join in the performance… ah, Liturgy… but there will always be a limitation on the number of people that can participate in the Mass in an external way, like serving as a Lector, an EMHC, a choirmember, flag bearer, liturgical dancer, incense bowl carrier, bongo player, etc. In a parish that seats 1,200, the vast majority of the faithful will still be in the pew watching passively, perhaps in shame for the shenanigans going on, cut off from "participating" according to the progressivist's whims.In contrast, the traditional concept of participation is open to everyone, and if the opportunity is seized, it makes the Liturgy that much more meaningful. This internal participation – the act of offering ourselves to God and joining our sacrifice to that of the Mass – is the true fulfillment of our role in the priesthood of the laity. It is only in this way that we are able truly to offer ourselves to God and to be His presence in the world. When I taught Adult Faith Formation, everyone's eyes widened when I taught this, and once they knew what their proper role in Mass was supposed to be, it enabled them to participate in a much more complete way.Pope Benedict XVI covered all of this in Sacramentum Caritatis (#52-55), but it seems not that many people have read the document yet, despite the fact that nearly five years have elapsed since its publication.

  • Jamie

    It is interesting you posted about this today. I wrote about how modern architecture is taking away reverence in the mass yesterday at I wish I would have read yours first. It would have added a little extra insight.

  • Wolfsbane

    This post fits precisely with a conversation I had with a priest this afternoon. He was arguing that straight churches, like Gothic chapels, are just "museums to the style of worship a thousand years ago." He said that our theology nowadays is completely different, and fan-shaped churches actually express this theology. He also decried the use of the iconostasis in Eastern churches (or, at least, its Western equivalent from the Middle Ages) and the use of the altar rail, because they treated the laity as "unclean," while making the priests elitist.I definitely had problems with what he said, but I wasn't sure how to respond. This post definitely gives some great responses. Thank you!

  • Séamas Seosamh

    I was thinking of this lastnight while visiting Our Lady for Her feast day. One of the points of the Tilma of Juan Diego occurred to me while limping home with a fresh stab wound in my upper right thigh from one of the knives at the slaughterhouse."With everybody turned around and looking at each other, the priest and the people, we fail to notice Mary looking at us. She is always looking at us."She is so humble and so meek there isn't a person on Earth who would take notice of Her, had it not been for the Wisdom of holy Mother Church telling us to face East.

  • Steve

    Strange that you should claim that people who like modern church designs are really into "wonderful costumes." Have you ever seen all the lace and white gloves, plus a flowing train, that traditionalists sometimes like to don for liturgy? I'm thinking, specifically, of the royalty-like attire that Cardinal (then archbishop) Raymond Burke favored when he lived in St. Louis. Spend three minutes in Google Images and you'll see some "wonderful costumes" indeed — none of which, for the record, make the man look the least bit like the carpenter from Nazareth who walked this earth as our savior, nor like St. Peter either, I suspect.Yet it's the modernists who are deserving of ridicule when it comes to ostentatious "costumes." Amazing.

  • Fr Longenecker

    I think you missed the point Steve…

  • Howard

    "I've got the host right here, that angels will revere, because the the substance of bread will disappear. Can do, can do, in personae Christi I can do. Since what the Lord said must be true: Can do, can do." — From the Broadway Liturgy "Guys and NOT Dolls"

  • Sister Lori

    I don't think its the type of architecture, the kind of Mass (extraordinary versus the New Mass)the media we use to evangelize or even the modern music compared to the gregorian chant that makes the difference in revering, worshipping and being in a relationship with God. People are taught many things, but much of it bounces off of stony hearts, distracted minds, and rationalizing spirits.

  • flyingvic

    "Think of ten people going on a journey from different starting points to the same destination. As they journey they will draw closer to each other by virtue of all heading in the same direction."What a lovely affirmation of ecumenism!

  • Anneg

    "I just love coming to Mass at St Minks and All Sables. It's just like a Broadway show every week." Actual quote from a parishioner at a real parish of similar name.The Director of Liturgy beamed since he sang the duet.

  • Dennis

    It looks more like a monestary church. What's with the baptismal fount; it looks like a water drinking fount found in Buddhist monestaries (great water too!).

  • IronDonkey

    There's a parish about 2 minutes from where I live much like the one in the picture near the top of your post. The chairs all face a center isle, at one end of that isle there is an altar and at the other there is a podium. The priest just sits in the front row of on one of the two sides.I don't know how legitimate that is, and I do have to admit when I went there and found this out, everyone there did try to make me feel welcome and everyone was nice. But I don't go to Mass to feel welcome, and the "welcome" feeling seemed to come at the cost of the ambiance of reverence that actually is related to why I am there, so I drive about half an hour to go to Mass.Maybe I'm just odd, but I find these sort of things, which presumably are done to attract parishioners – and I certainly can't think of any other reason to do them – often have an opposite effect on me.

  • brdwayltd

    It seems to me there are two big problems from which some of these problems stem. Wolfsbane makes important statements that should be examined first, that the style of worship in the gothic church wsa one from a thousands of years ago. and teh second is nowasays is completely different.That is the problem it should NOT be different. The liturgy is something that has been handed down to us and has a history, which is continuous in nature. When people decide that there should be something completely different, they are cutting themselves off from God's communication. Another problem of the way the liturgy is interpreted by some is that when the council wishes us to participate in mass, they think this means that the litugy should be centered and focused on the community. Problem is the liturgy is not directed to the communty, although the action is of the community; the reciever of the action is GOD! Therefore the liturgy should not be about primarily getting something out of it. Is Christ's sacrifical grace poured out on the cross not enough? Do you simply prefer just to have music is easy to sing to and give you good feelings?For a good readon on this read Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

  • brdwayltd

    Sorry that my post is hastly composed. Got to get ready for class. Thank you Fr. Dwight for helping renew the liturgy and church architecture. Good church architecture takes good theology and costs money, but inpires and saves souls. Bad Church architecture takes poor theology, costs usually little money, but costs souls

  • Howard

    I've been to a few churches where the pews were so close together that it was uncomfortable to kneel. Also, pews that are farther apart might mean the people in front of and behind me might not insist on shaking hands at the sign of peace. Those are actually positives. I'm not at all convinced that people who are "cut off" from those around them are less attentive to "the center of focus". The people in box seats in opera houses probably pay attention just as well as those on the ground level.I favor the traditional architecture, too, but largely because it did indeed have everyone — the priest included, until very recently — facing the same direction.

  • Denita

    I can't stand some of these modern "churches in the round." If I wanted to go to a show, I'd go to Casa Manana here in Fort Worth. And speaking of churches in Fort Worth, the Chapel at the College of St. Thomas More has been redone so that the altar is now "pushed back," (so to speak ) in the traditional manner, the crucifix is now above the altar, and Father has told me that they even plan to put in an altar rail! :D

  • Jack

    \the actors must come down the aisle as often as possible in wonderful costumes in order to 'engage' with the audience.\Indeed, Father?What would you have to say about the entrances in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy and Vespers?

  • Jack

    //He also decried the use of the iconostasis in Eastern churches (or, at least, its Western equivalent from the Middle Ages) and the use of the altar rail, because they treated the laity as "unclean," while making the priests elitist.//Shows what he knows about the origin of both the Iconostas and the Rood Screen.The first is to show how close heaven is to earth in the worship of the church.The second was to provide a less drafty place for the choir during the daily offices and masses, which were hardly well attended by the faithful.