What the People Want

Our new church at Our Lady of the Rosary is traditional in design, and it is known that my own tastes tend to the traditional. Therefore, there is an assumption amongst some Catholics that this is ‘Fr Longenecker’s Church.’ OK. I’m delighted with the church design and I think we have the chance to do something beautiful for God.

However, I was also very lucky in finding a building committee already in place, who had been working on their ideas and plans for ten years. They had already had the architects in. They had consulted with the people of the parish and come up with a basic design and floor plan that was essentially Romanesque. One of the things they made clear in their very first meeting with me is that they did NOT want a big, round, fan shaped auditorium of a church.

They wanted a traditional church. Straight up and down with a high altar. I was the one who stressed that with large transepts we would be able to bring as many people as possible as close as possible to the altar in order to adapt to the proper and true spirit of the second Vatican Council and the demands of modern Catholic worship.

Nevertheless it is still assumed that Fr Longenecker is imposing his style of church on everyone. So we did some surveys and found that the vast majority of people in our congregation actually like the church design and still want a traditional Catholic Church. Furthermore, when I show the design to the young people at the high school and to the children they are all wowed by it as well and want a traditional design.

Now, this makes me wonder, what do the Catholic laity really want, and what have they wanted for the last fifty years? Did anyone ever really want the teepees, circus tents and just landed flying saucers that have passed for Catholic Churches? Did the laity really want those churches, or were they imposed by well meaning priests and architects and liturgical experts all fired up with ‘full participation in the Mass’? Were the Catholic people ever really in favor of the modernist buildings or were they forced upon them? Were they made to endure sessions of ‘education’ about liturgy which was really Fr. Folkmass foisting his groovy ideas on them? Were they really in favor of the radical ‘renovations’ that their beloved old churches were subjected to? Did they really want to replace the marble flooring with carpet, tear out the reredos and install a fiberglass drop ceiling? Just askin’.

My suspicions are probably not too far off the mark, and it is all the more ironic since the Catholic radicals were all big on ‘empowering the laity’ and ‘listening to the voice of the people.’ I had an experience recently with one such priest, who simply would not believe me when I said that survey after survey had shown that the vast majority of our people wanted to build a traditionally styled church. He insisted that I had manipulated the survey to my own advantage. He insisted that I was cleverly manipulating everyone into my way of thinking and that if they really had a ‘true voice’ they would have chosen something more at home on the set of Star Trek.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03792937108732259684 priest’s wife

    years ago there was a priest at my parents' parish (he works at Starbucks now)–he wanted to spend about a million on 'renovations' to bring the altar into the middle of the traditional church. Luckily the permits took a long time and he left and they spent the money on a 24/7 adoration chapel and a nice coffee hallIn general, those lay people who want Star trek-style churches have left the Church.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02082723705687057148 justamouse

    Even in my militant emergent days, I had this absolute need to be in a beautiful church, a traditional church, and though I never would have walked into onto one at the time, in my mind, I was there, laying in the pew, crying, and soaking in the reverence that permeated the air. THAT's what brought me back. I remember a few years ago, talking to a big member of the Emergent movement about it. About traditional architecture. About needing that tradition, that as humans, we seek it out, and when we don't have it, we create it. It feeds a deep need within us. He agreed. If you build it, they will come.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02677700018308197978 truthfinder2

    We've just moved from township to nearby city. Our former (enormous)church had some beautiful stained glass, and I loved our priest and fellow parishioners, but it was still too "contemporary" to inspire awe. Our "new" parish church, while contemporary in some ways, still has a marble floor and retains the layout and feel of a traditional building. The choir loft is in the back, which seems to set a number of other things right, and I am comforted by being able to see the Tabernacle and vigil lamp. My husband's reaction after our first Sunday Mass said it all. As we walked to the car, he threw his hands in the air and exclaimed, "I LOVE it!" He had tears in his eyes. — Rosemary

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02487748842744745860 StevieD

    A committee designed the church I attended until recently. It was an awful place, dominated by a terrible statue depicting a dancing Risen Christ. There is only a tiny crucifix to satisfy the requirement to have one. The semi-circular design means that you seem to be facing other members of the congregation rather than the altar. If I had been the priest, I would have dismissed the committee and imposed my own traditional 'vision' whatever they thought. Traditions are almost always traditions for good reasons.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17284905121465747077 Steve

    There is such a thing as a beautiful church in the round, and you don't have to toss out the theology, either, to have one. When you build a traditional church using a cruciform design, you say you're putting God in front of us, at the head of everything. In the more modern design where the altar is at the center and everyone faces towards it, you have God at the center of our lives. We direct our attention to God, yet we realize that we worship among other human beings, the people God calls us to treat in a loving, Christian way…even if we're not happy with each other every moment of the day. We have to come to terms with each other (and with those who never walk into the church) if we are to live out the gospel and truly share in God's love. Yes, even as we worship, we are wise to not lose sight of those around us. Especially when we worship as a community, rather than in the solitude of our rooms and closets.There's a false dichotomy at play when traditionalists put down more modern church designs by suggesting that they are theologically flawed. I love beautiful old cathedrals and can feel close to God in them. Yet I also love a well-designed, subdued modern church where we come face to face with Christ in the Eucharist as well as in the lives of our neighbors. No, that's not heresy. Just first-century Christianity. Christ seeks to live in us and to be reflected in our lives. That message is in the gospels. It's in the letters of St. Paul. No worship of self there. (I say all this because that's frequently the comeback of those who bash nontraditional church designs: "Your focus is on your neighbor instead of God.")

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04052994394637199040 JP

    Steve, the church building exists to celebrate the Eucharist, therefore the designed of the church should reflect this reality. Seeing Christ in your neighbor are what the other 23 hours of the day are for. While we come to mass as a community we do not focus on the community. And I agree with you that churches can be rounded and my opinion is that the best one are. Ever heard of Baroque? Father can correct me if I'm wrong.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16142633311407145793 Wine in the Water

    Steve,I think the thought is a valid one. But I think that the centralized arrangement also taps into another deep trend in our society that tends to overwhelm the "God among us" intentions. We are a navel-gazing society, focused largely on ourselves and our communities. Putting the focal point of the building toward the middle aligns with that inward focus, reinforces our "me" and "us" tendencies. It embodies a self-contained structure with God at the center of *our* gathering, *our* community. Also, orienting the people toward each other puts them in competition for focus with the altar and Jesus made physically present. When we put the community in our line of sight as we worship, it becomes had not to direct our worship toward our community.A linear arrangement is outward-focused. It carries the connotations of movement toward God rather than having God already "achieved." When all the congregations jointly face East, it also means that you are joining in common posture with all the other communities out there, joined together focusing on God.Now nothing in either of these arrangements is absolute or will result in an outcome absolutely. But when we build a church, we should think of the impact of the space on the people. We should think about what ideas the architecture embodies, and what ideas it fosters and make the most of the architecture.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17284905121465747077 Steve

    Wine in the Water, I appreciate the thoughtful nature of your reply. It seems to me, though, that one can most certainly "face" God without facing geographical east. When Christ is present in body and blood on the altar, and the people are turned towards the altar and gazing in that direction and worshipping the God who is on that altar, they are indeed facing God. The priviliging of the eastern direction in worship is often used as an argument for the priest facing away from the congregation of God's people — the ad orientem version of the Eucharistic celebration (as you already realize). Yet if we believe in the Real Presence (obviously one of the defining doctrines of Catholicism), we are face to face with Christ every bit as much when the altar is centrally located in the church rather than at the very front of the church, at a greater distance from the majority of the congregation. Our designs and our plotting out of church directions on a plot of land can add nice symbolic touches to the worship that occurs in a church, but ultimately God is not hindered by this design or that design. God can only be hindedered by the hardness of the human heart. Let us pray that it is love, not legalisms, that define the hearts and souls we carry into church with us.Best wishes to the congregation of OLR as they move forward with their planning and building.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17284905121465747077 Steve

    JP, I think I get where you're coming from, and I respect your take. However, it seems to me that there's a certain compartmentalism that can creep into the Mass-is-only-vertical approach. Yes, Mass is vertical (and so are the prayers one might say upon waking or eating or going to bed or getting up from a fall), but I think there still needs to be a recognition that God does not cease to be present in our neighbors (and the people we perhaps wish weren't our neighbors) the minute we all step into church. Some folks do regard the other people in the pews as distractions, and I suppose I've felt that way a few times myself. Then I recall all the times in the gospel when Jesus teaches us that true love of God requires that we regard each other first as daughters and sons of God, rather than as irritations or objects of lust or whatever. We are called to regard each other as more than mere distractions to our individual worship of God. We are called to worship together.What's the alternative? An all vertical theology? I just can't imagine Mass as all vertical rather than vertical and horizontal. I don't see Jesus going out of his way to ignore the people who surrounded him. He brought them together, even as he regarded them as individuals. Christ didn't put each person in a separate theologically crafted cell so that they could be entirely separate even as they stood shoulder to shoulder. He called them to be church — and yes, to worship God in private and quiet as well; there certainly is a place and time for private worship. But the importance of private worship, private prayer, is not an argument for ignoring the communal call that God gives us to worship God along with others. As best as I can see it, church is the part of the week where we all get together to worship God, not go our separate ways.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    The vertical and horizontal dimensions of worship are best visualized as a cross. The vertical is first, and it is upon the vertical that the horizontal hangs.This sense of priority is also there in the two great commandments. The first is love the Lord your God with all your heart, and the second is like, namely this, that you should love your neighbor as yourself.Round churches (and the accompanying theology) tend to put neighbor first, or put God in the midst of neighbor or even 'God in my neighbor'. This immanentism is alien to the Gospel. Instead we love God and in this action of sacrifice and focus we find the grace and the command to love our neighbor

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13388899986377479033 torculus

    Are we a bunch of penguins huddling in a circle in order to merely steal body heat from one another?Nope.We are Latins, are we not? If that be the case, then our churches had best reflect a linear design. The worship of the Lord begins at the foot of the Cross, i.e., the entrance and proceeds up the nave toward the sanctuary – the holy of holies. As Catholics we (should always!) turn toward the Lord Who will return from the East, even if that be the "liturgical east". Our gaze turns to the head, the altar (symbol of the Lord) residing in the apse, the vault of heaven. The building must reflect the progression built into the Divine Liturgy itself, a journey toward the Lord. Cruciform churches do not represent just one theology among many equals. The Cross is the very pattern or design of redeemed creation.The structures in which we Roman Catholics worship God should necessarily embody the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. A fitting structure built to last (embodying eternity), beautiful so that it elevates the mind and directs it toward God, a Church should be beautiful because it also shelters the very Presence of Christ, the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, reserved in the tabernacle as Christ dwelt in the womb of His blessed Mother. A beautiful church gives birth to beautiful disciples because they are immersed in wonder and awe of God. Architecture conditions relationships. Stunted structures produce stunted christians. Structures built so that people sit "in-the-round" are merely closed circles. There is no progression toward God, only a pagan cyclical view of the cosmos, which implies reincarnation and that everything and everyone is God. Blasphemy!The Church needs more glorious temples produced by the likes of Stroik (a faithful Catholic!), and less barns and baskets by Maneo and Hartman.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17284905121465747077 Steve

    Torculus, you've observed: "We are Latins, are we not?"Maybe you are. Folks whose ancestors hail from Africa, Asia, the Baltic republics, etc., might answer differently. I'm sure you realize "Catholic" means "universal." It doesn't mean let's ratify my own Italian/Spanish/Romance language heritage and get everyone to admit that we're top of the heap. Arguing for a particular church design based on what one feels comfortable with and what one's own ancestors always felt comfortable with — well, pardon me if I take a pass on that one.You make a logical argument for the symbolic richness of the cruciform. But God is not limited by geography or geometry. When Christ is present on the altar, Christ is present on the altar. When God is present in the holy scriptures that are read and preached at Mass, God is present. Building a church in a particular design does not make God more present. Opting for a different design — while attending respectfully to the needs and yes, perhaps even the preferences of the congregation — does not make God less present.The Real Presence has to mean something. It can't mean God only shows up in the Eucharist if particular cultural traditions are adhered to — e.g., the cruciform church built with materials X, Y, and Z.