USCC Watch: Cry Sanctuary!

The mission church of Saint Francis Xavier is a tiny, white-frame church not unlike hundreds of others built over the past century in America for the purpose of bringing Christ, literally, to the furthest corners of the world. Unlike its many counterparts which dot the Great Plains and the Mountain States, Saint Francis’s simple and quaint clapboard structure is surrounded by the exotic flora of the Hawaiian Island of Maui, and commands a breathtaking view from the hill on which it is set. A painted sign outside gives the times of Masses. The door is, enticingly, open. But the visitor who is attracted by the chapel’s aura of repose and quiet simplicity within the lush Hawaiian landscape may be shocked at what he finds within. The renovators have been to Saint Francis.

The sanctuary, which originally housed the altar and the tabernacle containing the Body of Christ, remains the architectural focus of the church, but this “sacred space” is now bare except for a decorative quilt of an abstract design peculiar to Hawaii, flanked by tall, brush-like symbols of native pre-Christian military authority.

The altar, removed to the north wall of the nave, has been reversed so that its detailed painted carving of the Last Supper now faces the wall, invisible to the “audience.” In place of an altar cloth is another brightly colored quilt. Pews have been replaced with expensive new blond wooden armchairs, upholstered in orange, which are arranged around three sides of the altar with their backs to the Blessed Sacrament — which now occupies a rather crude plywood shelf nailed to one corner, making it effectively inaccessible for either public or private devotion. The tabernacle, evidently the original, is covered with cheap nylon lace. The tiny nave is crowded, and the backs of the new chairs are too close to the tabernacle to allow a worshipper to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament. The only two kneelers in the church face the quilt and native symbols in the former sanctuary.

On the wall behind the altar, near the new (and very small) Stations of the Cross, where a crucifix might be expected, is a large glossy plaque which coyly instructs worshippers how to be “caring” (e.g., “give someone a hug . . . smile more . . . pet a dog . . . put the toilet seat down”).

At the rear of the nave, just inside the entry door, are two statues which originally flanked the sanctuary. All other statues are gone. The stained-glass windows have also been removed and replaced with frosted glass jalousie louvers. (The sacristan explained that renovators who removed the stained glass told parishioners the windows were needed by some other parish.) Outside, a couple of the old carved wooden pews sit forlornly against one wall of the little church, their coat of white paint beginning to peel.

Saint Francis has been expensively gutted, stripped, and transformed from a place of distinctively Catholic worship to a “communal gathering space” — a multifunctional meeting room. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Catholic churches have suffered — or are in the process of or are scheduled for — similar renovation, or more accurately, iconoclasm.

The principal guidebook for the “renewal” of Catholic churches in the United States is Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW), a 29-page statement issued in 1978 by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy in collaboration with the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions. Its stated objective was “to provide principles for . . . preparing liturgical space” in light of the “pastoral experience of implementing post-Vatican II reforms [which] place us in a position to reexamine existing places of worship and to make informed decisions about their appropriateness” (emphasis added).

Note that EACW was not issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, nor was it ever submitted to the bishops’ conference for vote or approval. Its actual “level of authority,” therefore, is just above that of private opinion. Yet this statement of the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) has been invoked as solemnly as if it were a papal document of the highest authority—and it is certainly more carefully “implemented” than Sacrosanctum concilium, the Vatican II document on the liturgy whose “spirit” has suffered similar vandalization. EACW has provided justification for nearly every kind of renovation in nearly every Catholic church for 16 years.

Some common examples are:

The removal of crucifixes and crosses: “the multiplication of crosses in a liturgical space or as an ornamentation on objects may lessen rather than increase attention to that symbol” (¶86). “The advantage of a processional cross with a floor standard, in contrast to one that is permanently hung or affixed to a wall, is that it can be placed differently according to the celebration and the other environmental factors” (¶88, emphasis added).

The removal of tabernacles from the center of sanctuaries: “The purpose of reservation is to bring communion to the sick and to be the object of private devotion. . . . A room or chapel specifically designed and separate from the major space is important so that no confusion can take place between the celebration of the eucharist and reservation” (¶78, emphasis added). “The tabernacle . . . should not be placed on an altar for the altar is a place for action not for reservation” (¶80).

The replacement of confessionals with “reconciliation rooms”: “A room or rooms for the reconciliation of individual penitents . . . [offer] the penitent a choice between face-to- face encounter or the anonymity provided by a screen. The purpose of this room is primarily for the celebration of the reconciliation liturgy” (¶81; confessionals are never mentioned by EACW).

Changing the location and size of baptismal fonts: “immersion is the fuller and more appropriate symbolic action in baptism. New baptismal fonts . . . should be constructed to allow for the immersion of infants, at least” (¶76). “If the baptismal space is in a gathering place or entry way, it can have living, moving water, and include provision for warming the water for immersion” (¶77).

The replacement of pews and kneelers with moveable chairs: “Benches or chairs for seating the assembly should be so constructed and arranged that they maximize feelings of community and involvement.” Furniture arrangement should “not constrict people, but encourage them to move about when it is appropriate” (¶68). “Interpretations through bodily movement (dance) can become meaningful parts of the liturgical celebration. . . . Seating arrangements which prohibit freedom of action to take place are inappropriate” (¶59). Moveable seating surrounding the altar is necessary because “attentiveness, expressed in posture and eye contact, is a requirement for full participation and involvement in the liturgy . . . eye contact is important in any act of ministry” (¶58). The altar, which is “for the action of a community and the functioning of a single priest — not for concelebration” (¶72), must be “approachable from every side, capable of being encircled” (¶71), and although its location should be “central,” “this does not mean it must be spatially in the center . . . an off-center location may be a good solution” (¶73).

The removal of stained glass: “There seems to be a parallel between the new visual media and the traditional function of stained glass” (¶105). “Visual media may be used to create an environment for the liturgical action, surrounding the rite with appropriate color and form” (¶106).

The destruction of images: “Images in painting or sculpture [etc.] should be introduced into the liturgical space upon consultation with an art consultant.” If these images “threaten or compete with [the action of the assembly] then they are unsuitable” (¶93). “In a period of Church and liturgical renewal, the attempt to recover a solid grasp of Church and faith and rites involved the rejection of certain embellishments which have in the course of history become hindrances. In many areas of religious practice, this means a simplifying and refocusing on primary symbols. In building, this effort has resulted in more austere interiors, with fewer objects on the walls and in the corners” (¶99).

The justification for the literal iconoclasm in Catholic churches could hardly have been more clearly expressed by Cromwell’s Roundheads after they had systematically beheaded every image in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral or smashed all the stained glass windows at Canterbury, although Cromwell’s soldiers were undoubtedly responsible for destroying far fewer sacred images than the liturgical “experts” who imposed their views of renewal on Catholic churches across America.

It is deeply ironic, also, that the liturgical establishment has confused many bishops and priests of good will by invoking an authority for EACW which it never had. When the statement was issued in 1978, Father Thomas Krosnicki acceded to the directorship of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, succeeding Father John Rotelle, who resigned to become executive secretary of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). Father Krosnicki had worked closely with the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions as BCL associate director for five years. Since 1975 he had been consultor to the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship. Bishop Rene Gracida was then temporarily filling out the term of Archbishop John Quinn as chairman of the BCL. Archbishop Quinn had been elected president of the NCCB in November 1977. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, already a member of the BCL, became its chairman in 1978. Monsignor Frederick McManus of Catholic University, a founding member of ICEL and an influential canonist, was then and still remains a consultor to the BCL.

In a section called The Arts and the Body Language of the Liturgy, EACW says that uniform gestures “contribute to the unity of the worshipping assembly,” then notes that “In an atmosphere of hospitality, posture will never be a marshalled, forced uniformity” (¶57). However, it does not express pastoral concern for those who are “marshalled” and “forced” not to reverence the Blessed Sacrament, where kneeling is impossible and the Blessed Sacrament itself no longer enjoys the “hospitality” of the sanctuary.

Even Jesus, apparently, cannot cry “Sanctuary!” and expect to find protection in the most sacred space in His own house.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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