Curates and Curators at the High Altar: How the New Clericalism Hurts Liturgical Renewal

(by Michael E. DeSanctis)

Saint Jude the Apostle Church in Erie, Pennsylvania, occupies a site only yards from the entrance of Presque Isle State Park, a sandy land mass in the shape of a French curve with a French name to boot, which is said to attract more visitors to its natural beauties annually than Yellowstone. Inescapable as part of one’s approach to the park is the sight of the landmark church, its distinctive roof form rising to a summit-cross fashioned from steel I-beams of the sort that are synonymous with architectural construction in our time. The latter stands sentinel-like, sturdy and unbending against the harshest of Erie’s notorious “lake effect” weather, a symbol of the durability of the Gospel, to be sure, but no less the strength of intent that prevailed among Saint Jude parishioners themselves over 40 years ago, as they erected a place of worship completely at home in the modern world.

Modernity was something the people of Saint Jude found neither foreign nor especially threatening but a condition of life as potent to the imaginations of prosperous, college-educated Catholics in post-World War II America as the ancient rites of their Church. A distinctly modern ambience pervaded every inch of the shiny, suburban landscape they’d chosen to inhabit with their young families. It found its way into the designs of the spacious new homes for which they thanked God on Sunday mornings, in their new cars and appliances, the new leisure time activities they enjoyed — even in the new sets of social relationships they maintained while going about the business of living as fully committed Christians in an age of extraordinary technological advances.

The look of their parish campus, too, was altogether novel. Fixed at city’s edge, amid the open expanses of strip plazas and fast-food restaurants, the place bore little resemblance to the urban neighborhoods in which American Catholicism had thrived for generations. It was not, in any real sense, a destination to which its users walked but a kind of way station for carloads of “commuter Catholics” eager to establish a parochial identity through brick and mortar as reflective of modern values as every other dimension of their lives. Hadn’t the bishops of Vatican II recently challenged them to be followers of Christ in “the world of today” (Gaudium et Spes, 1) and restated in various ways the distinction made by Pope John XXIII himself between the essence of Catholic belief and the innumerable ways in which that belief is expressed? Likewise, hadn’t the council noted that alongside those forms of liturgical and artistic expression from the past should stand “the art of our own days” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 21, 123), a phrase Saint Jude parishioners took to mean any creative gesture possessing the lean, pared-to-the-bone aesthetic of High-Modernism?

So it was in 1970 that Saint Jude Parish set about constructing a Modern-styled place of worship on a centralized plan, its nave and sanctuary so fluidly connected as to form a single entity. Even as the building rose it seemed to embody the parish’s progressive spirit, along with a virtual canon of design developed over the course of decades by those architects associated with the international Liturgical Movement. The lineage of its underlying plan, for example, could be traced to the experimental churches of the 1920s and ‘30s conceived by the German architects Rudolf Schwarz and Dominikus Böhm, and their American counterpart Barry Byrne. Its interior details (fig. 1),

(Fig. 1) Interior view, Saint Jude the Apostle Church, Erie, Pennsylvania (Photo courtesy Michael E. DeSanctis)

which resembled more immediately aspects of Marcel Breuer’s famous abbey church for the Benedictine community of Collegeville, Minnesota, were being replicated in dozens of other construction projects concurrently underway in the burgeoning suburban corners of Catholic dioceses across the United States. The designer of Saint Jude himself (Edward A. Kern, AIA, 1933-2005), a graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s then-Department of Architecture, hoped to create a church in keeping with the disciplined reductionism generally espoused by his alma mater and widely publicized in the professional literature of the day.

In the end, the building’s exterior form (fig. 2) would assume a tent-like appearance reminiscent of the fabric tabernacle marking the place of God’s presence to ancient Israel. Described by the presiding bishop on the day of its dedication as “one of the most graceful houses of worship in our community,” the building soon became a model for post-Vatican II church design throughout the Diocese of Erie. To the people of Saint Jude, however, it was simply an authentic expression of how they understood their place both in the Church and in the world and a gesture of hospitality to the countless visitors expected to join them in worship, straight from the beaches and lagoons of Presque Isle. In the decades since, it has retained its local reputation as one of the first of a new crop of Catholic churches designed to allow lay and ordained worshipers to occupy a unifed space symbolic of their own unity in Christ.

(Fig. 2) Aerial view, Saint Jude the Apostle Church (Photo courtesy Robert Tarkowski Photography)

Upon arriving for weekend services several years ago, however, worshipers discovered the forward section of Saint Jude arrayed in floor candles, the handiwork of a newly-arrived pastor unaccustomed to so intimate a liturgical setting and anxious to distinguish more clearly his sacerdotal function within it. Acting on his own, the priest had positioned several candles at the threshold-step of the sanctuary’s broad apron, an area never previously reserved for clergy by local rule or railing but open to any member of the assembly in the course of the liturgical action.

More puzzling to parishioners, still, was the multiplication of candles situated near the tabernacle, whose prominence within a reredos niche on the setting’s primary axis had previously been considered sufficient. The object was now offset not only by a requisite sanctuary lamp but by twin table candles at its doors and a pair of nearby candlesticks tall enough to bracket its form. As it turned out, these were the first of several changes the priest would make to Saint Jude for the stated purpose of converting the structure “from an auditorium into something that look[ed] like a real church.”

Further alterations to Saint Jude have come at the hands of an even more recent pastor, whose announced plans for interior improvements turned out to be a pretext for cladding the sanctuary steps and floor surface in marble veneers. In this instance, too, the surprise to parishioners stemmed as much from ignorance of the priest’s true intentions as from the resulting intrusion into their liturgical home of highly polished and variegated elements that, amid surroundings characterized by a quiet dignity, seemed to shout aloud, “Look at me!”

As suggested by a survey of trends in American Catholic church-building I prepared not long ago for America magazine (“Upon This Foundation: New Traditional Churches,” May 28, 2012), a “Look at me!” attitude and fussy territoriality are what show through most plainly nowadays in the physical changes being made to places like Saint Jude Church by a wave of priests intent on undoing the achievements of their immediate predecessors, a generation or two of men animated by the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The latter spent decades in parish settings vesting laypeople in their role as full partakers in the solemn rites of the Church and tackling church construction and renovation projects designed to support this end.

There was something exhilarating about the work, these men insist, and a common conviction that their priesthood was enlarged precisely by the degree to which they welcomed committed laymen and laywomen into the once-rarified confines of the sanctuary. Indeed, the comment one often heard from pastors soon after the council as they went about removing from churches the physical boundaries between clergy and laity was that they merely wanted to be closer to their people. Short of transforming the physical fabric of the sacred places in their custody, many simply used the homily, the sign of peace, or the recessional prescribed by the Novus Ordo as opportunities to flee the gated community of the presbyterate for the marvel of the pews. It was enough to compel such men to roll up their sleeves for the sake of good worship and weigh into the task of making liturgy an act of spiritual engagement for all members of the assembly, one celebration of the Eucharist at a time.

Seldom did one encounter among the clergy, as one does increasingly today, idle chatter about consecrated hands being fitted better to “chalices than calluses” or speculation on the extent to which a priest’s individual identity should evaporate while presiding at Mass to make room for some sullen, stiff-as-an-icon persona Christi. For men called to renewal by jolly Saint John XXIII and assured by his brother saint, John Paul II, that every Christian stands alter Christus by reason of baptism, pondering at length the supposed ontological chasm separating them from the laity would have seemed laughable. The people of God needed tending along with patient instruction on the art entailed not only in such minor ritual gestures as, say, “bringing up the gifts,” but in presenting themselves as gifts at the very altars they once deemed unapproachable. It was piety that most consumed the ranks of self-declared “Vatican II priests,” not polity, nor the fear of today’s “JP-II’ers” that any reduction in the architectural trappings unique to their station suggests some measure of personal diminution.

Given that even priests-in-training today can be known to speak dismissively of Vatican II and express support for the “reforming of the reform” that proceeds in some ecclesiastical circles under the residual momentum of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, we shouldn’t be surprised to find many of the newly-ordained staking out corners of terra sacerdotalis in the places where they preside. The truth is that many younger men attracted to the priesthood seem genuinely adverse to the leōs of liturgy’s historical origins and familiar only with the canonical rules for rendering the details of its ourgia as accurately as possible.

One could argue, in fact, that a kind of ritualized asociality attracts many of them to the deep and dark sanctuaries that were once mainstays of Catholic architecture, despite their claims of wanting primarily to restore the grandeur that marked places of worship before, as one neo-traditionalist pastor puts it, “The council made us turn them into airplane hangars and Pizza Huts.” When young priests today confess to not being “people persons,” they confirm a recent British study published in Pastoral Psychology magazine that identifies nearly 60% of Catholic clergy in the United States as “introverts.” Those who are not may hope to dodge the open season on priests that has resulted from the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals by treating their place at the altar as part of a “disappearing act,” literally a chance to hide in plain sight within a confection of “Look at me!” vestments and sanctuary décor that redirects the attention of lay onlookers from themselves.

Though it’s beyond the scope of this essay to explain why today’s priests so often adopt a liturgical manner tinged with escapism, my hunch is that many find the tidy, unencumbered rapport between man and mensa available through, say, an old-fashioned “private Mass” or some fiddleback-toward-the-baptized variation on the Tridentine Mass less emotionally demanding than the task of moderating the spontaneous dialogue between God and God’s people popularized in parishes over the last half-century.

A type of “spiritual worldliness” poses a great danger when pastors disengage themselves from the real lives and difficulties of the people of God and view the church exclusively “from above and afar.”

The gulf between ordained and lay members of a parish is never wider, I would argue, than when changes are made to a place of worship in the heavy-handed manner described at the outset of this essay. Members of one Catholic community who moved into a brand new church less than a decade ago, for example, were dismayed recently not to have had a say in their pastor’s decision to attach a large, rectangular tabletop to the square-bodied altar that stands in their midst. The object now possesses a more traditional profile and the ability to accommodate the rare concelebration of priests, but the understated elegance of its original form and detailing are gone for good. Gone, too, since the pastor directed that holy water stoups be affixed to the processional doors of their church, is any incentive for parishioners to bless themselves directly from the baptismal font nearby, an intended feature of the elaborate entrance sequencing worked out by the building’s architects.

At another parish where I once served as a design consultant, the pastor chose Holy Thursday as the occasion for consigning to a dumpster whole sections of the custom grillwork installed in the 1990s to distinguish the liturgical heart of his church from its Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The goal here, presumably, was to increase the prominence of the tabernacle during celebrations of the Eucharist, “It’s like the importance of what we’re doing together at the altar doesn’t matter anymore,” a choir director from yet another parish lamented to me not long ago. “Everything’s about the priest again, or ‘the loss of the sacred,’ or making things look old-fashioned again,” she added, having wrestled with a young pastor committed to “de-renovating” his church for the sake of retrieving the hierarchical ordering of its parts prior to Vatican II.

The musician’s words could apply just as easily to what members of one cathedral parish experienced recently when a newly-installed bishop gave their previously-updated place of worship a thoroughly traditionalist working-over, complete with enough autobiographical references to make the structure truly feel like his own. Restoration experts were engaged to supervise every aspect of the project, which included fabrication of a cathedra mimicking the chair in the historic Roman basilica where the bishop first celebrated Mass as a priest. Over this was introduced an imposing canopeum carried on faux-marble columns along with ceiling ornamentation that looked as if it, too, had been lifted directly from some ancient European source of personal significance to the bishop.

Certainly, no one would begrudge an ordinary his right to a symbolic church of reasonable beauty and comfort or cheat him of the chance to display within it a gallery-grade souvenir or two of the career that secured his place within the episcopate in the first place. Even so, one wonders whether there isn’t inherent in this example an element of the very institutionalized pedantry passed off as tradition-keeping that has been the temptation of prelates and the burden of laypeople for centuries — something akin to the situation made plain recently when a handful of churchmen reworked the Roman Missal on the premise that what English-speaking Catholics most needed to escape the general banality of their lives was a dose of formal, antique-sounding prose. So rich in objects and outfits and occasions of a certain quality is the realm of the clergy, perhaps, that many of its members simply can’t help but confuse their fundamental roles as curates of the church for something more narrowly curatorial and the churches they inhabit as showcases for the alluring outer finery of sacramental prayer.

My aim here is not to suggest that we disregard the Church’s great legacy of artistic achievement or to propose that the Catholic sanctuary be made the arena for a liturgical free-for-all in which priests and laypeople might trade roles indiscriminately. I am well aware, in fact, that my dismay over the manner in which parish churches across the country are sporadically undergoing reversion to a pre-Vatican II appearance sounds remarkably like the complaints we’ve heard for years from those opposed to the dismantling of Catholic tradition by the council’s most zealous proponents: “They scrapped the Latin and pried out the altar rails without asking, then wonder why we’re angry and confused!”

The appearance of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), however, provides an opportunity for participants from all sides in Catholicism’s perennial liturgy wars to judge whether they haven’t adopted what is essentially a connoisseur’s affinity for the externals of ritual and thereby reduced the Church itself to a kind of “museum piece” (95). Catholics of any stripe, both lay and ordained, can certainly succumb to what the pope calls “ostentatious preoccupation [with] the liturgy” (95), which might be interpreted to mean a fastidiousness about every aspect of ritualized prayer except the degree to which its attraction transcends aesthetics. The pope makes clear that this type of “spiritual worldliness” (93-97) poses greatest danger to pastors, however, who disengage themselves from “the real lives and difficulties of [the people of God]” (96) by viewing the Church exclusively “from above and afar” (97).

Prayer arises from a deeper, less self-conscious part of the human psyche than art. It has the expansive tendencies of sound waves or the affairs of the human heart, of love itself, and their perdurance too.

So great a concern to Francis is the estrangement of pastors from their flocks that he revisits the issue in his now-famous 2014 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, a statement that leads one to wonder whether the changes being witnessed lately in American Catholic Church architecture aren’t symptomatic of the need on the part of some pastors literally “to build walls and routines around themselves” or to reverence “idols” of their own making (6).

The “hoarding” of worldly possessions (13), too, of which Francis speaks, may be judged to play a part in the way our sanctuaries are at times becoming once more great showplaces of material luxury largely benefiting the clergy. As I learned while serving a parish whose sanctuary space had been filled with artifacts resurrected from the church basement, a rectory need not be the only location at the clergy’s disposal to double as exhibit space for precious collectibles. The sacred clutter that attaches to hoarder-priests, often with a bias toward the antique or the grandiose, appears to do much to assuage the horror vacui underlying their affliction. It takes its most benign and popularly-acceptable form, for example, in the over-the-top displays of phony firs and quick-assembly lights that obscure even the altars in some parishes during the Christmas season or the acres of potted lilies, garden statuary, rock formations, and trickling fountains that accompany the Eastertide.

Likewise, it goes unmentioned or is treated as proper routine in those cases involving priests who demand to be provided liturgical vesture and vessels only of the finest quality — not, presumably, because God makes note of such things but because the clergy from a neighboring parish might. What Pope Francis describes as clerical “rivalry and vainglory” (2014 Christmas Message, 11) of this sort was at least partly responsible for the decision made by one pastor with whom I’m familiar to acquire a presider’s chair for his church of exceptionally fine construction. Of no surprise to anyone familiar with the chair’s manufacturer was its cost to the parish, though its outward form bore no stylistic connection to the sanctuary in which it was intended to stand. In the end, the chair’s intrinsic beauty was lost on those unable to appreciate it except from a distance, and its presence in their church was taken more as an expression of priestly one-upmanship than as a serious gesture toward communal worship.

There is nothing in Francis’ recent exhortations that the pope hasn’t already made the Church ponder while watching him maneuver the streets of Rome or the host of secular venues in which his admiring followers attest to encountering something unmistakably sacral. Through his much-publicized aversion to “popemobiles” and papal lodging, the pope has demonstrated that the priesthood need not be lived out in luxurious isolation from the great preponderance of souls trying to find their way in the world. Neither need it assume the quasi-corporate image popular with chancery types nor other ecclesial office-holders, which suggests that even Christ preferred French cuffs while attending to his earthly affairs.

Likewise, Francis’ habit in ceremonial settings of straying from prepared texts and the stage directions of his Vatican handlers reminds us that prayer cannot claim the degree of formality required of art, even in a church that weds the two to the point of indistinguishability. Prayer arises from a deeper, less self-conscious part of the human psyche than art, and isn’t nearly as comfortable with the kind of artifice that is the domain of painters, actors, and musicians. Prayer has the expansive tendencies of sound waves or the affairs of the human heart, of love itself, and their perdurance too.

In the West, at least, art asks to be “set apart,” held at arm’s length or wedged into framing elements intended to distinguish it from life’s more fleeting attractions. The prayer of the Church, however, can no more be contained or controlled in its heavenward assent than the incense by which it is given substance, despite the efforts of custodial-minded clerics and others fearful of it becoming too unwieldy a thing. Even when dressed up most smartly as sacrament, the Church’s prayer cannot help but spill out from the tailored contours in which we imagine it captive, including those we’ve looked historically to architecture to provide.

Such abstractions, unfortunately, seem not to figure prominently in the guidelines for sacred worship and art from parish rectories or church offices these days. What reigns instead is an almost singular concern with shooing laypeople away from sacrificial altars and back to their pews, after seeming to let them run riot in the House of God for decades with their so-called “ministries” and claims of “baptismal priesthood.”

According to several prominent priest-commentators, in fact, it’s time to let the faithful in on the secret that the participatio actuoso offered them by Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14) never implied close, bodily involvement in the liturgical performance of priests at all, but only an enhanced version of mental telepathy between nave and sanctuary perfectly achievable from one’s seat. In short, the argument goes, we need to get back to celebrating thanksgiving in our churches in the way we Americans have long observed November’s secular feast in our homes: parental figures ensconced in the Irish linen and fine China of the dining room, children consigned to a side table or the kitchen to fiddle with paper and plastic. The architectural means for achieving such a division are obvious and amount mostly to refitting our places of worship with various boundary-markers for lay and clerical precincts that were swept from the scene after Vatican II.

How any of this squares with the message of even greater cooperation between clergy and laity now emerging from Rome is a mystery. Less so is Pope Francis’ impatience with a clerical culture determined to preserve every outward sign of its privileged place. Indeed, with the kind of impish irreverence for saintly decorum that possesses young boys, old men, and a great many saints, Francis is doing his best to track the dust of the world into the tidy sphere of the clergy. How else to move the church’s ordained ministers beyond self-absorption into true relationship with the entire, unwashed people of God?

One only hopes that a local version of the same might play out in parishes throughout the United States and beyond — with no need for imported soil or even a trace of beach sand to aid the effort — and that priests of all ages and liturgical persuasions would begin to regard their “workplace” less a refuge from the lay faithful in their charge than the very point of entry into fuller union with them whenever the church gives voice to its prayer.

[This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Emmanuel Magazine, pp. 360-370]