Catholics who have struggled with one another over the renovation and construction of their churches have new guidelines that are expected to bring some order to the confusion that has marked debates about places of worship in recent years.
The Catholic bishops of the United States last week approved a new document on church environments, “Built of Living Stones,” that is being welcomed by church professionals as well as people in the pew who have questioned changes made to Catholic churches since the reforming Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.
“Built of Living Stones,” which was presented to the U.S. bishops at their fall conference in Washington, replaces “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship,” a much-invoked document that previously had come from a bishops' committee.
Toledo's Bishop James Hoffman, who offered several amendments to the document before it was voted on, said the new document's strongest point is that it has the approval of all the members of the U.S. Catholic Conference, rather than just a single committee. “That's a good starting point.” He also thinks it is more thorough and broad than the previous document.
Bishop Hoffman said he expects “Built of Living Stones” to be helpful to parishes, pastors, liturgical commissions, and bishops in the work of building new churches and renovating existing ones like St. Patrick Providence, where a group of parishioners has vocally opposed plans to move the church altar and tabernacle.
“Built of Living Stones” pays special attention to the location of both altars and tabernacles. It says altars should be freestanding to allow the priest to walk around them easily and for Mass to be celebrated with the priest facing the people. It also suggests placing the altar in the sanctuary, which it defines as an area separate and distinct from the place where the congregation sits.
According to “Built of Living Stones,” the tabernacle, which houses the reserved communion bread known as the Blessed Sacrament and believed by Catholics to be the body and blood of Christ, can be located in a number of spaces. These include a special area of the sanctuary apart from the altar or in a chapel that is integrally connected to the church and conspicuous to the faithful.
Other areas covered by the document include crosses, candles, religious art, sound and lighting, new church construction, renovations, and seating arrangements.
Among the guidelines are that kneelers or kneeling cushions be provided in all churches and that musicians be placed in a location reflecting their role as part of the assembly of worshipers.
Concerning seating, the document says, “Parishes will want to choose a seating arrangement that calls the congregation to active participation and that avoids any semblance of a theater or an arena.”
Bishop Hoffman said he had proposed to his fellow bishops that the document include some guidelines that would allow for the use of the latest video technology in Catholic churches so that Masses could be filmed in churches instead of in television studios. He said having video booths in churches also would minimize distractions during major events such as Confirmations.
The bishop's recommendation was rejected because it was thought to be premature, he said.
“Built of Living Stones” gives local bishops the authority to set their own guidelines for their dioceses. This, according to Sister Georgette Zalewska, director of the office of worship for the Toledo Catholic Diocese, is a major change between the previous document and “Built of Living Stones.”
Despite that leeway, the document does make specific recommendations that are supported by the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which outlines norms for celebrating the Catholic Mass.
Helen Hull Hitchcock of Adoremus, a liturgical renewal group based in St. Louis, said she was pleased that the bishops' document specifically addresses the location of the tabernacle because it has been a subject of considerable controversy.
“There has been for some years a prevailing opinion among professional liturgists that people who worship at the Catholic Mass are confused by the presence of the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament during Mass. I think that that kind of assertion and the fact that it had a lot of influence shows what happens when you get too much professionalization in the liturgical industry.”
Liturgists have said that churches need to maintain a separation between the area where the Mass is celebrated and where people come for personal prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament because the communal nature of the Mass is distinct from private prayer.
Mrs. Hitchcock said the document's emphasis on the need for a sanctuary that is separate from the area where the congregation is seated contrasts with the recent trend toward putting the altars in the middle of churches and using former sanctuaries as places for choirs, organ pipes, or pianos. “This will be welcomed by a lot of people in the pews as well as by priests and bishops who have been concerned about this.”
Although “Built of Living Stones” allows for variations from diocese to diocese, Mrs. Hitchcock said that with it and other documents and interpretations from Rome, “The grip of a small professional class of liturgists will have been loosened.”
“. . . I think things are moving in the right direction. What I was hearing at the bishops' conference last week on the floor and in private conversations was that the best thing about the controversy has been that bishops are taking proper responsibility for the liturgy, which they had pretty much consigned to liturgical experts for 30 years. Ultimately, even though there will be problems in the short run, the refocusing will be to the benefit of everybody.”