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Our Place of Worship: liturgy falsified.

In Part 1, published in April, pp.10-12, I introduced the relationship between Canada's Our Place of Worship and the United States's Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. Two underlying themes prevalent in the OPW document were then explored. In this concluding article, two more themes will be explored and some practical advice will be provided on what might be done to mitigate the potential impact of this document on the architecture and the celebration of Catholic liturgy in Canada.

While reading Our Place of Worship, I began to make note of what I thought were some underlying themes that manifest themselves in the text of the document. In part I, we looked at the primacy of the assembly and the blurring of the roles of the clergy and the laity.

Our Place of Worship makes extensive use of proof-texting, the practice of quoting sources incorrectly and/or out of context to support a pre-supposed premise. The premise which OPW seems to be advocating is that of the primacy of the assembly in Catholic worship. The result of this theological emphasis is a liturgy and worship space that places an undue focus on ourselves, the gathered assembly, as the subjects of worship instead of on our risen Lord.

A sub-section entitled "Requirements of the rituals" reinforces the notion of the assembly being primary. OPW provides the following paraphrased reference to section 124 of the Vatican II document, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. [1]

"The full, active, and conscious participation called for by the Council and demanded by the liturgical rites requires that liturgical space be developed to support this ideal and that it is well suited to celebrating the liturgical services (Constitution on the Liturgy, no. 124)."

There are some strong words here like "demanded" and "requires" that lead one to presuppose a disposition to defer without question to what follows in this section of the document. Is the above paraphrase an accurate reflection of the stated source? Here is the complete citation to no. 124 of The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:

124. Ordinaries are to take care that in encouraging and favoring truly sacred art, they should seek for noble beauty rather than sumptuous display. The same principle applies also to sacred vestments and ornaments. Bishops should be careful to ensure that works of art which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or through lack of artistic merit or because of mediocrity or pretence, be removed from the house of God and from other sacred places. And when churches are to be built, let great care be taken that they be suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and for the active participation of the faithful.

It is worthwhile to note that no. 124 falls under Chapter VII--Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings of The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The comparable passages in the OPW and no. 124 are "liturgical space be developed to support this ideal and that it is well suited to celebrating the liturgical services" and "when churches are to be built, let great care be taken that they be suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and for the active participation of the faithful" respectively.

Now, within the context of the entire text of no. 124, the "they" in the third paragraph refers to works of sacred art. That is, ". . .let great care be taken that works of sacred art be suitable..." Our Place of Worship's paraphrase is not faithful to the intent of this section of The Constitution.

In its discussion on Art and Vatican II, OPW again takes liberty with The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in an assemblage of quotes taken out of context from nos. 124 and 125:

"Noble beauty rather than sumptuous display" is the principle to be followed when commissioning works of art. Images should be of moderate number and placed in right order; those which foster unorthodox devotion should be removed (no. 125).

In contrast to a previous OPW quotation from no. 125 provided in the section on Images, "moderate numbers" and "right order" are retained in this passage. The actual quote from no. 125 is:

The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained. Nevertheless their number should be moderate and their relative positions should reflect right order For otherwise the Christian people may find them incongruous and they may foster devotion of doubtful orthodoxy.

I have underlined the relevant passages from nos. 124 and 125 that have been assembled piece-meal to convey a message entirely different from that intended in the Vatican II document. Vatican II does not state that images that foster unorthodox devotion should be removed. It cautions that the number and relative positions of images should be thoughtfully considered to ward against fostering devotion of doubtful orthodoxy. Vatican II only recommends that works of art which are "repugnant to faith, morals and Christian piety" be removed.

Word Power

Finally, and what may seem trivial to some, are the semantics, "the language used (as in advertising or political propaganda) to achieve a desired effect on an audience especially through the use of words with novel or dual meanings". [2]

Throughout Our Place of Worship, we see the substitution of the altar with altar-table or table, of communion with meal, of church with facility and of priest with presider. The words "assembly" and "community" appear close to two hundred times in OPW while "Mass" and "Catholic" appear less than a dozen times. So what? In my studies, I have gained a new appreciation for the power of words and that the Church selects her words in her teachings very precisely and particularly. Words are selected to convey a teaching, a message. In my mind, the choice of "meal", "facility", etc. weakens the Catholicity of the message. The choice of these vague, weaker terms broadens the conceptual interpretation which otherwise has precise Catholic meaning. The consequences of the unending repetition of "assembly" and "community" may be the loss of the mystery of the sacrifice being re-presented at a Catholic Mass, replaced by a celebration of ourselves in the gathered community.

Transfer of reverence

The compounding of all of these themes results in a transfer of reverence from Our Lord to the gathered community, a loss of the sense of the sacred nature of the Mass, an imbalance between the horizontal and vertical natures of worship. If this community-oriented theology is applied to our liturgy, I believe it will result in a weakened faith. Does "approaching a table for a meal" provoke the same sense of awe and mystery as "approaching an altar to receive communion with Our Lord?"

What impact does this transfer of reverence have on church architecture? In the past, architects and artists felt compelled to witness their faith through the creation of earthly works that were evocative of the heavenly kingdom to come. This is most evident in the beautiful and grand cathedrals with their high arches and soaring spires. In parish churches, the sense of being in a sacred space was enhanced through stained glass that transformed light from the outside into inner beauty; statues of the Holy Family and Saints that remind us of our history; beautifully rendered stations of the cross, mosaics and paintings; and a crucifix with a corpus on it that calls us to contemplate the suffering of Christ and the undying love God has for us.

It is my contention that a weakness in faith and liturgy is reflected within the environment that we worship if that environment does not inspire one to consider the transcendental nature of our faith. This is not necessarily so, but I have been in new churches designed in the spirit of EACW and there is little of the reverence and grandeur that I feel in older churches.

What can we do?

In the light of the preceding evidence that purports Our Place of Worship to be problematic, what then can Catholics do to negate or minimize its possible impact on the renovation or building of a church? Whether or not you are engaged in a renovation or construction project (your actions may help out those who are), here are some suggestions:

1. Read Our Place of Worship to validate the review presented in these articles. If you agree, then you are free to use these articles in part or in whole as is deemed appropriate. Write a letter to your priest and bishop stating that you have read the document, found it to be problematic (provide authoritative citations), and respectfully request that the document be recalled for review and revision.

2. If you are involved in a renovation or construction project and Our Place of Worship (or possibly even EACW) has been tabled as a reference guide, then respectfully and tactfully draw the attention of the various committee members to the problems outlined in this article. Ask that it not be used as a reference, or that its use be restricted to the sections that are sound.

3. In place of using OPW (or EACW), suggest that the source documents cited in OPW be used directly (e.g. Sacrosanctum Concilium, The General Instructions of the Roman Missal). There are articles in the Adoremus Bulletin [3] and Homiletic & Pastoral Review [4] that provide lists of authoritative and sound references that may be used.

I will not deny that there is value in having a Canadian document that provides guidelines for the renovation and building of parishes. Such a document could be invaluable in getting the process off the ground and operating smoothly. A Catholic guidebook, however, must be an accurate reflection of Catholic faith, theology, and teachings. It is unfortunate that Our Place of Worship does not yet meet these criteria, but I am hopeful, and will continue to pray, that a future revision will be more fulfilling.

Nicholas Burn is a freelance writer based in Ontario. Part 1 of his critique of Our Place of Worship appeared in April 2000, and is available on his web site.([sim]nburn/ccinhome.shtml).


(1.) Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 124, 1963.

(2.) webster's Dictionary.

(3.) McNamara, D., "So, You're On The Parish Building committee -- Architectural Resources", Adoremus Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 9, February 1999.

(4.) Rutherford, I. "Parish Liturgical Renewal", Homiletic & Pastoral Review, November 1999.
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Author:Burn, Nicholas
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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