Should Liturgy Be Easy or Hard?

On the thread “Getting Anything Out of Liturgy,” Chris offered some commentary, a few points of which deserve highlighting.

There is nothing in this photo which communicates that this is a Catholic church, or a Mass.

Does the church setting bear the brunt of “sacralization” in the Christian liturgy? In other words, is it always preferable to see an image or orient oneself in a church and identify it clearly as a Catholic church or a Catholic Mass? If the photo from my parish wasn’t a Mass, we’re doing really really well stuffing several hundred people into pews and have five priests concelebrate a ritual outside of the Eucharist. Just imagine what happens on weekends.

The image in question is from the south loft, taken at Mass celebrating the departure of our last pastor. I chose it because it captured the most people of any Mass image on our web site’s photo gallery. The thread was, after all, about people at liturgy, and their occasoinal complaint.

The altar is clearly lit the strongest in the building, so that seems pretty clear to me. I also know the building pretty well, so I can see the tabernacle, the credence table, and other familiar things. And unlike Chris or non-parishioners, I also know their context.

In a way Chris makes the point about disengagement from the liturgy Joyce and I see often from the pews. (Though I have to say I’ve seen less of it in my present parish than any other.) There’s no doubt that a worshipper might have to work harder to be engaged in some churches. My new pastor and I have discussed much of this. The task is how we engage new college students: give them enough that is familiar to draw them in; challenge their youthful sensibilities and invite them to a more intentional Catholicism.

Chris suggests this church “offers as little as possible to the people who make the effort to be there.” If this is true, the bright side is that parishioners are self-motivated and engaged by choice. Is it better to have an “easy” space full of what some may cite as distractions? Or should a church assume adults are present who don’t need to be entertained by figures in windows, statues, icons, or architectural finery? Are fancy churches like picture books? Are plain churches like serious novels? I don’t ask these questions to be facetious. I think there are two complementary aspects that architects, designers, and liturgists must address when buiolding new churches or renovating old ones. Beauty and art: are they sufficient to themselves? Or in a church, should they or must they have a reason? A higher purpose? Are they only a means to an end?

Rather than sit from a single perspective, does the building here fare better when empty and when one can move around?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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16 Responses to Should Liturgy Be Easy or Hard?

  1. Jim McK says:

    I fail to see how distraction can encourage active participation.

    LA’s cathedral has those wonderful wall hangings depicting the saints marching toward the altar. That is an example of setting that encourages participation. My parish has stained glass of the rosary’s mysteries, which gives a prayerful atmosphere but can be a distraction to those who do not understand them.

    Unfortunately, much that is added to a church distracts rather than enhance. The building can have as much piled on top of it as the liturgy used to have.

    BTW this is a very old argument. St Bernard thought people should effectively have their eyes closed while worshiping, while abbot Suger of Paris argued for expansive beauty that became the Gothic style. Neither of those extremes is quite right; what is needed is a church that is focussed on the Lord.

  2. Randolph Nichols says:

    If your worship space indeed leads the congregation to a sincere, reverent engagement with God, who is in a position to condemn the architecture. We are not, however, immune from conditioning and thus can’t be entirely objective. My childhood memories of Episcopal churches made from dark wood and stone still prejudice my judgment. My cradle-Catholic wife, on the other hand, finds those structures morbid. (I’ll spare you her comments on the occasional Episcopalian practice of using chinaware for coffee hour.)

    I do though question the association of embellishments with distraction. I’m fortunate to worship in a magnificent Romanesque structure with striking stained glass, statuary, and wall paintings. In those rare instances when I’m not engaged by the homilist, and in this parish those occasions are rare, letting the eye wander can be a grace. I feel no guilt because I’ve not wasted time in useless fidgeting but have been transported to a realm of spiritual imagination that makes me more, not less, focused.

  3. NewmanSTL says:

    This is not a question that Catholics have to approach theoretically, b/c an ecumenical council of the first millennium directly addressed the matter of images in worship. The barren sanctuaries you describe are a contemporary instantiation of an ancient heresy called iconoclasm. The whole contrast between “easy” places of worship vs. ones that take adults seriously confuses the issue. In conformity with Catholic tradition and as an affirmation of the incarnation, Catholic places of worship should be adorned with many suitable images.

    Exhibit A:

    • Todd says:

      Interesting that the oratory uses multiple speakers on the pillars. I wonder about how that plays in, what seems to be, a good acoustical space.

    • Jimmy Mac says:

      I think the operative word is “suitable.”

      This oratory looks as if someone never saw a space that they didn’t think needed to be covered with something, nay, anything.

  4. Todd says:

    “The barren sanctuaries you describe are a contemporary instantiation of an ancient heresy called iconoclasm.”

    I don’t think anybody described a barren church. Chris presumed it was, but he’s never worshipped here, to my knowledge.

    I’ve understood iconoclasm to be the removal of art. If a church never had it at its first stage, or is in the process of developing ritual and devotional art, are they iconoclasts, or are they just good stewards?

  5. Liam says:

    Here I thought Catholics understood that God often uses “distractions” as a way to communicate to us, often in preference to more linear paths. The human brain often does its best processing of X when it is suddenly distracted away from X by Y.

    St Bernard, as a Cistercian, had a particular perspective coming from a specific context that is not readily transferred to parish life.

    Then again, you should understand that I am one of those people who don’t think most books necessarily need be read from front to back, but that you can start in any number of places and move in any number of directions.

  6. Todd says:

    Yes, distractions. This is a good line of thinking, and enjoyable to ponder. It goes beyond the usual left/right/pragmatic liturgy tussles into unknown territory.

    I don’t know that I view distractions always as opportunities and not sometimes my own junk intruding on God or prayer or liturgy. That said, distractions, God-given or human-made, can be opportunities.

    The manufacture of distractions: that’s a point of doubt for me. Would my parish intentionally ask newcomers to stand instead of kneel as a way of creating an opportunity? I have a hard time with that one. It sounds about as artificial as taking a budget of, say, $50,000, and putting “art” in a church.

    Sure, either scenario has its opportunity for growth, but my sense is that life itself provides enough distractions without our making them on our own initiative.

    This is a good discussion to keep going, because I don’t think the extreme positions are tenable. Different parishes will have different nuances in the execution of this. It’s a relativism, but hardly dictatorial.

  7. Liam says:


    Just to be clear: I was not lauding all distractions. I was merely cautioning that calling something a “distraction” is not dispositive that it is necessarily at odds with what God’s intends for us.

    A distraction implicating emotions or deep intellect might well be obstructive, but a distraction of the senses might be an opening.

  8. Jim McK says:

    Let me repeat what I first said: “I fail to see how distraction can encourage active participation.”

    Full, active participation calls for a minimum of distraction, or it is not “full”. I tried to be explicit that art can contribute to worship, so St Bernard’s “custody of the eyes” would be seen as impractical. What is needed is a space that is focussed on worship, not on other elements, no matter how useful they may be.

    And in the case of icons, they are an integral part of worship. To the extent that they contribute to public worship, and not stand as an alternative to the liturgy, they are not distractions.

    Todd’s church may not have anything that distinguishes it as Catholic, as Chris claims, but it is filled with a worshiping community, which makes it catholic.

    Exhibit B, the Benedictine church a few miles from the Oratory:

  9. Gavin says:

    What if I’m crazy about exhibits A and B?? Incredible churches both!

  10. Joyce S Donahue says:

    Todd and Newman STL –
    who says that Todd’s church does not “have” art? I looked at the virtual tour and found that the architecture and furnishings of the sactuary are filled with an artistic sensibility that, while it is somwhat spare, modern and streamlined, is definitely imbued with the spirit of Modernism, in the best sense – and represents the American culture of today, not some European medieval sensibility.

    There is rhythm, strength, movement and grace in the design of the furnishings, and the clear windows seem set to view the beauty of God’s Creation instead of tableaux of saints, etc.

    The obvious artistic elements: stations, story wall, etc. are the places where the designers have told the traditional story. While not colorful, they is certainly strong and are the “suitable images” called for.

    In addition, I would bet that seasonal art and environment are used to enhance the space – and if the A&E committee is strong, these provide the appropriate visual “distractions” that lead the people to a sense of the seasons.

    All of these churches pictured have something to recommend them, and that something may indeed be a matter of “taste” – but as Jim says, the worshiping community should be the chief adornment.

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