Built of Living Stones 228-233: Lighting the Place of Worship

As with sound, natural light is a good starting point. But a building of any size is going to require some enhancement, just by being an interior space:

§ 228 § Light is a powerful symbol for the followers of Christ who is the “light shining in the darkness” and whose image is seen in the sun and in the paschal candle whose flame is “divided but undimmed.” (MR1, Exsultet) In addition to its theological symbolism, light takes on pastoral, aesthetic, and practical import in the construction of churches. Careful planning enables parishes to choose options that make maximum use of the natural light, which can be supplemented by artificial sources.

Color output of modern lamps can be amazingly rendered. It can be done very poorly, too.

§ 229 § Professionals can make planners aware of the ways in which fixtures shield glare, of the manner in which specific lamp types render color, and of the noise level of ballasts in some fixtures. If a church building is to foster the worship of those who gather there, it must first meet minimum standards of hospitality, which means that those gathered for worship will be able to see as well as to hear one another. In the design of the lighting scheme for a church, the highest priority should be given to the ability of the worshipers to see both the faces of those with whom they gather as the Body of Christ and the faces of those who minister to them.

This is an interesting bar, don’t you think? The ability to see the faces of sisters anfd brothers at w0rship.

§ 230 § In addition, lighting can aesthetically enhance the architectural and artistic components of the building and its appointments. Lighting for Sunday Mass differs from lighting required for a baptism or for times when the church is open for private prayer. What is appropriate for the chapel of reservation may not be effective in the nave, and what works in the sanctuary at the priest celebrant’s chair may not be helpful for the reader or the priest at the altar. Lighting engineers can suggest appropriate options to ensure the light production that will best serve the liturgy. Additional practical considerations include cost and efficiency of various types of lamping, ease or difficulty of replacing burnt-out bulbs, possible computerization, and ease of use and flexibility of the system to meet the needs of a variety of liturgical situations.*

*A dimmer can provide for flexibility of the lighting fixtures and can help to reduce energy consumption.

Dimmer switches also greatly lengthen the lifetime of most sorts of bulbs and other producing elements.

§ 231 § Planning the building’s lighting includes both the exterior and the interior of the building. Illumination of pathways and entries is not only a matter of safety, but also of aesthetic enhancement. In keeping with good stewardship, using lighting generated by solar power is ecologically responsible, and it is an effective form of exterior lighting to be considered.

§ 232 § Building codes require that exit signs, fire alarm strobes, fire alarm pull boxes, annunciator panels, and fire extinguisher cabinets be located in “conspicuous places.” Timely planning can help to reconcile these required elements with liturgical, devotional, and artistic focal points. It is the responsibility of the architect to work with all design and engineering consultants to ensure that conflicts are avoided and that smoke-detecting devices are calibrated so that candle smoke and incense do not set off fire alarms.*

* As with the case of selecting professionals to design and install sound systems, normally the skills of a professional with experience in the lighting of churches should be preferred over the “good will” services of someone who may have some knowledge of electricity and domestic lighting but who lacks the requisite qualifications to design and install lighting suitable for a church.

§ 233 § Provision for electronic media should be incorporated into the initial design of a new building. These should fit into the architectural design and should be made inconspicuous. Consideration should be given to the effect of light on projected images.

Over the years, nothing has budged me from skepticism on the projection of electronic images, videos, still footage, and the like. I worked in one parish where a screen was fixed prominently on the wall behind the altar. It was used more under previous pastors than the one who hired me. With the technology of the day, images were visible from the center of the worship space, but not from about thirty to forty percent of seats along the side walls.

All texts from Built of Living Stones are copyright © 2000, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Built of Living Stones 228-233: Lighting the Place of Worship

  1. Mary says:

    I’m keen to hear ore about the reasons for your “skepticism on the projection of electronic images, videos, still footage, and the like.”

    How do you think that parishes should handle it when the bishop issues a pastoral letter by video? Can you imagine sermons being improved by a well-chosen image or two? Showing hymn-words when there are more people present than you own hymnals for?

    I agree that the standards of using technology are often lower than desirable, and at the moment often get in the way of prayer rather than enhancing it. But I’m not convinced that’s not a reason to adopt technology: are you also sceptical about using sound-systems – or electric lighting?

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