Monday, August 09, 2010

Religion Columnist Terry Mattingly on Church Renovations

My recent New Liturgical Movement/Shrine of the Holy Whapping piece, "Five Things Any Parish Can Do to Improve Sacred Space" (which can be found here), caught the attention of nationally-syndicated religion columnist Terry Mattingly, who was kind enough to do a phone interview last week with me on the subject, where I expanded upon my ideas for rehabilitating bland churches built in the past fifty years to some semblance of Catholicity. Mr. Mattingly provided me with a sympathetic ear and I think captured both the crux of the problem and my proposals very well. The column is all over the internet (such as here), but I will reproduce it below, with my comments, for your edification:

Healing Ugly Modern Churches
by Terry Mattingly, Scripps Howard News Service

The sanctuary walls are, as a rule, made of flat wood, concrete and glass wrapped in metals with an industrial look -- often matching the furnishings on the stark altar. The windows are frosted or tinted in muted tones of sky blue, lavender, amber or pink. If there are stained-glass images, they are ultramodern in style, to match any art objects that make sense in this kind of space. The floors are covered with carpet, which explains why there are speakers hanging in the rafters. The final product resembles a sunny gymnasium that just happens to contain an abstract crucifix, the Stations of the Cross and one or two images of the Virgin Mary.

"The whole look was both modern and very bland," said Matthew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's classical-design program who works as a consultant on sacred art and architecture.

"It was a kind of beige Catholicism that was ugly, but not aggressively ugly ... and these churches looked like they were in a chain that had franchises everywhere. It was that whole Our Lady of Pizza Hut look that started in the 1950s and then took over in the '60s and '70s."

The problem is that many Catholics believe that this look that represented an urgent response to contemporary culture -- especially after Vatican II -- has now gone painfully out of date. [This is an especially interesting point: first, that the folks trying to look "with it" these days tend to be, unfortunately, rather like ecclesiastical Disco Dans, refusing to believe that Saturday Night Fever is dead, and that the best way to look out of date is to try to be up-to-the-minute fashionable--which goes for churches, art, music, and men's suits in equal measures. --MGA].

Few things age less gracefully than modernity. [I wish I'd said that myself! --MGA]However, few parishes can afford to "take a wrecking ball" to their sanctuaries. This is also highly emotional territory, since any attempt to change how people worship, whether they are modernists or traditionalists, will collide with their most cherished beliefs.

Thus, after years of studying intense debates on these issues, Alderman recently drafted a manifesto offering easy, affordable ways for make these sanctuaries "less ugly and more Catholic." He posted it at "The Shrine of the Holy Whapping," [and the NLM, too!] an online forum created by several Notre Dame graduates to host lighthearted discussions of serious Catholic subjects.

While some of his proposals are specific -- such as removing carpeting to improve church acoustics -- the designer said the key is for parish leaders to find a way to "bring a sense of tradition and beauty to their chancels and naves without having to break the bank." [Much of my thoughts on the subject are the result of facing up to the fact that, especially nowadays, not everyone can afford to start from the ground up to create a beautiful classical church; subtler, if fairly comprehensive renovations of church interiors may be a better solution for many poorer parishes in today's economy. --MGA.]

His basic principles included these:

-- Do everything possible to return the visual focus to the main altar and the tabernacle that contains the reserved sacraments, the bread and wine that has been consecrated during the Mass [This is a slightly confusing sentence; I am not advocating reserving the Precious Blood in the tabernacle, and I'm sure neither is Mr. Mattingly --MGA]. This can be accomplished with a few contrasting coats of paint, stencil designs in strategic places, the rearranging of altar furniture, a touch of new stonework or even the hanging of colored drapes. In many cases, a platform can be added under the altar to make it more visible or a designer can darken the lights and colors around the pews, while increasing the light focused on the altar and tabernacle. [Another important point: most churches are overlit, or sometimes tend to use the same lighting for both the sanctuary and the nave, which fails to create a sense of hierarchical progression from one to the other. --MGA]

-- Reject any strategy that tries to hide decades of modernity behind a blitz of statues and flowers in an attempt to create "a traditional Catholic theme park," he said. Too often, the result is "strip-mall classicism" that assumes that anything that looks old is automatically good.

[Maybe I came across a little harsh here. I think statuary and iconography should be an important part of every renovation. However, simply adding statues for the sake of adding statues is not the answer; nor do most of the sorts of catalog-bought 19th century sculpture that find their way into traditionalizing renovations today really blend well with a more modern interior; while one should not go to the opposite extreme and bring in the lumpen abstractions that were so popular in the late sixties, something with a more streamlined art deco feel might bridge the gap nicely. The key is trying to elevate the style you are stuck with, even if it may not be of the higest quality. And that often means hiring an architect or designer with some understanding of the issues rather than going down to Lowe's and buying a bunch of plaster moldings and paint and going to town on the basement chapel's walls. And please, I beg you, be very careful where you stick potted plants and great masses of flowers. --MGA]

"You don't want something that looks like it's fake and plastic," said Alderman. "The worst-case scenario is that you have bad taste stacked on top of bad taste, with some of the worst excesses of the old layered on top of all those mistakes that were driven by modernity. ... This kind of schizophrenia is not a good thing in a church."

-- It's important to "work with what you have, and don't work against it" while focusing on a few logical changes that actually promote worship and prayer, he said. A chapel dedicated to Mary can appeal to those who are devoted to saying the rosary. Candles and flower arrangements can focus attention on a statue of the parish's patron saint.

[And sometimes, there are moments where this may be impossible, in which case, your best bet is to try to focus your attention on the new elements and neutralize the surrounding architecture through lighting or color. But the key is trying to avoid a combat between such contrasts of design and furnishing. --MGA]

In the end, argued Alderman, "You may not be able to turn your 1950s A-frame church into Chartres, but if you try to find art that harmonizes with its perhaps now rather quaint attempts at futurism, while at the same time seeking to reconnect it with tradition, the result may have a pleasing consistency. ...

"While it may lack the grandeur of Rome or Florence, it can still become a beautiful, unified expression of the faith."

(Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at tmattingly(at) or
Thank you, Terry, and I appreciate your spending the time to inform readers of this pressing issue. With any luck, this will introduce many in the wider world to the boundaries of one aspect of this growing new liturgical movement.

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