Monday, December 10, 2018

Consecrated Buildings and Their Officially Sponsored Profanation

The back of the monastery chapel in Norcia
The Rule of St. Benedict has as one of its many virtues the ability to capture an entire vision of things in one lapidary phrase. There is not a single wasted word; what Benedict means to say, he says with vigor, brevity, and clarity. A splendid example is chapter 52, “Of the Oratory of the Monastery,” where the Patriarch writes:
Let the oratory be what its name implies, and let nothing else be done or kept there. When the Work of God is finished, let all go out in deep silence, and let reverence for God be observed, so that any brother who may wish to pray privately be not hindered by another’s misbehavior. And at other times also, if anyone wish to pray secretly, let him just go in and pray: not in a loud voice, but with tears and fervor of heart. He, therefore, who does not behave so, shall not be permitted to remain in the oratory when the Work of God is ended, lest he should, as we have said, be a hindrance to another. [1]
I have often wished that this text would be carved into wood or stone and mounted at the door of every Catholic church throughout the world, printed in every bulletin, and preached from every pulpit, with such unfailing regularity that the pervasive anteliturgical and postliturgical chitchat by which the reverent silence of the temple of God is globally snatched away Sunday after Sunday might begin to be suppressed and reduced to naught. I don’t know if it would work, but I’ve often wondered why so few pastors ever make the attempt to restore “deep silence” to our churches. It may have to do with a sinking feeling that the good habits of preconciliar days are gone forever and will not return among the cellphone barbarians in the pews; it may have to do with a simple loss of belief in the church as a sacred place. Considering that many suburban churches fall somewhere along the spectrum between a Jet Propulson Laboratory and a beige-carpeted athletics facility, it may not be surprising that the sense of sacrality is absent, even eradicated.

Earlier in the Rule, in chapter 19, “On the Discipline of Psalmody,” St. Benedict bears witness to the dignity of the church and of the opus Dei that takes place in it, deducing thence what our inner and outer attitudes should be:
We believe that God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord in every place behold the good and the evil (Prov. 15, 3); but let us especially believe this without any doubting when we are performing the Divine Office. Therefore, let us ever remember the words of the prophet: Serve ye the Lord in fear (Ps. 2, 11); and again, Sing ye wisely (Ps. 46, 8); and, In the sight of the angels will I sing to thee (Ps. 137, 2). Let us then consider how we ought to behave ourselves in the presence of God and his angels, and so sing the psalms that mind and voice may be in harmony. [2] 
This text helps us to grasp two lessons: the sacred liturgy is the time when, by God’s own design and good pleasure, we are most of all held to be standing in His divine Presence, yielding up our minds and hearts to Him; and the oratory or church in which we are doing this “Work of God” is a place like no other, a place consecrated for the sole purpose of worshiping God. In a well-known passage, Augustus Welby Pugin conveys this point with Victorian lavishness:
[The church] is, indeed, a sacred place; the modulated light, the gleaming tapers, the tombs of the faithful, the various altars, the venerable images of the just, — all conspire to fill the mind with veneration, and to impress it with the sublimity of Christian worship. And when the deep intonations of the bells from the lofty campaniles, which summon the people to the house of prayer, have ceased, and the solemn chant of the choir swells through the vast edifice — cold, indeed, must be the heart of that man who does not cry out with the Psalmist, Domine, dilexi decorem domus tuae, et locum habitationis gloriae tuae. [3]
Drawing on the insights of Benedict and Pugin, we might state this principle: The church building is the most sacred space we have; as a result, it is there that we will learn — or not learn — the meaning of the very distinction between sacred and profane. If there is not a strong sense, upon entering a church, of passing from one domain to another, of leaving the world (to some extent) and entering a different realm, of going from an earth-bound atmosphere in which we are at ease to a celestial temple that calls forth reverential fear, I am afraid there will usually be nothing else that offers an equally powerful communication of the distinction. There are, to be sure, other ways to evoke the distinction, such as the sound of Gregorian chant even in a Mass celebrated outdoors or in a humble tent; but the sacred space, the “oratory,” is normally the most obvious, impressive, durable, stable, all-encompassing sign of the sacred that we have. It either says to you: “This is God’s house, where you will meet Him in a special way — tread quietly, watch and pray”; or it says “This is just a building, where you can amble around, talk, text, take selfies, joke, sleep, or eat a snack.”

Selfie in a church
Eminent liturgical theologian Msgr. Nicola Bux writes in his book No Trifling Matter: Taking the Sacraments Seriously Again (a book I highly recommend):
Jacob understood, once awakened from sleep: “Indeed, the Lord is in this place.” He became conscious of the fact, he was afraid, and said: “How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.” [4] The divine presence pushes the patriarch to fashion the stone, on which he had slept and received the dream, into a stele, the primitive altar, and to anoint it on top. We would say: to consecrate it. God, in fact, had established his abode, his house; for this reason he changed the name and called that place Bethel, in Hebrew, house of God. That stone founded the house of God.
          Consecration renders the Lord always present in a place made by human hands, and increases reverent fear and devotion for the abode and house of God. Consecration changes the designated use of the place: it cannot be used for profane purposes.
          But unfortunately today things are not always like that! And so God leaves us, is not with us, does not protect and accompany us in the journey of life, does not feed us, does not make us return safe and sound to our home. [5]
Later on, Bux speaks at greater length of the grave significance of the consecration of a church — something that changes it objectively and permanently. His words are worth quoting in full:
Though much emphasized as regards the effects and the changes it calls forth in the place that has been chosen for the purpose, the dedication of a building to Christian worship is very quickly forgotten these days: in fact, one is frequently present at the profanation of everything that was offered to the Lord with such a rite.
          In the Ordinary Form of 1977, the Mass of dedication underlines the will of the ecclesial community to dedicate the new building to divine worship, in an exclusive and perpetual way. In particular, the presence of the sacrament and the altar do not permit any other use; in fact they are there to recall to us that the church is the sign of the heavenly sanctuary where Jesus Christ has penetrated, in order to appear before the sight of God on our behalf (Heb. 9, 24).
          Liturgists would say that for the sake of the truth of the sign, a church cannot be employed for purposes other than worship, on pain of gravely offending the Lord to whom it has been offered. Besides, its dedication is rightly commemorated every year on the anniversary day, especially within the church that was consecrated. It is therefore a grave error that, in practice, the consecration we have just described is emptied of meaning in our day by the actions of priests themselves, with the holding of events incompatible with the sacred place: concerts, performances, ballets, meetings of every type, which at one time were done outside or “in front of the temple,” as the Latin word pro-fanum recalls; the phenomenon of using churches for concerts of not only sacred but also profane music seems unstoppable. Acts that are not sacred, and normally done elsewhere, bring with them a profanation of the church.
          Welcome cannot be given to profane actions of this type, or to any others, in the place where the divine mysteries are celebrated. How is it possible that bishops and priests have forgotten that such a place as that, so often built with sacrifice by the faithful, has been “dedicated” — a word that recalls the act with which something very personal is offered to someone who is loved. To dedicate something means that it is no longer mine, but his. If I were to take it back, that would be a betrayal. It is a grave matter, because we take from God that which is his, what we ourselves had sworn we would give him. The rite itself of dedication shows that it is a kind of oath or vow, that is, a sacred act. What need is there for such solemnity, if afterwards the sacred place is employed for profane uses?
          Liturgists exalt the rite of dedication, but in contradiction with that, they go silent and speak not a word in the face of the transformation of churches into multi-purpose halls. This is worse than what was done by totalitarian atheist regimes, which had transformed these places into theaters, gymnasiums, and stores. It is a very serious phenomenon, because it means, first, that the sense of the church as a place offered to God, for the worship owed him, has been lost; we have consecrated something, and then we take it back in order to do purely human things there. In the second place, we favor in this way the eclipse of the divine presence, because in the church we practice activities proper to a theater or an auditorium, such as speaking, eating, applauding, and other attitudes typical of places of entertainment. When a church becomes a theater where people laugh, applaud, and shout, it then becomes difficult to demand, for the same place, the proper attitudes for worship: listening, recollection, silence, adoration, because the conviction that one is standing in a versatile locale has taken root. That conviction leads to obscuring the principal and characteristic function of a church, which is adoration, and to prohibiting kneeling for prayer, either when the liturgy is being celebrated in the church, or outside the liturgy. But in reality, the church remains a place of presence and prayer, and of silence, even when there is no liturgy being celebrated. [6]
Two of the most egregious postconciliar examples of the contempt for sacred space that Bux laments were furnished, horribile dictu, by a cardinal and by the pope. The more recent, as reported last week by Infovaticana and Rorate Caeli, was the “World AIDS Day” rock concert held in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, under the auspices of the Cardinal archbishop, who sat in the front row and was photographed before and after with the performers (big photo album here). Some snapshots:
Standing on the communion rail
The assembled cast
Quieter but no less scandalous was the papal luncheon held inside the basilica of St Petronius in Bologna on October 1, 2017, as thousands who stood in the nave watched the Pope enjoy a meal with his invited guests. [7] Here are a few of the many photographs available online:

Although the parallels are not exact, one cannot help thinking of the desecrations of the Hebrew temple recorded in the Old Testament, and of Belshazzar’s feast, who, I am sure, was also smiling pleasantly until the horrifying hand began to write on the wall. The sober words of Bux strike at the core of this callous secularism: “A church cannot be employed for purposes other than worship, on pain of gravely offending the Lord to whom it has been offered. … Acts that are not sacred, and normally done elsewhere, bring with them a profanation of the church. … It is a grave matter, because we take from God that which is his, what we ourselves had sworn we would give him.”

Our Lord ate with sinners and publicans, yes — but not in the Temple. What he did to those pursuing secular business in the Temple is rather well known, and we could allow this picture by Cecco del Caravaggio to stand in for a thousand words:

Bux reminds us of what the Soviets did at the end of World War II as their armies came through central Europe. They often chose to stable their horses in churches, to show their contempt for the space and what it represented. In this they imitated the Protestants who, at the time of the Protestant Revolt, ransacked churches, took the sacred hosts out of the tabernacles, and threw them to horses and dogs.

It is not at all surprising that the same pope who denies in practice the distinction between worthy and unworthy communions should be the one who violates in practice the distinction between a consecrated and an unconsecrated place; nor that the one who has elevated Paul VI to the altars should be the one who disdains the meaning of the very rite of dedication that pope promulgated. Such things are fully consistent with the modernist theology of those who, as Ratzinger explains, deny the very distinction between the sacred and the profane, arguing that with the coming of Christ, everything and everyone has already been redeemed, is already blessed — is, as it were, automatically in Christ. If God is already all in all, then in a certain sense, to borrow a phrase from Dostoevsky, “all things are permitted.”[8] A church is no more special than the Church of which it is a sign; if extra ecclesiam nulla salus is incorrect, so must be intra ecclesiam nullum profanum. [9]

Bux addresses this very point:
There is no place more apt than a church for bringing people who so desire — and there are many of them! — to an encounter with God. The Church must not be considered as “the liturgical space” and nothing more than that! Is it possible that there are no available places for concerts, theatrical performances, and other such things? Then we should not be surprised that the sense of the sacred, the sense of the divine presence, has been lost. Few today know what sacred and holy mean. The “theology of secularization” considers that everything is sacred and that there is nothing profane, and so it wishes us to believe that the dedication of a church is not a consecration; it can also be used for profane activities. [10]
In his book Signs of the Holy One, Fr Uwe Michael Lang documents how the category of the sacred was undermined in Rahner and Teilhard, among others. After all, “properly understood,” which means by way of a patristic ressourcement filtered through a Modernist prism, Christ’s Incarnation was a cosmic redemption, a recapitulation of the whole universe; so why reduce the effects of redemption to only a few old buildings, or, for that matter, a few old rites? The whole temple of creation has been consecrated, dedicated, and grace can be accessed anywhere. Teilhard seems to say that the sacraments are just “expressions,” particular upwellings of this cosmic grace that surrounds and permeates us. It is, needless to say, but one step from this view, which sounds vaguely pious, to a total secularization of the Church that evacuates God altogether.

I believe these observations help us put into a larger context the disturbing lightshows that have been projected on the façades of various churches in Rome in recent years, showing wild animals running across them, or the building dissolving and toppling over (such as this one during the Youth Synod), as if we live in a new era in which the institutional Church will be overcome by a borderless, uninhibited, open-ended “luv,” the contemporary world’s substitute for grace. If this sounds very much like a rehash of 1968, with the false prophet Herbert Marcuse bloviating in the wings, rest assured: it is.

Yet it is worse the second time around. The surge of revolutionary emotions in late 60s could be pardoned as an eruption of uncontrolled immaturity exacerbated by peculiar social circumstances. Today’s antinomianism, which is not ashamed to usher into the temple of God shirtless artistes with electric guitars or platters laden with lasagna, is premeditated, theoretical, programmatic, and totalitarian. I do not necessarily attribute this perfection of profanation to any one human agent; but an intelligence of exceptional power must surely lie behind it.


[1] Trans. Abbot Justin McCann, 119.
[2] McCann, 68–69.
[3] Pugin, Contrasts, 5.
[4] This verse, of course, is the Introit for the Mass of the Dedication of a Church.
[5] Bux, No Trifling Matter, 27.
[6] Bux, No Trifling Matter, 189–93.
[7] The luncheon is listed on the Vatican website’s itinerary for the trip.
[8] And this is actually true of those who are fully redeemed: the blessed in heaven. Since their wills are in perfect conformity with God’s and, seeing Him face to face, they can no longer desire evil, it follows that they may do whatever they wish, and it will be good.
[9] For a thorough explication of the claims made in this paragraph, see the recent brilliant essay by Dr Thomas Pink, “Vatican II and Crisis in the Theology of Baptism,” published at The Josias. I consider this essay essential reading for understanding the transformation in Catholic theology and liturgy in the 20th century.
[10] Bux, No Trifling Matter, 193–94.

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