In this Crisis Magazine classic, Rev. Michael Enright outlines the features of a truly Catholic church building… and no, churches-in-the-round don’t qualify.
In about 10 A.D. the Roman writer Vitrivus wrote that there are three qualities for good building, “venustas, firmitas et utilitas” — delight, firmness, and utility. What happens when these criteria are applied to our modern, in-the-round churches? The majority of these churches created in the past twenty years flunk the test of utility and firmness, and the reader can decide for himself about their capacity to delight!
To those who see it, a Catholic church should look like a Catholic church. A useful church structure should possess a processional quality, acoustics, lighting, lines of sight, and interior elements that are suitable for the assembly.
Modern architects have created a whole series of structures whose function is not easily distinguishable. You cannot tell from looking at a modern bank, for example, that it is a bank.
These architects dismiss the critics who say “But it doesn’t look like a bank” by saying that the critics are ignorant and simply do not understand architecture. Classical architects understand that they are designing not for other architects, but for ordinary people.
A church should be built on a longitudinal axis partly because this structure looks Catholic. The Catholic Church adopted the basilica structure from the Roman Empire and has been using adaptations of this basic longitudinal plan since Constantine. The circular churches developed in the Renaissance almost all were designed as “place markers” for tombs or miraculous events, not as parish churches.
We have used longitudinal structures for parish churches for more than fifteen hundred years. In a longitudinal church all the lines perpendicular to the person “looking down the church” disappear into a single point: just above the vanishing point. In a longitudinal church building, the eye, heart, and mind are drawn to a point in the center of the sanctuary.
This is a recognizably Catholic design — almost everyone entering the building knows instinctively where they are supposed to look. In a church in-the-round there can be no such focus. The eye sweeps across the composition — walls, ceiling, sanctuary — and finds no single place to rest. The average Catholic looks at a modern, in-the-round church and says “But it doesn’t look like a church.”
Longitudinal churches have processional quality. Through the careful manipulation of horizontal and vertical lines, as well as mass and void, a person entering at the rear of the church is subtly drawn toward the front.
A longitudinally designed church is useful for all of our rituals that call for processions — the Mass, baptisms, weddings, funerals, expressions of popular piety, and so on. It is impossible to achieve this processional quality in a church in-the-round. Processions done in a circular church are not processions. The walk from the entrance to the sanctuary is usually too short to be called a procession. In addition, there is usually nothing about the space that calls one to enter further into it. From the minute one enters the space, the whole ritual is visible.
Acoustics and Lighting
A longitudinal church has the best shape for music. All the new opera houses and theaters are rectangular. After spending a lot of money on in-the-round spaces, the entertainment world has rediscovered that the rectangle is the best acoustic shape. This shape also best suits the presentation of drama since it facilitates staging.
You can create acoustically “bright” spaces in a rectangle with hard surfaces. In round churches, after construction is completed, a sound engineer is called in to install a sound system. The system has to compensate, usually with limited success, for the dead space. As a result, congregational singing dies. Many parishes end up with a choir director or cantor urging parishioners to sing louder. The people, even if they are singing their hearts out, cannot fill the church with music. The building absorbs their voices like a sponge.
An additional reason to build longitudinally is that a rectangular church makes the best use of sunlight. An in-the-round church has by design much more roof area than wall space. The strongest architectural element in one of these structures is the ceiling. The only way the sun enters the space is through a hole in the roof. The occasional skylight punched through the ceiling usually develops leaks and, even with skylights, the sun never directly enters the space. This design problem is only overcome with thousands of watts of artificial lighting.
In a longitudinal church there is a higher percentage of vertical wall space — you can get as much sunlight as you want. Some of our rites have to do with the beginning of the day, the end of the day, or have to take place after dark. Either we artificially create dawn, dusk, and darkness with artificial light, or we use the light God has given us. Not only is sunlight more natural, it’s free.
Lines of Sight
Whatever the liturgical event, the assembly should be able to see clearly what is happening in the sanctuary. It is claimed that one disadvantage of a longitudinal church is a loss of personal contact. This is simply not true. Even at half a city block away ordinary people can see and distinguish one person from another. It is true, however, that the average person has peripheral vision of 60 degrees. Given a group of people spread out over 170 degrees (nearly a semicircle), almost two-thirds of these people would be in the peripheral vision of a preacher at the center.
Preaching in a small, round church means having your back to more than half of the people all of the time. They cannot be engaged, because there is no eye contact. Reduced to such watching, the congregation becomes passive, yet passivity is one of the reasons given for our modern liturgical changes. The standard complaint was that people had been reduced to watching the Mass. But a modern church encourages passivity in ways that traditional church design never did.
Making Room for Prayer
Liturgically correct liturgists often misunderstand the nature of prayer and participation at Mass. What do Catholics do when they are distracted? They look around. In a round church they look at the other people, or maybe the ceiling or a blank wall. In a traditional church there are more places to put art, since there’s more wall space. Given the way people tend to learn, and given that our society is increasingly visually oriented, it only makes sense for us to have a variety of visual images in church.
These visual elements, likewise, should be recognizably Catholic. Liturgists say people shouldn’t be looking around at images — they claim that these distractions have no place in our sacred space. It’s good to remember that not every moment of every liturgy is a “peak” experience of prayer. A good Catholic might be going through a Dark Night of the Soul. A well-designed interior will help people keep their focus on God even when they are having trouble paying attention to the Mass.
Seats and Tabernacles
If flexibility is necessary, movable pews are better than chairs. Movable pews allow flexibility in seating design and they can be moved to clean and wax the floor below. They also allow for kneeling. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal calls for kneeling during the consecration, and the Mass is not the only function of a Catholic church building. People may also want to kneel to pray at other times.
A pew also creates a clearly delimited space. It is more comfortable to be alone in a pew than in a single chair. The pew defines the space and makes it more intimate and private. It creates a space based on a human scale. On Sunday mornings, families can sit together in pews. In chairs, they are automatically separated from one another. There is a difference between “my pew” and “my chair” that goes beyond where you sit.
The tabernacle should be placed near the vanishing point of the lines of the church. To build a longitudinal church, with all the lines disappearing into a single vanishing point, and then to leave this vanishing point empty, is senseless.
The Blessed Sacrament is one element that is exclusively Catholic. No other church claims the sacramental presence of Jesus in the same way the Catholic Church does. The General Instruction calls for the creation of a special chapel for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, then goes on to say, “But if the plan of the church or legitimate local custom impedes this, then the Sacrament should be kept on an altar or elsewhere in the church in a place of honor suitably adorned.”
The provision of this option of a separate chapel was born of necessity. In Rome there are many historical churches and many tourists. To avoid sacrilege, to avoid having groups of non-Catholic tourists traipsing around in church, talking and taking pictures in front of the Blessed Sacrament, the option was given to reserve the Eucharist somewhere not in the body of the church. Tourists and photographers are not usually a problem in churches in the United States.
In the Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, the authors say: “The Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a solid, inviolable tabernacle in the middle of the main altar or on a side altar, but in a truly prominent place.” The option of placing the tabernacle near the vanishing point is clearly preserved in these documents. The presence of the Blessed Sacrament is one of the elements that makes a church recognizably Catholic.
What are some other options? One is to leave the vanishing point empty. Since nature abhors a vacuum, flowers or a potted plant somehow end up in this space. Some churches have employed this solution. The church ends up looking empty. Another solution is to place the celebrant’s chair in this space. This is quite possibly the worst solution. The weight that was previously borne by the Blessed Sacrament, the weight of all the sight lines of the building, and the weight of the devotion of the faithful is suddenly pressed onto the main celebrant. This is too much for any one person to bear.
Another solution is to place the altar at the vanishing point. This is a reasonable option, except for the fact that the vanishing point is at eye level. This puts the altar about five feet above the floor. Given the tradition in the American Church of placing the tabernacle just above the vanishing point, and given that this option is preserved in the liturgy documents, does it make sense to reserve the Eucharist somewhere else? In many modern churches, “old timers” ask: Where is the Eucharist?
Altar, Ambo, and Font
The altar and ambo should be made of substantial and beautiful materials, made in such a way that they bear the weight of the Eucharist with grace and dignity. The preferred material for use in an altar is natural stone. This emphasis on material is interesting to note. This is one of the few places a material is specified. The emphasis points to an underlying conflict in eucharistic theology. Is the Eucharist primarily a meal (hence the altar should be a wooden table) or is it a sacrifice (hence a stone altar as in the Old Testament)?
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in The Feast of Faith, draws the connection between Old Testament practice and the Church’s Eucharist. Recent scholarship seems to be leaning away from the use of “meal” as a paradigm for understanding the Eucharist while reemphasizing the cultic, sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.
The altar and ambo should not be movable objects, and the shape of the sanctuary area should remain fixed. The carpet-covered blocks used to create the sanctuary area at many modern churches and the movable altar and ambo only re-enforce the impression that the space is not really sacred or permanent.
The baptismal font should be on an axis (in the center of the main aisle) and in the middle of the assembly. The font should be visible to the assembly, large enough to baptize babies by immersion, and equipped with hot water. If it is in the sanctuary area, the sanctuary becomes too crowded visually and unbaptized people are brought into the holiest place in the building. If it is in the entrance, it is impossible to have a procession to the font after the first anointing as is called for in the ritual. For these reasons, it is logical that the font be in the center of the assembly or the body of the church. Holy water fonts near the doors made of the same design and materials as the baptismal font make clear the baptismal confession intended by signing one’s self at the entrance.
The choir space should be out of sight, on the right or left around a corner, or in a loft above the assembly. Choirs that are visible tend to become performers and a distraction. In addition, music sounds better coming from above, and the best placement for a pipe organ is on the central axis, “speaking” down the center of the church.
There should be no separate space for children. Children are an integral part of the assembly and we cannot exclude them easily. If we exclude children because they might make a noise or two, then we can also exclude other people simply because they might bother us. The occasional crying baby reminds the whole assembly of who they are. This is a part of being a Catholic assembly. Every baptized person is welcome.
Obviously, there has to be a way to deal with real disturbances, but the way is not through automatic exclusion. In many modern churches there is a “nice” cry room for babies. Every family who comes in with a baby is sent there, automatically excluding them from the assembly. Ultimately we must choose to be Catholic or not, to exclude people or welcome them.
There ought to be a large gathering area outside the church. This would serve as a transitional space from the street and also allow the assembly to move outside for rituals like the Easter Vigil. The whole church floor should be made of hard surface materials. Carpeting destroys acoustics. In addition, even the best carpeting will only stand up to a few years of wear before it looks worn out. Hard surface materials last years. Some of the bricks the ancient Romans laid are still in place and used as church floors.
Most modern buildings in the United States are not built to be permanent structures. They have a life span of about forty years. What has happened to the Standard Oil building in Chicago is a good example. The entire stone veneer surface of the building had to be replaced when the metal clips holding the stone corroded and the stone began to fall off.
Likewise, our new churches clearly are disposable. They are almost all composite buildings, with all of the design problems inherent in this genre.
Some would argue that the age of permanent church buildings has come to an end. They would claim that we are a pilgrim people and have no need for enduring structures. There is an organic connection between the physical structure we pray in and the internal structure of our faith. Our church buildings reflect what we believe about ourselves, about our faith, and about God.
Can we afford not to invest in our churches? There are some serious questions to be asked about church design in the United States. It seems that we often build churches based on the recommendations of specialists and ignore the sense of the faithful. These churches are flawed, and they do not look like Catholic churches. They do not have any processional quality, they have terrible acoustics, they are dark, they have poor lines of communication, they are not suited for either the Mass or the congregation, and they are not permanent.
We spend more money fixing bad designs and replacing poor materials than if we had done it right in the first place. We end up with hackneyed processions and an assembly reduced to passively watching while the celebrant and ministers try to entertain them.
When the Catholic people say they don’t like these structures, they are told by the experts it’s because of their liturgical or architectural ignorance. For over a generation now, the experts have been wrong — it’s time to let them know.
This article originally appeared in the November 1996 issues of Crisis Magazine.