The Desecration of Churches Today

A week ago, I attended a concert featuring my son’s band. It was a splendid event featuring the hard work of students and their music teachers which I look forward to attending every year as part of my family’s Christmas celebrations. Well, something else caught my attention that night besides the music. In his speech, the vice-principal made a comment that really hit home: he was happy to see all students dressed in their best dress clothes for the concert and not in the usual sweatpants, shorts, or pajamas, which some students either prefer to wear to class or wear because they have little time to change before the bus arrives. I recently watched a YouTube video, A Trip Through New York City, of people on a typical workday in 1911. One of the striking things I noticed was how well dressed people were in the video: the men wore fedoras and the women were in floor-length dresses on a typical NYC work day.

I was imagining the same well-dressed people worshipping in places of worship, churches, and synagogues. What else could they wear to be more formal and more reverent? Indeed, the cultural shift in clothing from formal to informal, from dressed up to dressed down, and from the conventional to the comfortable has been enormous. The same can be said about the church and the churchgoers: the faithful who attend Sunday Mass or services dress in a more relaxed way, sometimes too relaxed and informal. The argument of those who support relaxed versus formal for worship has been that outward appearance does not matter much to the Lord. What really matters, they say, is the interior, as the Lord said to Samuel: “God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The LORD looks into the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7); it is the heart that matters.

Does appearance and dress matter when attending Mass or simply visiting a church?

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My intention here is not to enter the debate over worship styles or church apparel. However, church etiquette—of which clothing is a part—matters, and it matters a great deal to the Lord and to one’s neighbor. When we attend Mass or visit a church, we show respect to the Holy, bow before the Lord, and, during Mass, venerate his name and his deeds. Therefore, the Lord deserves respect within our hearts and also exteriorly in our attire, as clothing is a form of non-verbal communication. Sometimes one does not need to speak at all, as the message is communicated by appearance, as it is through the attire when someone presents himself cleanly, respectfully, and reverently. Clothing is more than clothing; clothing is not solely a personal matter but also a social and theological matter. There is the social-theological “tag” attached to proper dressing in church. “Give to the Lord the glory due his name” (Psalm 29:2): God cares about our interiority, but what we wear is very often an expression of our interior disposition. It conveys our respect for God and neighbor. The clothing should not be by any means extravagant, expensive, or luxurious—no, reverence and respect go hand in hand with simplicity and neatness “not with braided hairstyles and gold ornaments, or pearls, or expensive clothes” (1 Tim. 2:9).

Thus, the faithful are expected to dress respectfully when they attend Mass or visit a church or sacred space. But how can one expect people to dress appropriately when the house of the Lord is being profaned and re-purposed, hosting rock concerts and disrespectful exhibitions? All of these have happened: a rock concert fundraiser, the Life Ball 2018, was hosted on November 30 in Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which was jam-packed with near-naked entertainers, decorated with red lights, full of people screaming, and had huge beaming lights targeting the altar. A ticket for the concert cost 68 Euros. Another recent example of a profaned sacred space was the display of the crucified white cow in front of the altar of St. John the Baptist of Kuttekovenin church—a functioning Catholic church with a Catholic community—in the Belgian town of Borgloon.

Can ecclesiastical buildings—i.e., churches or other sacred places—be used for non-sacred or non-religious purposes? Canon 1210 of the Code of Canon Law is crystal clear on the use of sacred space: “Only those things which serve the exercise or promotion of worship, piety, or religion are permitted in a sacred place; anything not consonant with the holiness of the place is forbidden. In an individual case, however, the ordinary can permit other uses which are not contrary to the holiness of the place.” On November 5, 1987, the Congregation for Divine Worship published a letter entitled “Concerts in Churches,” signed by the Prefect, Paul Augustine Card. Mayer, O.S.B., which provided pastors with some practical and theological guidelines to avoid offending the sacredness of the sacred and to prohibit performances that do not fit into the context of the sacred, safeguarding the primary character of the ecclesiastical buildings as places where people gather to hear the word of God, pray together, receive the sacraments, and celebrate the Holy Eucharist—the greatest among the seven sacraments. According to the Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar:

[T]he very nature of a church demands that it be suited to sacred celebrations, dignified, evincing a noble beauty, not mere costly display, and it should stand as a sign and symbol of heavenly realities. The general plan of the sacred edifice should be such that in some way it conveys the image of the gathered assembly. It should also allow the participants to take the place most appropriate to them and assist all to carry out their individual functions properly. Moreover, in what concerns the sanctuary, the altar, the chair, the lectern, and the place for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, the norms of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal are to be followed.

Even in the rite of dedication of a church building, the goal is for assembling the people of God and celebrating the sacred functions. There should be no concerts, no music other than sacred music, nor displays that desecrate the sacred. The church building which will be part of the community and serve to build community is dedicated or “baptized” to God with a special rite following the ancient tradition of the Church. As with baptism, the dedication is permanent and suited to dignified and dignifying sacred celebrations sung by the schola cantorum. The scholae cantorum are encouraged to continue their tradition in the service of faith as St. Paul VI said in his address to artists in closing the Second Vatican Council on December 8, 1965: “Do not refuse to put your talents at the service of divine truth. Do not close your mind to the breath of the Holy Spirit… May that suffice to free you from tastes which are passing and have no genuine value, to free you from the search after strange or unbecoming expressions.” All other functions, other than those fulfilled by the scholae cantorum are considered profanations of the sacred.

In sum, considering ecclesiastical buildings as pluri-functional facilities for hosting concerts and near-satanic exhibitions which do not respect the character of the church should not be acceptable or allowed by the ordinaries. Aren’t there differences that should be respected between a church and a stadium or a shopping mall? I wonder what happened to the Blessed Sacrament in the Vienna Cathedral during the rock concert. From the pictures, it is clear that there was no respect shown either to the altar or to the ambo. This is scandalous to the faithful and the youth, and to those who attend these concerts and exhibitions.

A thorny question remains: How can a profane church pretend to evangelize Generation Z—the most secular generation to date—when Christianity and its sacred spaces are profaned and stripped of the sacred? What would the saints and the dead buried inside the walls of the cathedrals and churches have to say? The rock concerts have rocked their graves and shaken the foundations Christ himself established. The sacred is sacred and should remain so; it should not be repurposed or pluri-purposed. Its focus is one and only one: to sanctify. The church building is indeed an extension of the Incarnation and should be treated with utmost respect and veneration. That 1911 New York City moment with its well-dressed people going about their daily lives will never return (at least not in our time). The world may have changed, but the Church should stand out by refusing to conform to the world. The Church matters, and it matters a great deal to modern man. At a time when secularization is rampant, the Church should stand its ground.

(Photo credit: Vatican dress code / Shutterstock)


  • Ines A. Murzaku

    Ines A. Murzaku is Professor of Church History, Department of Religion, Seton Hall University in New Jersey and until June 2016 was the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies. She earned a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. Her research has been published in multiple articles and five books the most recent Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics (2016).

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