2016-06-30
The Church of the Resurrection in Burtonsville, Md., and St. Peter's Church in nearby Olney were both built a little over 10 years ago, part of a veritable building boom in Catholic churches taking place as America's child-rearing population migrates to sprawling "edge city" suburbs outside traditional metro areas.

St. Peter's Church in Olney, MD

Stark-looking on the outside, with stadium-like, fan-shaped seating on the inside framing the altar on three sides and hardly a statue or a stained-glass window to be seen, Resurrection and St. Peter's, each of which serves more than 2,000 families, stand out in the generally staid Washington area. In the city proper, churches tend to look more conventional. The interior design of both churches can best be described as minimalist: plain wooden altar furnishings at Resurrection; a thin, bare cross that looks like two television antennae behind the altar at St. Peter's, whose walls are painted blazing white inside and out.

The ultra-modern Resurrection and St. Peter's once seemed to represent the Catholic Church's architectural face of the future--but now they may not. On Nov. 16, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a lengthy document giving official guidelines for Catholic church design. Titled "Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship," it is the first directive the U.S. bishops have ever issued on one of the most contentious arenas of argument between liberal and conservative Catholics.

Traditionalists and progressives in the Catholic Church have been battling since the end of the Second Vatican Council over such issues as where to place the tabernacle housing the Eucharist (traditionalists prefer a central altar, while progressives, who say the tabernacle distracts from the Mass, prefer it off to one side); how much statuary is appropriate (traditionalists like lots of images of Mary and the saints, while progressives don't); and whether the altar should be set off in a formal sanctuary or democratically located in the center of the church (traditionalists prefer the former, while progressives prefer the latter).

At the heart of the squabbles is a dispute over whether a church building should be "multivalent"--designed for private prayer and adoration as well as the Mass--or whether its design should be more "monovalent," focusing solely on facilitating the communal Sunday liturgy.

"Traditionally, a church has had many uses--it was a house of God, a sacred place, a gate to heaven," says Duncan Stroik, an architecture professor at the University of Notre Dame who leads a postmodern movement to build more classic-looking, multivalent church buildings. "We've collapsed all that with modernism."

Until "Built of Living Stones" appeared late last year, the liberals seemed to be winning the war. In 1978, a bishops' liturgy committee issued a booklet titled "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship," which seemed a manifesto for tearing down or gutting ornate pre-Vatican II churches and replacing them with minimalist structures, unadorned inside and out. The 1970s marked the height of the influence of the Bauhaus, the utilitarian German modernist school of architecture. Nearly all the churches photographed in "Environment and Art" reflect the input of church-design consultant Frank Kacmarcik, a friend and disciple of Marcel Breuer, a leading light of the Bauhaus who designed the monster-size, modular concrete headquarters of the Housing and Urban Development Department in Washington. Although the U.S. bishops as a body never formally approved "Environment and Art," it functioned for more than 20 years as a catechism for liturgical-design progressives, who dotted the Catholic architectural landscape with church buildings that some found austerely elegant, others disappointingly plain.

"Built of Living Stones" supersedes "Environment and Art." It puts the kibosh on some of the most avant-garde of the last two decades' architectural innovations, requiring church designers to place the altar in a distinct sanctuary area instead of in the middle of the building, to equip all seats with kneelers or cushions (a feature that progressive church designers often omit), and to house the tabernacle in a special place of reverence, such as a side chapel, instead of just a box in the wall, as in some modernistic churches.

Church of the Resurrection in Burtonsville, MD

Conservatives did not get everything they wanted. The bishops declined to outlaw fan-shaped pew arrangements like those at Resurrection and St. Peter's, or to require that the tabernacle be placed in the center of the sanctuary as in days of yore (a feature of neither Maryland church, whose tabernacles are off to the side). Nor did they approve--as some conservatives had hoped--a return to the pre-Vatican II practice of the priest's saying Mass with his back to the congregation at an altar built against the sanctuary wall.

But the document nonetheless gives liberals pause.

"It doesn't answer basic questions--such as to what extent a Roman Catholic place of worship, which is primarily supposed to house the public rites of the church, is also supposed to accommodate private piety," complains the Rev. Richard Vosko, a priest and liturgical design consultant in Erie, Pa., known for his advocacy of churches in the round that definitely do not look like private spaces. Vosko and Notre Dame's Stroik are on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding Catholic church architecture.

Resurrection and St. Peter's have something else in common besides avant-garde architecture: parishioners who cherish their unusual worship spaces. "I think it's great," says Resurrection parishioner A. Joseph Froio, a retired shoe-company executive who manages the church building. "We have light, we have only 12 rows of pews so everyone can see the altar," says Froio. "It works."

Joann Carson, the organist at St. Peter's, is equally enthusiastic about her church, which was designed by the award-winning postmodernist architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. "I love the openness, the space, the design," she says. "Nobody is sitting in the back in this church, because there isn't really a back."

In the end, visits to the two churches suggest that perhaps the architectural design of a Catholic church may not be as important as many people think.

Both Resurrection, which seats 700, and St. Peter's, which seats 800, are already too small for the standing-room-only crowds that flock to their mid-morning Sunday Masses. Both churches offer, besides an array of charitable ministries, a range of traditional Catholic devotions, from after-Mass rosaries to all-day eucharistic adoration, that seem at variance with their fashion-forward outer skins. At St. Peter's, priests in old-fashioned long cassocks stroll the stripped-down interior between liturgies, praying. A niche shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe overflows with flowers. The celebrant, the Rev. Thomas LaHood, wears a chasuble embroidered with a traditional cross and booms out the Kyrie Eleison in Greek at the Mass' beginning.

Disputes over the size and shape of buildings may, indeed, be a bit beside the point. Pastors and parishioners seem to have their own ways of making a church formal or informal, coldly forbidding or warmly devotional, progressive or conservative in spirit. "Yes, this building's modern," says St. Peter's parishioner Jonathan Tombes, a technology reporter who lives in Olney. "But, you know, it really feels like a church."

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