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"I Don't Want All That Garbage in My Church!"

I recently ran across a story in which a catechist was told by a participant in a training session: "you can keep your catechism." It reminded me of a story of my own working as a liturgical and architectural consultant.
I was being interviewed by a parish in Illinois after their church was destroyed by fire. In giving a slide lecture, I explained that the Church teaches that the Christus totus, or whole Christ, worships at the liturgy, including the angels and saints. To indicate how that reality can be made visible, I showed this image from the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. One of muralist Felix Lieftuchter's greatest works, it shows a heavenly city centered on God surrounded by heavenly beings.
I thought for sure the compelling power of Beauty would win the day, and people would jump up and demand a liturgical mural for their new church. (A bit naive, I know). Instead, a woman on the committee, with a look of disdain on her face, said, pointing to the mural: "I don't want all that garbage in my church!" I was shocked to say the least. As time has gone on I have thought about this a bit.
Of course, there are a couple of problems here. First, one needs to be very careful about calling an image of heaven, God, the angels and saints "garbage," and that woman needed some serious time with her spiritual director. Second, the church does not belong to one person, but a larger community that might want and need sacred images in the church.
I haven't stopped arguing for the use of liturgical imagery, and most people respond positively. But I became aware that day that many people are deeply wounded, and sometimes things of God and beauty are too much for them to bear, so they lash out in anger. The real problem is that pastors let them on building committees and allow them to steer the outcome of the design process based on irrational emotional responses.
In any case, they hired someone else to guide them theologically who decided to use the phoenix as the motif for the liturgical plan (they were rebuilding after a fire, after all). They also hired a local architect of lesser abilities who designed a Hampton-Inn-Turned-Church. They placed a catalog-ordered life size crucifix on the rear wall of the unadorned sanctuary. And most people are quite pleased.

However, we can and must do better.

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skeeton said...

Dr. McNamara,
Are you sure that conversation happened in Illinois? It sounds like you were eavesdropping on a conversation I recently had in Franklin, TN!

I received your book as a Christmas gift last year, and immediately, I began sharing the wisdom with friends at my parish and in the Adult Faith Formation class that I taught. I was struck mute when one person said, “I'm so glad we're not one of those Churches gilded in gold with statues and art everywhere. We don't need all of that stuff for our faith and can spend our money on more important things.” I'm paraphrasing, but you get the picture.

Although the speaker doesn't think traditional beauty is important, the irony is that the money that can be spent on “more important things” goes unspent and has amassed a princely balance in our bank account, and the faith at my parish is practically moribund. Liturgically, it's the most casual place I've ever been. We have substandard furnishings in the sanctuary (altar, ambo, chairs, credence table, etc.), shabby vestments, and cheap ornamentation (candlesticks, processional crucifix, etc.). To the disappointment of many, an artificial desert scene was installed in the sanctuary during Lent this year, and by Easter, parish leadership had it evolve into a “Resurrection Garden,” complete with a trickling stream. On Pentecost, red flags, allegedly symbolizing the Holy Spirit, were carried in procession to the sound of faux roaring wind broadcast over the PA system. Most every Sunday, people are unashamed to worship in shorts, untucked shirts, and flip-flops. All of this reduces the dignity of our liturgies and imbues all our worship with a false sense of poverty. Perhaps this list of grievances would be excused if we were, in fact, impoverished, but our parish is in the heart of one of the wealthiest counties in America, at least according to Forbes magazine. As a community, we pride ourselves on being welcoming, loving one another, and singing songs extolling our awesome awesomeness, but very little of what we do actually offers praise and thanksgiving to God. And of course, we have Jesus reposed in a room slightly bigger than a broom closet, and 98% of the parish shows Him no reverence when passing. How is someone supposed to raise faithful children in this environment?!

My point in going into that much detail is this: your book, while containing many beautiful truths, portrays an aesthetic ideal that is so far from the reality of many American parishes that the breadth of the chasm can hardly be imagined. Many (most?) don’t even have the most basic, rudimentary understanding of the faith. If the people can’t even be bothered to show Our Lord reverence in the tabernacle, how can we possibly expect them to understand that beauty is not optional? Where should we start?

Thanks for your efforts in leading the restoration and rediscovery of beauty.

Father Maurer said...

D Mac, Skeeton,

Its telling to compare & contrast American churches and churches in Rome, the Holy Land and in mission countries.

I'd be hard-pressed to say whether Rome or the Holy Land has the best liturgical architecture - though I'd lean towards Rome. In either case they both transcend the place and give anyone who is present (Catholic or not!) a glimpse of the heavenly mysteries that take place in liturgies there.

I include mission territories because although they don't have the grandeur of Rome or the Holy Land, they are almost always notable for their attempt at emphasizing the holy through decoration and ornamentation.

First-world churches seem to have lost this sense of the holy. Fortunately, we have great resources (you know, all of Church history and theology!) and people to help us grow in our understanding of what a church should be!

PattyinCT said...

Wasn't it JPII who made the impassioned cry to artists to help lift the souls of those inspired by their art? Or something like that? Someone help me out.
I think if that woman had said something like that, I would have pushed on a more substantive answer, why in particular she didn't like that artwork. Try to get her a little more objective an observer. I myself am not one for modern iconography (although I appreciate its merit), its just not my taste. Here in New England, particularly in my Diocese we have a lot of older churches that the immigrants paid for through blood sweat and tears. The stained glass windows alone depict so much beauty and such wonderful stories of the Saints and Martyrs that they could be a meditation unto themselves. Sadly, the interior of same said Churches have been carpeted in avocado green, and much of the golden edgings have been painted over in "eggshell"...But they remain, a testament to a time when we lived to provide more for God's house than our own.

Anonymous said...

The Church is God's house and should give glory to Him. It did not belong to the ignorant woman who would blurt such a rude comment. She should have been shown the door--just for her crassness, sounds like she would be more comfortable in a Protestant church that she could call her own..
Our Church was built after the Civil War and it is quite beautiful with all the "trimmings"--statues, stained glass, etc.
I took photographs and when picking them up the clerk (non Catholic) bubbled over at what a beautiful church it was. She wanted to know all about it...
She knew a classic when she saw it.

pasdragged2vt said...

There is an old stone Catholic church in Bennington VT which from the outside is absolutely gorgeous. I had visions of what the inside must look like. When I finally had the opportunity to attend Mass there, I was so disappointed! At some point the inside was "updated". Very sad.

Abel Myers said...

skeeton, the proper response to that woman would be to call her "Judas" (John 12:4-8).

BuckeyeSandy said...

The parish of my teen years (when we moved into it) Had some very lovely and cohesive artwork, almost a cross between gothic and art deco (Think of the Shrine of the Little Flower in (Greater) Detroit MI) Some very nice murals that reflected the statuary, and a mural of the Holy Trinity above the altar, that reminds me of some of the Eastern Rite Imagery for the Trinity.

In the late 1970s it was replaced with the post Vatican II suburban non-catholic starkness. It was an abomination, and I have felt "uncomfortable" in there ever since. There has been 'some' return to looking Catholic once more, but the artwork lost, can never be replaced.

Anonymous said...

"Garbage" was certainly an inappropriate comment, regardless of the circumstances; however, the church pictured above is very colorful and the design is a little dizzying. I have seen beautiful churches and basilicas with more understated, yet equally beautiful and awe-inspiring liturgical art.

Micah said...

Wow, so sad. I'm convinced that people prefer the stark ugliness of modern art and architecture because somewhere in the last few centuries, art was defined as self-expresion, and let's face it, our worldly joys are quite dull compared to the radiance of heaven (not to mention with our sins, depression, despair, and failures). Before that, art was usually defined as capturing the essence of something beautiful in allegory or representation.

My parish growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, had no stain-glass windows except one on a wall with a light behind it (not in an external wall, mind you, and it didn't even go all the way throught the wall. The interior and exterior was a hideous combination of staggered red and mustard-yellow bricks, with natural light provided only by a small lantern of windows at the top of the pyramid-shaped roof. The sanctuary was bare except for a very whimsical tapestry displaying worshipping angels surrounding the risen Christ.

My first parish ministry was in a parish featuring an oversized Ressurexiifix. There had been a crucifix a couple years before and the secretary told me what she thought was a hilarious story about how the hand from the corpus had broken off during its removal, so the whole staff placed the blessed hand in one another's mailbox as a prank for months. The problem with modern architecture is that the self-centeredness of our age leads to self-expression as a core principle and removes any sense of appreciation for the sacred.

Jimbo said...

Art really is in the eye of the beholder. It IS possible to have a church adorned with imagery designed to emphasize the glory of God but that some may find to be, otherwise, not beautiful.

In the case of the Church above, while I find it to be magnificent, I can also see how it might also strike some as being "busy". I happen to find "beauty" in the literal WORK of the art and what it is SUPPOSED to represent. Some people can't do this. To me, each brush stroke or piece of tile placed might remind me of the dedication of the artist and I find myself in awe of that. Others may look at art for balance, form, color-pleasing attributes and other qualities. If "the colors clash" or something, they have a hard time getting past that and appreciating what it is supposed to represent.

A good example of this is at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Simply a gorgeous church. Huge - 7th largest Cathedral in the world, wonderful chapels, and so on. But there is a mosaic image of Jesus on the wall behind the altar that some of the local Catholics refer to as "The Angry Jesus". Personally, I love it because - it's Jesus - so I don't really care how it looks, but I can also understand why some might think that He does look angry and is flexing a prodigious bicep, etc. (I don't have a problem seeing an image of Jesus being angry, as I imagine that He must be both quite sad and quite angry at us. It might be well that we recognize that side of Him as well.)

So...de gustibus non disputandem, right? I like Gothic. Some don't. I like iconography that is highly realistic. But some attempts at liturgical art look kind of cartoonish to me and, while I can appreciate it, it isn't otherwise artistically appealing. Others who prefer a more Scandinavian minimalist preference for art may not like having lots of images or colors together. Some like dark, some light, etc. etc.

You can not please everyone's aesthetic palate. But this is where an appreciation of what the art represents should override artistic differences. And it's hard to not appreciate an appropriate representation of Our Lord or a visual representation of the spiritual celebration that happens at Mass.

So long as it's not cartoonish....:)

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the music. I've often been in some beautiful churches for mass thinking I might to hear some wonderful music to compliment the surroundings only to be dismayed with the complete Dan Schutte/Marty Haugen songbook. Interestingly, I can't recall a time I've been in a modern-looking church that had quality music. My current parish has one of those round churches with linoleum floors, support pillars surrounding the alter, and pastel-colored stain glass windows. The music unfortunately usually matches the architecture. However, the priest is good and there is a Catholic School, so we go there.

Robert said...

O the Catholic Church where good taste goes to die.

Anonymous said...

Could you give us a link to that Illinois Church with the phoenix motif? I would love to see what it looks like.

Anonymous said...

Did you say their crucifix is on the BACK wall? That is totally inappropriate! I don't doubt this discussion took place in Illinois. I've seen weird stuff all over the place here.

Anonymous said...

Modernism and the Protestant influence will be the death of us all.
Shape up or ship out.

Anonymous said...

The Priests are probably gay.:)

eulogos said...

I wish there were more to this story. I wish someone asked her, "why do you call it garbage? What is it about it that you don't like?" I want to know is this an aesthetic reaction, or is it about the religious message of the art? That a person can feel this way is very foreign to me, and I would like to understand what really motivates her feelings. I can't imagine that we will be able to change the way churches are being built and decorated until we understand people like this woman and can address whatever it is that makes her feel this way.
Susan Peterson

Anonymous said...

The "my" church comment is more revealing that the "garbage" comment. THAT's how we got into this mess to start out with. Largely due to the Boomers, we're all convinced that "its all about me." What a shock we'll have on the day we die...

Early Riser said...

Most American Catholic churches = McProtestant. I am consistently unimpressed with the lack of artistic knowledge, church iconic tradition and all in all reverence I find in American churches. Miserere Nobis.

Le Penseur said...

Dear Dr. McNamara,

To call the depicted murals "garbage" is a bit harsh, indeed. But, honestly ... while looking at the picture, the word "kitsch" crossed my mind.

I'm aware that this word has in English a slightly different meaning to its original meaning in German (which is, of course, in my mind, being a German native speaker), but I think it still characterizes the murals in Salt Lake City's Cathedral quite accurately.

For a lucky inhabitant of the "Old World", many of the artistic endeavours of the "New World" leave a slight aftertaste of "Disneyworld" to my palate — and so do these Cathedral murals! From their style they rather fit into the magnificent metro-stations you find in Moscow. Well, metro-stations aren't Cathedrals, I know — but exactly this is the problem! At least in my opinion ...

So...de gustibus non disputandem, right?
Wrong, I'm sorry to say. "De gustibus non est disputandum" is right.

Arctictraveler said...

D Mac,
It's a shame you didn't investigate into "why" she reacted as she did. I came from a parish with many active elderly parishioners who didn't have the best communication skills at explaining their feelings. I realize that it is hard to be patient with some of these people but they deserve our respect for holding to the faith.

I'm 48 and enjoy many forms of art but not all forms belong up on the Alter in my opinion. The main focus needs to be on the Tabernacle which our Lord Jesus resides and the Consecrated Eucharist at Mass anything that distracts from that I believe is wrong and that may have been her point.

If I may offer some business advice to you, I would try to know and understand who my clients are before I try to sell them on an idea. If you want to work for the Church you need to take your ego out and figure out how your talent can best serve Him.

Jimbo said...

Le Penseur:

Yes, of course, I am wrong. You are correct. Thank you!

Joe W. said...

I would respectfully disagree with LePenseur, despite the inherently condescending tone of the comment.

I would argue that the mural by Felix Lieftuchter is decidely NOT kitsch. It was custom designed for one location, had an eastern-western Church intentionality, and was made by a trained artisan of considerable education, intelligence and experience.

If you want to see kitsch, see this link:


Le Penseur said...

@Joe W.:

I'm sorry about the "inherently condescending tone" of my posting — but it is difficult for a non-native speaker to adapt his wording in a way that it comes up to the expectations of native speakers ...

Nevertheless I think that kitsch isn't totally wrong to describe the murals in Madeleine Cathedral — thouhg I fully agree with you that St.Timothy is even an awful lot more kitsch!

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