Who moved my tabernacle? The ruckus over renovation

In the Pews

There are many issues about which Catholics disagree these days-birth control, divorce and remarriage, sex education in schools, the ordination of women, the rights of homosexuals, the silencing of theologians, to name a few. Yet all these hot buttons cool to relative insignificance compared with one issue capable of generating white hot incandescence among the faithful: church renovation!

It has a nice sound, suggesting updating, cleansing, revitalization. Be not deceived. Though Webster's Thesaurus says renovation and restoration are basically interchangeable words, they are not so in many a parish that has cheerfully announced a project to "renovate our interior in keeping with Vatican II liturgical renewal." In current Catholic parlance, restoration means cleaning, painting, caulking, maybe improving the lighting and sound system, essentially bringing the old building back to the way it was meant to be.

Renovation, on the other hand, has ominous implications: moving the furniture around, especially the altar and tabernacle, uprooting the pews, creating a "gathering space," and perhaps a lot more than that. And there's the rub. Churches are people's spiritual homes. Canon law notwithstanding, they claim an ownership here and do not take lightly plans to overhaul the house they have been supporting for years and that they (or their ancestors) may have even built.

The more caustic critics of renovation are an especially militant lot. What's happening all over the country, they say, is "manipulation," "caprice," and "deliberate deception of the faithful." Some contend the renovators are inspired by addictions to pantheism, secular humanism, egalitarianism, iconoclasm, even Freemasonry. The renovators' intent, they say, is to destroy Catholicism and establish a new religion of self-worship, and a major step in the campaign is the stripping of God's houses of their beauty and the elimination of any sense of transcendence. Not since Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors have so many Catholics been excoriated with such an avalanche of acrimony. In one Midwestern parish, a pastor and a liturgical design consultant even received death threats.


The level of rancor has risen drastically in the past five years, say observers, largely because of the Internet. It allows critics to argue their case in word and picture and to organize for action quickly in ways not previously possible. Nevertheless, scores of Catholic churches do renovate every year. But if there is any formula for trouble-free renovation, it has yet to be discovered.

Preservationists won't pardon your dust
Consider St. Edmund of Canterbury, a 93-year-old English Gothic church in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. The building, along with the school and other church properties, had experienced the deterioration of time. The pastor, Father Joseph Ruiz, enumerated the needs and said every effort would be made to restore where possible, renovate where necessary, and involve the people in the decisions to the maximum extent. He formed a 12-member planning committee, with some members elected by the parish at large.

"We really tried to have a spectrum of ages, sexes, and pieties in the group," says Ruiz. "And we educated ourselves, studying the important documents." Five process meetings open to everyone were held over a period of months in an attempt to discern "the values and treasures" to be preserved, as well as the changes to be made. Ruiz said some 180 parishioners (from the 1,300-family parish) attended the meetings, which were facilitated by a professional liturgical design consultant.

A kind of consensus developed, says Ruiz. The interior layout of the church would remain basically unchanged, but the sanctuary floor would be rebuilt, lowered, and extended several feet out into the body of the church; the altar moved five feet forward; and the tabernacle, still in its traditional location on the old back altar, lowered 18 inches. Some pews would be turned to face the altar from the side. Other changes, in addition to cleaning, included a ramp for the handicapped, a new baptistery, improved lighting and sound equipment, and painting over the highly decorated walls, which committee members considered "too busy."


Opposition was instantaneous. A dozen people, mostly parishioners, formed the St. Edmund Preservation Society, argued that most parishioners opposed the project, and spread their views by word of mouth, e-mail, and a 1-800 information number. Ruiz met with representatives of the group on a Sunday afternoon, and though the discussion was cordial, the impasse remained. At the end, says Ruiz, "They told me I had their permission to get new carpeting and improve the sound, but 'if you do anything else we will sue!'"

When the renovation committee showed no signs of yielding, the preservation society urged parishioners to boycott the fund-raising drive, but that effort failed. In fact, some $2.2 million (of the $2.8 million for renovation of all the parish buildings) was raised in the first six months of the campaign. The vast majority of the people favored the changes, says Priscilla Mims, who chaired the campaign, "but this small group of about 25 would not budge."

The preservation society developed a somewhat ingenious public strategy. They argued that any alterations to St. Edmund, as the first Catholic church built in Oak Park (in 1910) and as a sterling example of the work of noted architect Henry Schlacks, would do "irreparable harm to its historic integrity." The society created a Web site (saintspreserveus.org) and launched a discussion in a local newspaper, which resulted in volleys of contentious letters for months.

In 1999 the preservation society petitioned the Oak Park Historic Preservation Committee, seeking landmark status for St. Edmund's. This, they believed, could prevent the planned alterations or delay them indefinitely. This action sparked a renewal of the newspaper debate and garnered considerable support from preservation advocates unconnected with the parish, including a cousin of architect Schlacks.


The Archdiocese of Chicago weighed in. "We stand in opposition to landmark status," said a spokesman, "and will do whatever we have to do to fight this." The controversy drew national media attention, and for days reporters and camera crews crept around the church (where renovations were well underway) trying to figure out what the fight was all about.

In May 1999, the Oak Park Historic Preservation Committee voted 8-1 to recommend landmark status for the church, a short-lived victory because the village trustees quickly rejected the recommendation. The preservation society would not give up. In early 2000 they appealed to the Illinois Landmark Preservation Council seeking to have the church listed among "the 10 most endangered historic buildings" in the state. In their proposal they argued, "The owners intend to eradicate the building's historic connections to the past. It appears to us to be an institution ashamed of its past." This effort also failed.

What is it all about? "Change," says Ruiz. "People get attached to the way things are. Some people think the faith as they knew it is being taken away, so they're just against any change."

"That's a false argument," says Joseph Wemhoff, a 17-year St. Edmund parishioner. "It's not about change as such. Every living organism has to change or die. This fight is about uncontrolled change, the kind that means cancer and death."


Transcendence vs. immanence
Wemhoff is one of the leaders of the preservation society. One does not converse long with Wemhoff without realizing that the battle at St. Edmund is far more about theology than historical preservation. Like other strident renovation protesters, he sees the seemingly modest changes in the church-the lowering of the tabernacle, for instance-as part of an "invidious attempt to destroy the Catholic Church by inches."

"The way we pray relates to the way we believe," he says, paraphrasing the old Latin aphorism lex orandi, lex credendi, "and we are seeing Catholicism being turned away from God and toward the congregation. They're reducing the faith to the least common denominator. It's a movement toward syncretism, pantheism, God-in-you, and it's metastasizing all around us." Placing the altar in a more central location-even if only by 5 feet-presents the Mass as a meal, an action of the assembly, he says, while in reality "it's the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary done by Jesus Christ through the person of the priest."


All the attention on the congregation, he contends, is part of a broader theological sweep sapping Catholicism of its vitality and making the faithful morally lax and indifferent to their responsibilities before God. He likens the trends in church renovation to the 16th-century "great plundering" when Oliver Cromwell and other minions of the Church of England turned altars into tables, ripped out kneelers, and destroyed statues in creating a new faith.

David Philippart readily acknowledges that he and other renovation advocates are trying to change the church, though he denies it's an invidious plot to start a new religion. Philippart is an editor with Liturgy Training Publications, a Chicago-based publisher of materials on Catholic worship and sometime object of scorn by anti-renovation forces. Christianity is always trying to balance two seemingly contradictory ideas, he says: God as transcendent (that is, mysterious, awesome, and far above the created world) and God as immanent (near, available, and dynamically present in creation).


In the 19th and into the 20th century, he notes, the pendulum had swung far in the direction of transcendence, and Catholic churches and liturgical style reflected this. The church interior in the classical model was set up so that attention was directed toward the tabernacle at the front, the "terminal point" where humans had contact with God. The buildings were lofty with great pillars suggesting strength and permanence and an altar rail to separate the merely human from the holy precincts of the sanctuary where priests carried on sacred actions for the benefit of the faithful.

Yet long before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the liturgical movement, pioneered by Benedictine monks and a handful of theologians and artists, stressed the idea of Catholic worship as primarily the action of the assembly, not just the priest. The congregation at Mass should be active and involved, they said, not lost in private devotion, because Christ is present in this assembly, the Mystical Body of Christ, the People of God. Despite considerable resistance on the part of the Roman Curia during Vatican II, this more immanent approach won out and became flesh, as it were, in Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), the first document approved by the council bishops.

The result was the new Mass, said in the vernacular with the priest facing the people, who were urged to respond, sing, and even proclaim the scripture readings and distribute Communion. Church documents suggested that the placement of the altar, the reading stand, the presider's chair, and other pieces of liturgical furniture should enhance this emphasis on the assembly; and they strongly recommended the reservation of the Eucharist in a chapel suited for private devotion rather than on the main altar. To be sure, this swift swing from transcendent to immanent surprised most Catholics.

The removal of the Eucharist from the main altar has caused the most wonderment. Mary Magdalene's lament on Easter was echoed in more than one church: "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." The explanation that the purpose is not to downgrade the Eucharist but to emphasize Christ's presence in the worshiping assembly has not satisfied everyone.


Philippart thinks the resistance is more apparent than real. "All over the country, churches have been renovated and are being renovated with the support and considerable financial sacrifice of parishioners," he insists. He runs off a series of examples: St. Peter in Cleveland, Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Albuquerque, New Mexico, St. Therese in Seattle, St. Joseph in New York's Greenwich Village. "People have picked up and run [with the emphasis on immanence]," he says. "They get the idea. As they look at one another gathered around the altar, they recognize living icons of the dying and rising Christ."

The good old days
Still, those who resist the trend find aid and comfort from many voices-some of them in authoritative positions-that insist the old ways are the better ways and the operative word for the new century should be "Restoration" with a Big R-by which they mean a reversion to traditional, pre-Vatican II theology and spirituality.

A prominent advocate for this approach is Duncan Stroik, 38, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame. Along with his colleague Thomas Gordon-Smith, he questions the operative assumptions underlying liturgical renovation.

First, he says, classical church architecture in its myriad forms with its high ceilings, columns, and single-focus seating isn't an obstacle to participation. Since the time of Constantine, the classical style has achieved "a richness and beauty that modern architecture cannot match," he says.

Not only should the interior arrangement of old churches like St. Edmund not be tampered with, he says, but new churches should also be built in classical style, because it is "multi-valent," that is, it expresses both the transcendent and immanent aspects of the faith. Stroik contends modern church art and architecture, "inspired by machines and abstract patterns," is "mono-valent," expressing at best only one aspect of the faith.

Second, Stroik takes an extremely broad interpretation of "active participation." He cites the story of a priest who observed a man regularly attending daily Mass but always sitting passively at the very rear of the church. One day in his homily the priest spoke enthusiastically of the advantages of full active participation. After Mass the man approached the priest and said, "I always do sit in the back and I never sing, but I walk 5 miles a day to attend this Mass. Who are you to tell me I'm not participating?"

"Participation in the heart is more important than sitting around the altar and being constantly involved in what everyone else is doing," says Stroik.

Third, he contends that official church documents since Vatican II do not justify the sort of tearing out and rearrangement the renovators want. "They tell us there's only one way to do things," he says, "the altar right in the midst of the people, the tabernacle hidden somewhere, a limited iconography, a gathering space before Mass, the baptistery at the entrance. That's not in the documents." A lot of these changes in churches, he says, were inspired by Environment & Art in Catholic Worship, a 1978 document of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Liturgy, which puts special emphasis on the role of the assembly at Mass. "It exaggerates the assembly," Stroik says, and it diminishes the role of the priest.


Stroik says he hears so many complaints about renovation from ordinary Catholics that he believes a genuine "sense of the faithful" might be developing here-a popular backlash against the elite liturgists who insist their way is the only way. Says Stroik, "You know, we've had 20 or 30 years of experience here, and people are yearning for a return of the sacred; that's what this dispute is all about."

And he sees signs of a hierarchical response aborning. At the November 1999 meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, many members rose up to question the wisdom of placing the tabernacle out of sight. "If the Blessed Sacrament is nowhere to be seen," said Newark, New Jersey Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, "our Catholic people are missing something very important in our theology and spirituality."

Rome is also responding. A recently released new General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the Eucharist may be placed either in a chapel "conspicuous to the faithful" or in the sanctuary but not on the altar where Mass is celebrated. A document being prepared by the US Catholic bishops to replace the disputed Environment & Art may support other objections; it is titled Domus Dei (House of God).

What's the commotion?
Restorationist agitation has already surfaced in Milwaukee even though a massive, multi-million-dollar renovation of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is still in the planning stages. The proposal calls for moving the altar some 40 feet forward onto an elevated platform in the midst of the congregation, replacing the pews with movable chairs, introducing a large baptistery capable of full-body immersion near the entrance, moving the Eucharist to a devotional chapel, and transforming the former sanctuary into a space for the choir and overflow seating. A huge canopy crowning the old tabernacle is slated to become the housing for the organ. The cathedral, built in 1835, was destroyed by fire in 1935, rebuilt in 1942, and renovated in 1972. Last spring the rector, Father Carl Last, announced that the time had come to update the interior to meet "the latest liturgical norms."

Last says he anticipates opposition because "buildings are symbols that touch closely what we believe, and the movement from a me-and-God theology to a communal theology of a shared faith comes hard for many. The history of church renovation since Vatican II proves this."

Al Szews, president of the local chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, combines words with action in a campaign to squelch the project. He and his group have organized a petition drive, leafleted cars at Sunday Mass, and brought speakers to town to denounce the archdiocesan proposal.

"Wreckovation! That's what I call it," says Szews. "With this seating in the round, they want to center the assembly on itself. So I'll have to watch people blow their noses and their children behave badly. And I have to look at the choir. We should hear the choir; we don't need to see them or those liturgical dancers they bring in who perspire all over the place. This is not worship, it's entertainment."

Szews says he and his contemporaries go to Mass to receive the Body and Blood of Christ and to have "a little quiet time, a bit of solitude." And besides, he asks, "Is this good stewardship, spending millions on the church when the archdiocese is so strapped for funds that it's selling off some of its properties?"


Szews understands the Vatican II emphasis on active, participative worship, but he does not buy the concept. And he's heard that neither does Cardinal Ratzinger and neither do many American bishops. "They're coming to see the light at last," he says. "Oh, what a number these liturgists have put on us pew-sitters."

Until the pendulum swings back, Szews attends an early morning Mass at a church where there's "not too much commotion." He used to go to another church whose organ was out of order: "They had no singing at all, no handshake of peace, no hugs either. It was so quiet and beautiful. Then a new pastor came and ruined it all."

Mary Bowser, an active cathedral parishioner, says no one should assume bad will on the part of opponents, yet she regrets that so many "have not evolved in their approach to worship, as the church has."

The only solution to organized opposition is "a whole bunch of listening" by the cathedral renovation commission, according to James Van Rens, a member of that body. "People get very concerned when there has to be change," he says. "And they have a lot tied up spiritually and emotionally in their religion. This is home."

Father Richard Vosko, a priest of the Albany, New York diocese, also sympathizes. Vosko, who has degrees in fine arts and architecture, has been working full time in church renovation for more than 20 years. He is often portrayed by critics as the leader of the small, elite corps of "wreckovators." In society today, he says, there is a quest for quiet and calm. "Everything is changing so rapidly; people are constantly busy, and they're bombarded almost all day by cable TV and cell phones and the Internet. An explosion of information can lead to an implosion of the church community."

He cites a study in a Brooklyn diocese, which reported that what Catholics most want at Mass is a good sermon and Holy Communion; they do not see church as a place to become "active." But Vosko teaches that good worship in a proper setting is the antidote to the exhausting cacophony in the outer world. If done well, he contends, it puts a sense of balance and coherence into daily life. So far, he says, the message hasn't sifted down to the great mass of Sunday Catholics. But unlike Stroik, he isn't suggesting the church abandon the effort. "History shows it takes three or four generations to acclimate to the changes introduced by a council," he says. "We are right in the middle in a period of huge change, and we are not going back."

Still, publicity tends to gravitate to trouble spots like the St. Edmund preservation controversy or the Michigan parish where agitators posted signs last spring saying the pastor, his liturgical consultant, and their cohorts should purchase "body bags" if they intended to persist in their renovation plans. The local bishop subsequently put the parish under interdict for a week, removed the Eucharist from the church, and urged parishioners to do penance for the affront.

About four years ago, renovation criticism "changed drastically," becoming more strident and acerbic, says Christine Reinhard, a 19-year veteran of liturgical design consulting work. She attributes this to the easy way the Internet allows the dissemination, without distinction, of facts, rumors, and outright lies. In a few parishes, she says, plans have been severely toned down because of opposition, but she knows of no US cases where projects have been halted. Reinhard declares she and her peers will not be stopped. "Too many wonderful people are supporting this work," she says. "It's a new Pentecost experience. We cannot let it die."


Success stories
Examples of success abound. The renovation of Seattle's St. James Cathedral proceeded on schedule and without notable protest from any quarter.

Built in 1907, this Italian Renaissance structure had been renovated and patched up many times over the years. The result was ugly, said many parishioners: garish acoustical tile on the ceiling, acres of drab carpeting over the original terrazzo marble floors, a plethora of added gingerbread decorations on walls and pillars, and a makeshift dome that left the interior dark. (The original, windowed dome crashed to the floor in 1916.) The cathedral pastor, Father Michael Ryan, and the renovation committee confidently affirmed their intention "to recapture the uncomplicated beauty of the building," thus deflecting potential objections from preservationists.

Or maybe the project went smoothly because of the numberless meetings and discussions with parishioners. Early in the process some 300 parishioners were gathered at tables, given sheets showing an outline of the church, and asked to draw exactly where they thought the altar, baptistery, tabernacle, and other furniture should be positioned. On another occasion hundreds of church members took an architectural tour of Seattle, noting what they liked and didn't like about churches and other buildings.

After months of discussion and debate, a consensus emerged that the altar belonged in the exact middle of the church under a new, all-glass dome, that seating be mostly in movable chairs on all sides of the altar, and that the Eucharist should be placed in a side chapel. On this especially sensitive point great care was taken. The reasons for the transfer were discussed at length with the parish, and the actual carrying of the Eucharist to its new abode occurred during an elaborate procession with music, incense, pomp, and solemn benediction.

Today St. James Cathedral belies the contention that transcendence and immanence cannot coexist. The renovation has won more than a dozen awards, including four from the American Institute of Architecture and one from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Ryan says parish membership has doubled since 1994 and the budget tripled, though the dramatic growth is not due solely to renovation.

"The difference is stunning," says parishioner Daniel Jinguji. "Even little things make a difference. When you're blessing yourself at the beginning of Mass and look at hundreds of others doing the same thing, you get an immediate sense that we are a people."

During the same time that St. Edmund's Parish in Oak Park endured painful controversy over its renovation project, a similar parish in a similar Chicago suburb 15 miles away was going through a far more extensive renovation-yet with relatively little fuss and no public opposition. Like St. Edmund's, St. Nicholas Parish in Evanston had a series of meetings open to all parishioners, and every voice had its say. In both places a carefully formed renovation commission had extensive formation and communicated continually with the parish body. At both places the pastors were open and cooperative.

Father Robert Oldershaw, the St. Nicholas pastor, says the 26 commission members quickly seized ownership of the project and pressed for substantial changes in the 94-year-old church, including positioning the altar in the body of the church with seating on all four sides, a new entryway, and a huge new baptistery.


"They pushed me," says Oldershaw a bit facetiously, "and I let myself be pushed." It was important "to bridge the church building into the future," adds commission member Marlene McCauley, a 40-year parishioner. "We did that, we stayed within the budget, and we brought out some of the beauty in the original church."

And life goes on
Meanwhile, a "healing process is going on" at St. Edmund, says Mary Darnall, a member of that parish's renovation committee. "There are still scars, but most people realize that faith is a spiritual journey. We go on, we can't stand still."

Developing worship spaces that reflect the beliefs of a people is always "a risk," says Father Vosko, yet a risk that must be taken. Beliefs vary even within a faith system as old and stable as Catholicism, and we live in an era when few are hesitant about voicing their beliefs.

Some day historians may view the renovation ruckus of the early 21st century as a sign of the vitality of a living church. Dead religions don't have arguments. That won't ease the pain of many who live through it, yet it suggests-as Christine Reinhard contends-that we are simply in the midst of a wild and windy new Pentecost.

About the author

Robert J. McClory

Robert McClory is professor emeritus of journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and author of Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight for Social Justice (Lawrence Hill).

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