Saturday, January 30, 2010


A very good and scholarly article I found in Rorate Caeli's blog this morning on the placement of the tabernacle in our churches. Read and enjoy:

Saturday, January 30, 2010
The tabernacle is not an obstacle

Rorate Caeli is pleased to offer the following translation of the article Ma il tabernacolo non รจ un ingombro, written by Michele Dolz of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and published in L'Osservatore Romano on January 16, 2010. The translations of the Bible verses are taken from the Revised Standard Version.

The translations of the citations from Vatican documents (except for the brief passages from Sacrosanctum Concilium #122) are taken from the English version of the Vatican website.

Dear readers: this article is not "traditionalist" in any sense, and Traditional Catholics will certainly find certain passages to be objectionable. However, this article at least serves as yet another "bullet" in the continuing struggle against modernism in Church architecture, sacred art, and the place of the reserved Sacrament.Take what is helpful, and discuss with charity those passages that seem to reflect the spirit of unwarranted innovation.

Architecture and sacred art

The tabernacle is not an obstacle

On the themes of Sacred architecture proposed by Paolo Portoghesi on these pages on October 19-20 of last year, we publish here a new intervention after the contributions of Maria Antonietta Crippa e Sandro Benedetti.

by Michael Dolz

Pontifical University of the Holy Cross

It is to be hoped that the stone thrown into the pond by the architect Paolo Portoghesi will produce a long wave of reflections among those who are in his profession. The point he is emphasizing can be seen clearly: the Conciliar re-evaluation of the community aspect, which is so essential for the Christian faith, has -- when applied -- led to a desacralization which has nothing to do with the teachings of the Vatican II.

There is no lack of theological and scriptural reasons for this; on the contrary, there is a vision of the Ecclesia as the depositary of the sacred, or better said, of sanctity. Jesus explains to the Samaritan woman: “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father (...) But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him”. (John 4:21-23).

There are no sacred places, properly speaking, in Christianity. God is everywhere and He is especially present through grace in man, which Origen proudly said was the most exact image of God: ”There is no comparison between the Olympian Zeus, sculptured by Phidias and man made to the image of God, the Creator” (Contra Celsum, 8, 18). Man is holy (or can be holy) and the Church is holy. And “for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”. (Matthew 18:20).

On this basis, (which however is) the authentic ancient faith of the Church, we had an over-emphasis (on community), which sometimes arrives even at the denial of the validity of individual religious action. In this way the church building is seen as the headquarters for the reunion of the assembly or community. There a sacred action is performed when the community is present, but it remains an empty shell, and it is not considered to be for use as a personal, individual, “private” place. But the church which has been transformed into a conference room does not need pictures, and even these could be a hindrance. Let us think of a conference hall or a hall used for conventions: the emptier they are, the better they are for the gathering for which they are used since this helps the participants to concentrate their attention on the speakers.. The churches used as assembly halls do not need pictures because pictures do not serve, they even disturb. And this actually goes well with the minimalist and purist taste of many architects, however creative or repetitive they may be.

Sober and somewhat bare churches are of course not a novelty of the 20th century and have also helped people meeting God in Jesus Christ. But it is not possible to appeal to Vatican II in order to ask it to justify either the absence of pictures, or the invalidity of personal prayer inside the church. In Sacrosanctum Concilium we read that the purpose of works of sacred art is to “contribute as efficiently as possible to turn the minds of men towards God”, that ”the church has always reserved itself, and rightly so, to be the judge and choose between the artistical works those which respond to faith, to piety and the norms religiously transmitted and which are adapted to the use of the sacred” (122) And it goes on to say: “The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained” (125), while at the same time recommending some moderation in order to prevent the exaggerations which are always possible in this field.

An extreme and very clear consequence of the “assemblist” (assemblearista) position is the loss of the importance of the Eucharist as the real presence of Christ in the Host after the mass. If one does not think of personal adoration, and as community adoration is no longer actually practiced, then the tabernacle becomes cumbersome and difficult to put between what are normally considered as the two liturgical poles, the altar and the ambo. In so many churches it has thus become subject to a progressive marginalization which has made it at times reach total concealment. The absence of faith in the real presence is vividly noticed in some sectors.

And yet, the story of the tabernacle reflects the progressive development of Eucharistic worship, according to that ”progress of the faith” for which Vincent of Lerins already set the parameters in his Commonitorium (434) and which in this case has witnessed two great moments: the 13th century and the initiative of the Catholic Reformation around the Council of Trent. The bishop of Verona, Matteo Giberti (+1543) for instance put the tabernacle on the altar table, and this action was quickly repeated by many. As John Paul II wrote in 2003, “The designs of altars and tabernacles within Church interiors were often not simply motivated by artistic inspiration but also by a clear understanding of the mystery" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 49). The way of looking at the church as a place for assemblies, on the other hand, looks on Eucharistic custody as something subsidiary and not something arising from the union of the faithful with Christ in Holy Communion.

The exhortation of Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis of 2007 (simply) takes up the reflections and the propositions of the Episcopal Synod on the Eucharist, and hence is not to be seen as an expression of one or the other theological current. We read there: “During the early phases of the reform, the inherent relationship between Mass and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was not always perceived with sufficient clarity. For example, an objection that was widespread at the time argued that the eucharistic bread was given to us not to be looked at, but to be eaten. In the light of the Church's experience of prayer, however, this was seen to be a false dichotomy. As Saint Augustine put it: "nemo autem illam carnem manducat, nisi prius adoraverit; peccemus non adorando – no one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it (...) eucharistic adoration is simply the natural consequence of the eucharistic celebration, which is itself the Church's supreme act of adoration. (...)The act of adoration outside Mass prolongs and intensifies all that takes place during the liturgical celebration itself." (41). (CAP – These passages are actually to be found in #66 of Sacramentum Caritatis.)

The consequence in terms of planning of the churches, which we find in the same post-synodical document, is simple: “In new churches, it is good to position the Blessed Sacrament chapel close to the sanctuary; where this is not possible, it is preferable to locate the tabernacle in the sanctuary, in a sufficiently elevated place, at the centre of the apse area, or in another place where it will be equally conspicuous. Attention to these considerations will lend dignity to the tabernacle, which must always be cared for, also from an artistic standpoint”(69).

Ultimately, the highlighting of the tabernacle and the exposition of sacred images are in the same line of personal prayer and, as we have seen, cannot detract from community celebration. It follows that also the images are not only ornaments. “Sacred Art” - wrote John Paul II – “must be outstanding for its ability to express adequately the mystery grasped in the fullness of the Church's faith" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 50). And those words are echoed by the Synod in the words of Benedict XVI when he reminds that “religious iconography should be directed to sacramental mystagogy. A solid knowledge of the history of sacred art can be advantageous for those responsible for commissioning artists and architects to create works of art for the liturgy"(41).

There is, therefore, something to reflect on, not to invoke some kind of restoration, but to admit with nobility of mind the mistakes that have been committed and to envisage new lines of development of the sacred art. The next question will necessarily be how to make multi-faceted contemporary art adequately express the mystery of the faith of the Church. Because it is from the contemporary art that the solution must come, not from some nostalgic and impossible revival. But in any case we are faced with a theological and spiritual question, rather than with an aesthetical one.

posted by Carlos Antonio Palad


Gene said...

There is very little "contemporary" that might be called "art." I'm for using reproductions of the great Medieval and Renaissance religious masterpieces in Churches. Some urban cubist fragmentation or some monstrosity by Dali with watches and clocks and weird cosmic images just doesn't cut it for a feeling of adoration. "Minimalist" art is certainly appropriately named in every way. Most modern art, even religious art, with any punch reflects the increasing fragmentation and de-humanization of our modern, technological, urban society. That is just the message it needs to send. In Church and worship, what is needed is art that reflects the lives of Our Lord and his Saints, as well as what we were as a Faith in the past and what we are to be again through the Grace of Our Lord and Saviour. I want to see Carravagio, Raphael, and Giotto.

Robert Kumpel said...

This appears to be another facet of the problem the Holy Father described a couple of years ago in his address to the curia that denounced the "hermeneutic of rupture". Why must we discard our architectural and artistic heritage too? Why must there be a rupture with our rich artistic past?

One of the great qualities of churches built in the middle ages is that they were literally "sermons in stone" that could speak to populaces that were mostly illiterate. As we approach the modern post-literate era, we surely need a similar artistic ethos.

And what is wrong with "revivals"? Architectural revivals are used all the time for secular buildings. When I was in New York City, more people seemed to admire St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Dakota apartments than, say, the Guggenheim museum (a bulging monster of strange shapes courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright).

I've often said that most people's minds wander at some point during Mass. If you are in a bare assembly-hall styled church, it's hard to recover from that. If you are in a beautiful church filled with religious art, your mind is constantly reminded as to what is happening at the altar.

Let me quote my daughter, who was six years old when we drove past Cardinal Mahony's new cathedral on the 101 freeway: "Yuck! That building is an insult to God!"

So let the pointy-headed intellectuals of the world who must always chase after the "newest" and "most innovative" keep their chase. As for the rest of us unwashed, give us the traditional look that warms our hearts and tells us we are at home.

Gene said...

To Robert Kumpel: Amen and Amen!

Anonymous said...

Seeing beautiful and inspiring religious artwork teaches today's literate, as well. It also inspires one to learn more about the art's subject, e.g. particular saints. It provides images to go aid with understanding ' I the communion os saints" and make this statement of our faith more than an esoteric idea, but an internalizable reality.