My family belongs to a beautiful old parish in a poor neighborhood in the Archdiocese of Newark — a church notable enough to have its own Wikipedia page. It boasts an elaborate carved wooden reredos, gorgeous stained glass, a historic pipe organ and lovely paintings over the altar and sanctuary depicting events from the Annunciation to the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin.
Like many parishes in poor neighborhoods, it is always in need of repairs. We’ve replaced the leaky roof, but not yet repaired the water damage to the ceiling.
At some point in the past, the original confessionals were ripped out and the altar rail taken down (it’s since been put back). For the most part, though, the interior of the church is pretty much intact — especially compared to other older parishes in wealthier communities not far from us, where extensive renovations were carried out in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond.
These renovations at other parishes weren’t carried out because the roof was leaking or any actual repairs were needed, but simply because someone apparently thought the previous décor old-fashioned. Out with the old, in with the new. I’m not talking about building new churches in a new style, but making over older churches — sometimes with an alarming disregard for their historical character. Wealthy parishes might spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on gratuitous renovations while poor parishes in the same dioceses struggle to keep the lights on. Not that I am bitter. Well, maybe a little bitter. Mostly, though, I’m grateful for what we have.
I’ve lived in a number of states since I’ve been Catholic, and I’ve seen parishes worked over in such a way that the main object seemed to be to remove any definite sign that the building was, in fact, a Catholic church, rather than, say, a Presbyterian or even Unitarian church, or perhaps even an auditorium that might not be a church at all.
The tabernacle has been removed from the sanctuary and relocated to a chapel somewhere. Theoretically people know where it is, although at one church we visited the ushers were confused when we asked about the “tabernacle,” a word they seemed unfamiliar with. There may or may not be kneelers. Confessionals have been replaced with corporate conference-room type spaces with 360-degree glass walls; you might as well be confessing at the mall food court. Traditional stained glass has been replaced with clear windows, or perhaps an abstract stained glass pattern with very large pieces of glass that might, if you squint at it right, suggest a dove, or perhaps wheat and grapes.
Statues, paintings, icons and other ornamentation have either been eliminated or reduced to a bare minimum — and often these, too, have been abstracted and simplified until they hardly resemble what they are meant to represent. For years Suz and I attended a parish with some kind of reredos or relief sculpture behind the altar. Any number of Sundays I contemplated the blocky shapes and patterns emerging from the surface of this backdrop, trying to make some sense of it — and I have a visual arts degree and a very vivid imagination. Surely, I thought, Jesus had to be in there somewhere, and sometimes I thought I knew where, but the total effect was a little like the Objective Room in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength: Your efforts to make sense of what you were looking at never fully resolved the question.
Some time ago Suz visited a parish in a wealthy neighborhood. Being a gardening type, she admired the groundskeeping (there was an actual groundskeeper busily going about trimming shrubs and such). What struck her about the interior was that, with all that money, the worship space they had was exactly what they wanted — and, in a striking turn of phrase, she concluded, “their idea of beauty is IKEA beauty. Empty. Clean.”
The main crucifix, she said, was a “risen Christ” crucifix in a style a bit like a Willow Tree sculpture: simple, stylized, friendly. (Not the particular image on the left, but perhaps similar in spirit.) Even the tabernacle, when she found the chapel to which it had been relegated, was a plain metal box devoid of ornamentation.
I don’t consider myself a liturgical traditionalist, or any kind of traditionalist. I could count on one hand the number of Latin Masses I’ve attended. I don’t mind if a priest doesn’t remain in the ambo during the homily. I’m not a fan of much contemporary Catholic music, but I’ll sing most of it. I’ll even sing Dan Schutte’s Mass settings, and try to ignore the fact that the central melody for the Gloria seems to have been lifted directly from “My Little Pony.” (Be warned: What has once been heard can never be unheard.) I don’t think everything has to be Romanesque or Gothic or Baroque. I try not to major in minors and to roll with whatever I’m given.
Still and all, there’s a reason that Suz and I are grateful for the opportunity to raise our kids in a 19th-century neo-Gothic parish where Mass is marked by liturgical and musical excellence, where we never have to sing “City of God” or “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” where we sing the Mass sometimes in English using the Belmont Mass settings (very nice) and sometimes in Latin using the Missa Jubilate Deo (excellent) or even the Missa de Angelis (transcendent).
Historic Catholic culture is robust and vivid, imaginatively and culturally rich — alive with vibrant images, immense ideas, grand rituals and soaring music. It is the culture of the Summa Theologica and the Divine Comedy, Gregorian chant and Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the Sistine Chapel and the Pietà, Saint Peter’s Basilica and Notre Dame, the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila and the Little Flower’s Story of a Soul. It is a culture founded on the central idea of God being born in a stable, being nailed to a wooden cross and leaving behind an empty tomb.
A spartan, IKEA-style worship space conveys no sense of history or tradition, of grandeur, drama or passion. It is practical, deracinated, bloodless, antiseptic. There is nothing to electrify the imagination, nothing to stir or unsettle the emotions. If you painted it white, it would look like the Church of Apple.
In my film writing beat, it’s long been recognized that the imaginations and styles of many great filmmakers with Catholic roots, whether or not they practiced or continued in faith — John Ford, Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Luis Buñuel, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, John Sayles, and many others — have been shaped and informed by their Catholic heritage.
It is no accident that artists raised in and shaped by historic Catholic tradition went on to make visually and imaginatively stunning movies like Vertigo and Rear Window, The Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine, La Dolce Vita and La Strada, Open City and Paisan, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now and The Godfather.
I’m not saying these are all “Catholic films,” or even that I like them all. I am saying that they are generally films that someone raised as a Dutch Calvinist or an American Baptist wouldn’t have made. Not that Dutch Calvinists can’t make great art too, but it will be different art from art shaped by historic Catholic culture.
What about those raised in spartan IKEA-style churches, with blandly soothing music and genially anemic homilies? Will they produce artists inspired to create great art?
More importantly, will their people be inspired to lead heroic, virtuous lives? And, if so, will it be because of those IKEA-style spartan spaces, or in spite of them?
P.S. Our parish’s modest website, source of the two right-aligned photos above.