Liturgical Reform and the Transformation of Houses of Worship

Par l'abbé Grégoire Célier

Français, italiano

With his kind permission, we publish here the essential elements of a study by Father Grégoire Célier published in the Letter to our Brother Priests. Quarterly Newsletter of the Society of St. Pius X Addressed to the Clergy of France (n° 101, March 2024), concerning a little-studied aspect of the liturgical reform: its impact on the transformation of houses of worship. The upheaval imposed upon sacred spaces expresses and highlights the theology that undergirds it. This study is interesting in that it provides an anthology of texts published by renowned specialists from 1965 to 1985, during the two decades when the reform was “fresh and joyous”, and constitutes a valuable historical testimony to its context and intentions.

The authors whose works we have consulted first emphasize that a church, like any other building for that matter, reflects, through its architecture, the conceptions of those who built it. Designed in view of a certain liturgy, a certain ceremonial, and a certain theology, the church necessarily expresses the underlying values of the latter. Through its design, it creates a particular atmosphere, favorable to the deployment of the form of religious expression that presided over its conception. As a result, “to take an interest in the liturgy without concerning oneself about the layout of the places where it occurs would be nonsensical. For there is a profound affinity between the artfully arranged space, and the liturgy that unfolds there[1].”

However, a building is by nature a stable object, which withstands the test of time. “A building cannot be modified in the manner of a rite[2].” It therefore vehicles the outward form that a period of the life of the Church had established in order to move around at ease, so that, when there comes a time when, perhaps, the life of the Church has profoundly changed, this can cause a distortion between the container and the contents. In the aftermath of Vatican II, precisely because of a rapid and radical ritual (and theological) evolution, a substantially novel liturgy had to be deployed in architectural spaces conceived according to other canons and for other uses. Indeed, “most of our places of worship were designed and built several centuries ago, for needs different from ours[3].” The ancient edifices have therefore proved to be more or less unsuitable for the implementation of the new norms of Christian celebration.

In this perspective, “a twofold question arises: how might the places of worship as they have been left to us be employed, and how might we design new ones that are more adapted to our urban way of life and to the situation of the Church today[4].”

“Two loves made two cities…” (Saint Augustine, The City of God, XIV, 28)

The question, from the outset, is the following: “How can we ensure that today’s liturgy unfolds in the best possible way in a framework intended for the liturgy of other times?[5]” For, as Father Congar noted with regard to St. Peter’s in Rome (though his remark applies in an equivalent way to other churches), “a whole ecclesiology is already inscribed in the layout of the place[6].”

Father Quellec explains very clearly what is at stake: “The external configuration of a building, the distribution and organization of its internal spaces, the style of the objects that are placed there, already form a more or less clear image of the God we encounter there. […] The way we occupy the space of our churches, the way we arrange the furniture, the way we organize the sanctuary, as well as the choice of a cross, an icon or an altar, imply that we refer, whether we do so consciously or not, to diversified images of God. It has often been pointed out that the image of the Eucharistic Christ is quite different according to whether the altar resembles a simple table or is more like a monumental tomb. […] It should be noted that, in most cases, we have not had the opportunity to make choices revelatory of a spirituality: we have received each church nearly in its original state from those who designed and organized it. It should also be noted that, just as frequently, there is a kind of hiatus between the sensibilities and religious ideas of our contemporaries and those who presided over the construction of a building[7].”

For example, “the altarpieces of the seventeenth century, designed for adoration, as stipulated by the Council of Trent, represent a certain vision of the faith. We now have another idea of the real presence[8].” “Since the time of the Counter-Reformation, the Holy Reserve has often been linked to the main altar, with which it appeared as the vital center of the building. But the current renewal of the liturgical celebration, by restoring the proper value of each moment of the celebration, has re-emphasized the other modes of the Lord’s presence[9].”

“To the first conception of the Church, that preceding Vatican II, corresponds, by way of example, a church architecture in which the sanctuary is inordinately enormous, is strictly separated from the people, and dominates the assembly of the faithful, the latter appearing as an insignificant body (in the true sense of the word) with a hydrocephalic head. The theology of Vatican II, on the other hand, corresponds to an architecture in which the sanctuary and nave are integrated on the same level into a harmonious whole[10].”

Yet, sacred architecture “must present an image of the Church that is fully consistent with the image which the liturgy strives to convey[11].” This is why, “even the design of places of worship has undergone the effects of the renewal[12].”

A theological modification of the houses of worship

The only conceivable solution consists in adapting the already existing architectural space, by reorganizing the layout of volumes and objects. However, this conversion is difficult, due to the inertia characteristic of buildings. “Celebrating in an ancient edifice poses technical problems, problems of protection, as well as those having to do with the evolution of the liturgy: since Vatican II, preaching and Eucharistic celebrations, for example, do not require quite the same movements as beforehand[13].”

 “Since the liturgical reform has led to changes in the layout of the space, it is clear that these changes are not brought about without difficulty, especially when they occur in buildings designed according to a different way of thinking. For example, we are now occupying areas within the liturgical space where it was not planned that words would be spoken. So, we do violence to the place. The violated architecture no longer resonates with the assembly. The former can only do so – it can only respond – if we keep ourselves in the right place[14].”

“The problem of the conversion of traditional churches, as we have sufficiently come to realize, is neither simple nor easy to resolve. The form of our ancient churches does not immediately lend itself to the arrangements desired by the Council[15]. For example, “once the final altar has been installed [facing the people], it will be necessary to consider the suppression, the relocation or any other usage for the old altar. Such an operation cannot be done without seeking the advice of a competent architect. The architecture of a church was often designed with the altar at the back of the choir in mind. Changing the altar not only changes the furniture, but transforms the architectural lines[16].”

“Churches do not easily lend themselves to use for purposes other than those for which they were designed: in most of them, the whole is designed for lengthwise assemblies. For some time now, the plan of churches has been changing: they are designed for widthwise assemblies, where people can see each other, hear each other, and communicate with one another. Sometimes you can reorganize an old church with this in mind, though it’s always difficult[17].” It is quite certain that our beautiful churches, which are elongated and filled with a forest of pillars, favor solitary prayer more than the gathering of a people; on the contrary, the new churches prevent us from isolating ourselves[18].”

Since the quality of the celebration according to the new liturgical norms depends on an appropriate architectural environment, it is not possible to leave everything as is. Father Gélineau notes in fact “the very obvious difficulty that one encounters in wanting to inscribe the liturgy after Vatican II in spaces and volumes designed for a liturgy of a very different sort[19].”

The liturgists, however, did not admit defeat: “Let us also emphasize that the priests are invited to pursue the rearrangement of the churches according to the requirements of the liturgy. In particular, it is recommended that they place the Blessed Sacrament in a chapel separate from the main nave of the church, and that they give a new place to the treasures of sacred art, should the latter need to be removed from their present location[20].”

It is therefore necessary to consider the modification of the layout of the churches, as far as is necessary and possible, in order to adapt them to the new liturgy. It should be noted that, from the outset, some provisions are more favorable than others. “A semi-circular church, where everyone sees each other, feels in communion with one another, certainly allows for a better implementation of the post-conciliar reform than an elongated nave, built according to other aesthetic and religious canons[21].”

Yet, as such is rarely the case, we must think of “the transformation of the interior design of churches throughout the world, with a view to renewing the celebration of the Eucharist[22].” It is therefore necessary to install the altar facing the people[23], to provide for the ambo, to relocate the Eucharistic reserve, and to rearrange the seating. “This spirit pushes us even further: the choice of benches rather than chairs (in order to avoid the movement of chairs when turning around and the noise this would cause), the suppression of kneelers (the faithful remaining standing or seated throughout the liturgical action)[24].”

In short, we must reconsider the general arrangement of the domus ecclesiæ. “This strict prescription with regard to minor altars [namely, their removal] applies a fortiori to the many objects of devotion that so often still cover the walls and columns of our churches: stations of the Cross, statues, indiscreet confessionals, and so on. While they may have their place in chapels which are separate from the main space of the church, they distract the assembly when the latter, during the Eucharistic celebration, is called to give a sign of unity[25].”

“Churches, in fact, even if classified as historic monuments, are only incidentally museums. They firstly fulfill a specific religious function. It is therefore normal that their layout and furniture should meet the needs of the liturgy, and more particularly the liturgy of the moment. However, this implies new ways of gathering together; it requires furniture that is truly mobile; it leads to the abandonment of the use of certain liturgical objects; by grouping parishes, it leaves churches unused. All this has significant practical consequences and it must be recognized that old churches do not always lend themselves to desirable developments[26].” “The reform requires new creations: the layout of churches, with the altar turned towards the faithful, the place where the word of God is celebrated, the seat of the celebrant, the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, a new conception of the confessional[27].”

Churches for a self-celebration of the assembly

“By modifying the rite, will the reform also include a new conception of the structure of our churches? Yes, and in different ways. First of all, by insisting on the communitarian sense of the Mass as an assembly of the People of God, the reform requires that everyone be able to follow the rite taking place at the altar. On the one hand, therefore, it tends to eliminate all the screens (columns, pillars, etc.) preventing a clear view of the altar, which is made possible today by the evolution of architectural techniques. On the other hand, it puts the altar back in the center, not geometric, but ideal, and prefers to see it decidedly and rightly turned towards the people. In addition, by emphasizing the service of the assembly, the reform necessitates seeking suitable places for the celebrant, his ministers, the readers, the ambo, etc. For the same reasons, it reduces the minor altars, which are detrimental to the unity of the assembly, and at the same time it simplifies the ornaments that ended up overwhelming the altar[28].”

This need for architectural rearrangement is unsurprising, for if the container influences the contents, the contents must in turn react to the container. “The post-conciliar Church is undergoing a profound mutation and it is normal that church-building should undergo the effects of this change.[29]” Indeed, “the liturgical reform imposes on many people a new layout of places of worship[30].”

“No one can be surprised that [the renewal of the liturgy] has an impact on places of worship and that the pre-existing ones are partially unsuitable because of the evolution of the liturgy. To the extent that the sacred actions have been modified, to the extent that the emphasis has been placed on a fuller participation of the faithful, edifices built in other time periods and according to different perspectives will also need to be adapted to their new purpose[31].”

It is the whole new ecclesiological vision which is naturally expressed in this new structuring of the sacred space. “It is quite obvious that liturgical reform cannot be limited to a few changes in the substance of the texts read by the ministers, or in the gestures of the celebrants. (…) It transforms the relationship between the celebrant and the faithful. It redistributes, in a way which is new for us, though profoundly traditional, the respective functions of the celebrant, the ministers, the schola, and the people. It follows that it calls for a disposition of the places of celebration which is quite different from what has been the norm until now[32].”

Indeed, “the construction and furnishing of churches today can be done in the light of a much more complete and elaborate conception of the liturgical space[33].”

Father Roguet, a good judge on the matter, had discerned very early on the inevitable advent of this visible incarnation of the renewal. “Certain reforms, which seemed to concern only the arrangement of texts and rites, will imperceptibly modify certain accessories of our churches and even some of their architectural structures[34].” This is what everyone would come to understand shortly afterwards. “The liturgical reform aims with all its strength at the full and active participation of the whole people. For this to be possible, the right architecture is needed. […] The liturgical renewal and the way in which the Church situates itself in the world call for a new type of architecture[35].”

* * *

We will conclude by quoting this message from Cardinal Lercaro, then president of the Consilium for the Reform of the Liturgy, at the symposium of artists held on February 28, 1968, in Cologne. “Undoubtedly,” he said, “one thing is very clear: the architectural structures of churches must be modified as rapidly as the living conditions and the housing of men are evolving today. We must carefully bear in mind, even when we are building a place of worship, the extremely transitory character of these material structures whose entire function is one of service in relation to the lives of men. In this way, we will avoid the situation in which future generations would find themselves conditioned by churches that we consider today to be avant-garde, but which for them would risk being nothing more than antiquated edifices. Today, for our part, we are experiencing this conditioning: we experience just how difficult it is to adapt the marvelous churches of the past to our own religious sensibilities; we feel the force of inertia which oppose these churches to the indispensable reforms of liturgical action. […] Let us not, therefore, claim to build churches for centuries to come, but let us content ourselves with making modest and functional churches, which suit our needs and which our descendants, when confronted with them, will feel free to do with as they see fit, either abandoning them or modifying them according to their time period and their religious sensibilities[36].”

Father Grégoire Célier

[1] E. Vauthier, « L’aménagement des églises », Esprit et Vie – L’Ami du clergé 27, 5 juillet 1984, p. 393.

[2] Guy Oury, « L’aménagement des églises. Un aspect du renouveau liturgique », L’Ami du clergé 6, 10 février 1966, p. 89.

[3] « Simple dialogue à propos de l’espace liturgique », Communautés et Liturgies 6, novembre-décembre 1978, p. 545.

[4] « Simple dialogue à propos de l’espace liturgique », loc. cit.,, p. 546.

[5] « Le congrès d’art sacré d’Avignon », Notes de pastorale liturgique 137, décembre 1978, p. 63.

[6] Yves Congar, Vatican II. Le concile au jour le jour, première session, Cerf-Plon, 1963, p. 23.

[7] Jean-Yves Quellec, « Le Dieu de nos églises », Communautés et Liturgies 4, septembre 1981, p. 275 et 278.

[8] Philippe Boitel, « Une église peut-elle être un musée ? », Informations catholiques internationales 402, 15 février 1972, p. 5.

[9] « Vêtements, objets, espaces liturgiques », Notes de pastorale liturgique 105, août 1973, p. 26.

[10] Lucien Deiss, Les ministères et les services dans la célébration liturgique, éditions du Levain, 1981, p. 8.

[11] Roger Béraudy, « Introduction » in Espace sacré et architecture moderne, Cerf, 1971, p. 7.

[12]. Charles Wackeinheim, Entre la routine et la magie, la messe, Centurion, 1982, p. 23.

[13] « Le congrès d’art sacré d’Avignon », Notes de pastorale liturgique 137, décembre 1978, p. 64.

[14] Paul Roland, « Libre propos sur l’espace liturgique », Communautés et Liturgies 4, septembre 1981, p. 296.

[15] Jean Huvelle, « Réforme liturgique et aménagement des églises », Revue diocésaine de Tournai, 1965, p. 236.

[16] Thierry Maertens et Robert Gantoy, La nouvelle célébration liturgique et ses implications, Publications de Saint-André-Biblica, 1965, p. 57.

[17] « Bâtir une célébration », Célébrer 151, avril 1981, p. 14.

[18] Henri Denis, L’esprit de la réforme liturgique, Société nouvelle des imprimeries de la Loire Républicaine, 1965, p. 27.

[19] Joseph Gélineau, Demain la liturgie, Cerf, 1976, p. 29.

[20] « L’instruction sur le culte eucharistique montre que la mise en œuvre de la réforme est fermement poursuivie », Informations catholiques internationales 290, 15 juin 1967, p. 8.

[21] Jean-Claude Crivelli, Des assemblées qui célèbrent : une pratique des signes du salut, Commission suisse de liturgie, 1980, p. 11.

[22] Pierre Jounel, « Le missel de Paul VI », La Maison Dieu 103, 3ème trim. 1970, p. 32.

[23] « On n’adoptera l’autel face au peuple définitif et les conséquences qu’il entraîne qu’après une catéchèse qui pourrait être centrée soit sur le sens de l’assemblée, soit sur celui de la présence de Dieu dans la communauté. On pourrait expliquer aux fidèles que l’assemblée chrétienne n’est pas seulement une assemblée d’hommes tournée vers son Dieu, car Dieu s’est incarné en elle et c’est à l’intérieur d’elle-même qu’elle a à le découvrir » (Thierry Maertens et Robert Gantoy, La nouvelle célébration liturgique et ses implications, op. cit., p. 16).

[24] Thierry Maertens et Robert Gantoy, La nouvelle célébration liturgique et ses implications, op. cit., p. 21.

[25] Thierry Maertens et Robert Gantoy, La nouvelle célébration liturgique et ses implications, op. cit., p. 21.

[26] Philippe Boitel, « Une église peut-elle être un musée ? », Informations catholiques internationales 402, 15 février 1972, p. 4.

[27] « Interview du cardinal Knox », Préfet de la Congrégation pour le Culte divin, La Documentation catholique 1674, 20 avril 1975, p. 368.

[28] Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, président du Consilium pour la réforme de la liturgie, « Nouvelle étape de la réforme liturgique : le pourquoi du comment », Informations catholiques internationales 235, 1er mars 1965, p. 26.

[29] Philippe Boitel, « Quelles églises pour demain ? », Informations catholiques internationales 388, 15 juillet 1971, p. 22.

[30] « Dimanche et mission pastorale dans un monde paganisé », Notes de pastorale liturgique 57, août 1965, p. 10.

[31] Guy Oury, « L’aménagement des églises – Un aspect du renouveau liturgique », loc. cit., , p. 89..

[32] Commission épiscopale de liturgie, « Le renouveau liturgique et la disposition des églises », Notes de pastorale liturgique 58, octobre 1965, p. 41, ou La liturgie, Documents conciliaires V, Centurion, 1966, p. 201.

[33] Frédéric Debuyst, « Quelques réflexions au sujet de la construction d’espaces liturgiques », Communautés et Liturgies 4, septembre 1981, p. 285.

[34]A.M. Roguet, « Le signe du vin », Notes de pastorale liturgique 66, février 1967, p. 43.

[35] F. Agnus, « Architecture et renouveau liturgique », Notes de pastorale liturgique 76, octobre 1968, p. 46.

[36] Giacomo Lercaro, « Message au symposium des artistes tenu à Cologne le 28 février 1968 », La Maison Dieu 97, 1er trim. 1969, p. 16-17, ou in Espace sacré et architecture moderne, Cerf, 1971, p. 25-26.