If only… At some point in every man’s life he mutters this phrase in a moment of absolute frustration. If only… I have my own slew of such stories, many of which deal with a beautiful, but old colonial style home my wife and I purchased a number of years ago (if only the builders hadn’t planned the main gray water drain line to exit the house into the back yard, snake under the entire garage, enter our neighbor’s yard and then return back into our front yard to connect to the main sewer–who willingly creates problems like that?). As musicians, priests and liturgists each of us has similar stories he could tell about his own parish church and problems he deals with because the building wasn’t conceived through careful thought and planning. Following my article last week on the importance of the right sound quality in churches I thought long and hard about the various peoples and knowledge I would bring to the table if I were building an ideal Roman Catholic Church and would like to share that with you today. What follows is a short list of those people I feel should be involved in the planning of a church from the very beginning to ensure a worthy celebration of the Roman Rite in both of its forms. (I do not include obvious examples such as engineers, contractors, fund-raisers, etc., but confine myself to those with an obvious connection to the Sacred Liturgy.)
Priest: As obvious as this is and should be, I wonder if priests sometimes view their role in the church building process as more of parish CEO than as chief parish liturgist. As the one responsible for the celebration of the Sacraments and as the spiritual father of a vast family he is leading to Heaven (on whom the building will have an obvious impact) , he needs to have a clear vision of what a church building is. Obviously this won’t be the strength of every pastor, which is both natural and to be expected, but if he struggles in this area, he needs to find those who can help him.
Liturgist: I hesitate to include liturgists in this discussion, having had more trouble with them in my life than I care to recall. (I somewhat rue the fact that I have liturgist in my official parish title, but the Lord has a sense of humor.) However, there are some really good ones out there who understand the history of the Roman Rite and its liturgical requirements and they can offer insights that otherwise might never be thought of. Such a liturgist needs not only to understand the Roman Rite and its rich history, but needs to have a love and respect for that history, especially for both forms, as well as such things as ad orientem worship.
Organist/Choir Director: Again, I hesitate to add musicians to this list for the same reason I hesitate to add liturgists–too many of them disdain the Roman Rite’s liturgical patrimony, which bodes ill for any of our building projects. However, the importance of music in the celebration of the Roman Rite behooves a pastor to include a liturgical musician worthy of the name, and to do so from the very start. It goes without saying that a fine organ should be part of the project from the beginning and it is much easier to remove walls or add them before they are built rather than after. Many parishes won’t be able to afford a quality instrument until after the church is built, but it should be planned for from the very beginning. A quality acoustician (recommended by a organ company of high quality) goes without saying as well (refer to my article last week on this topic).
Liturgical Architect: It is imperative that a parish employ an architect steeped in the history of church architecture. This does NOT lock a parish into copying a specific style, nor does it preclude a genuine inculturation of local elements. Nevertheless, your parish will not succeed in building a church structure worthy to be called an icon of Heaven if you don’t have an architect who can embody some part of the glory of Heaven in stone, wood and glass. Duncan Stroik is well known for his ability to do this, but there are others as well.
The Way of Beauty: David Clayton’s book The Way of Beauty should be require reading as well as the basis for reflection and discussion for any church building committee. One must always keep in mind that the church building itself is a sacrament of Heaven and this book is the most complete, yet accessible work I have encountered that forms such an understanding in the reader.
Whether a Gothic cathedral in France, a rural Norman church in England or a Californian mission church, each one in its own way has the power to lift our eyes in contemplation of the New and Eternal Jerusalem. My prayer is that parishes recognize both the incredible potential and responsibility they possess in erecting such edifices.