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Catholic sacred arts...lets get back to the basics!

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By Hugh McNichol

Church art and architecture is a topic that seems to have been covered in every possible manner since the Renaissance. However, it seems to this author that there is a true need to cover and address the issues involved with the design and decoration of our Catholic Churches from a perspective of developing an American Institute for the Sacred Arts. The reason this "pet project" is so clear in my mind is simply because over the past 40 or so years since the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council so many important artistic and architectural examples of good design, both form and function have been inextricably mutilated, destroyed or adapted beyond Catholic recognition.

With that said, there should be always and everywhere a strong sense of sacred worship that envelopes our Catholic Churches and enables them to provide both spiritual sanctuary and liturgical practicality. At the same time there also needs to evolve or rather re-evolve in our Catholic art and architecture a new realization of the form and functions of our Sacred liturgies. Perhaps it is an easy task to reexamine our premises for the implementation of appropriate liturgical space because in general the Catholic Church in the United States has done such a terrible job in the past cultivating domestic artists and craftsmen as prayerful creative partners in this truly artistic and visual endeavor.

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The message that clearly needs to be conveyed to bishops, priests and all faithful Catholics is simply this: Sacred spaces such as our Catholic Churches demand the highest artistic expressions of quality that a parish or Church community is able to afford and sustain. The design elements of Catholic Churches are also paramount in the thoughts and planning of our Catholic Churches. For the first part, they should reflect the unique needs of all of our Sacred liturgies. The altar should especially be of central focus to the Catholic assembly, and its placement and material composition should be of a nature that suggests to the believer the truly sacred and sacrificial nature of the actions happening on the sacred spot.

In light of the recent permission to celebrate the liturgy of Blessed John XXIII, there should be additional consideration when designing a Church that both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Sacraments might be celebrated in our Churches without any difficulty. In general, the sacred space that we call Church should adequately reflect and express our deepest religious convictions and historical progressions of our Catholic faith. What our Catholic Churches should not be are just as simple: they are not places for meetings, town hall gatherings, pseudo-liturgical activities or places of personal artistic expression. Our Churches are houses of God, where the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament resides as an active presence in our daily lives.

One notion that frequently happens in the design and planning of a new Catholic Church is that there is a plan that at times does not take on the form of structural permanence. That is, areas are designed to provide multifunction spaces, where accessories can be rolled around and repositioned as the need or rather whim determines the need for the space. This bus stop architecture is exactly what needs to be part of our past, our departure from Modernism and post-Modernism architectural influences and foster a return to traditional art and architecture that applies the appropriate form and function to our Catholic Churches on a non-transitional basis.

Our Catholic Sacred Spaces should not only stress an atmosphere of spiritual tranquility there should also be a sense of institutional permanence in the space that provides a local anchor to all of the activities of our Catholic spiritual journey, from Baptism right up to and including the Rite of Catholic Burial. Quite frankly, as an interested Catholic, I am quite exhausted trying to figure out where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved when I go to different parishes, tired of shuffling off children and noncompliant teenagers to "crying-rooms" and our artistic attempts to provide visual relevancy through all sorts of "busy" distractions brought on by, banners, artistic flyers, huge floral arrangements and mauve fabrics for the "pews". It is time that we get back to basics in our Churches, place artistic quality and design into our planning and implementations of Catholic architecture.

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Considerations need to be taken in Church design for the proper distribution of the Sacred Species of Bread and Wine in our Catholic Churches. Communion along the altar rail is no longer the accepted norm for the reception of Eucharist. It is advisable that Eucharist be received under both species as well. When we plan our liturgical worship space, we need to plan for the adequate flow of people that participate in the Sacred Liturgy and not just provide an opportunity for a liturgical traffic jam. Once again, form and function should always accompany our Catholic planning of architectural spaces.

When I think of art and architecture as well, I think of the proper utilization of artisans and craftsmen that reflect the Catholic Church in a specific area as well. While the temptation is strong to import craftsmen and materials from "old world" sources, such as Italian marble, or Spanish carved statuary, we need to be honest and upfront about the very talented artists and craftsmen that work in our own United States. Parish priests and parish planning committees need to pay particular attention to the details of whom and what will represent their new sacred space.

Without a doubt, Catholic artists participate and share in a creative vocation to adorn our Catholic Churches. Preferably Catholic artists are also best suited, rather than non Catholic artisans to materialize a Catholic theme and appropriate perspective. Let's not overlook the real need to commission artistic works for our Catholic Churches through fellow Catholics, who really participate in a unique artistic and creative manner in the expressions of our Catholic faith.

Finally, the distasteful always needs to be considered. Most times we think that the commissioning of original artwork and qualitative liturgical designs are out of the price range for the average parish community. In an age where we glorify mass production and global distribution, it is easy to see why we sometimes think of "bigger is better", "mass produced is cheaper" and "America does not make that stuff here"! However that is a misnomer.

There are plenty of artisans and craftsmen here in the United States, perhaps even in your own parish or diocese that can qualitatively design, and construct any aspect of our Catholic liturgical accessories. Not only are these artists and craftsmen extremely capable and willing, they offer their own prayerful and Catholic experiences in the artistic representations they are called to create. Before going to the guilds of Italy or Spain for statuary or materials, we need to look within our own parish backyards for the artist right down the street and the parish over that can cast a bronze statue, carve a marble bust, paint a magnificent fresco or design a great mosaic...they are all here. We just need to look and find them.


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Hugh McNichol - Author, 302 6339348



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