Wednesday, January 2, 2008


There is something inspiring about those conversion stories that appear in certain publications. I read them like candy. They are to me what romance novels are to other people.

The other day I was reading one and came across a line that went something like, “So I snuck into the church and attended mass kind of hiding off in a corner and when I saw the Eucharist I longed for it and new I had to become Catholic.”

So those were not the exact words but they were pretty darn close and it is a constant theme in these stories. I know if I were not Catholic I would be pretty darn intimidated by what went on behind those stained glass windows. It seems it would be a bit of a comfort to be able to go in and find a place to “be” without being obvious; a place from which I might observe.

Here is where I and many liturgists and architects part company. The thrust of my formation has pointed toward absolute involvement. Churches are large rooms with no dark spots, no pillars, nobody at a great distance. Seating is circular so that not only can you see the sanctuary but also everyone can all see each other. We are all asked to sit in the front row, to sing, recite, and move with joyful praise.

But what if you haven’t the slightest idea what it going on? (I know, I know, just inform your people to welcome outsiders. Good for as far as that goes.) Or what if you are unable to go to communion and are not particularly excited about people knowing it? What if you are incredibly sad and want to attend mass but just aren’t up to being thusly engaged? (I’ve been told that we as Catholics have an obligation to be joyful at mass. Great. But we have an obligation not to over eat or speed too and we don’t always get that one down either.) Sometimes you want to sneak into a church to pray quietly and not be seen. It just is that way.

Thus comes my plug for the incorporation of yet another aspect of older church architecture in newer buildings. Have places for people to be without being on stage. Pillars are evil for some people but salvation for others. Those pews in the side aisle, that space to stand against the wall, that shrine, these are the places where those who are timid or hurt or lost find a place to hang on by their fingernails until they can be comforted into the front pew.

Yes, I know this is not liturgically ideal and yes it can be abused (abusus non tollit usum), yes I know these are harder to maintain, yes I know you don’t want people able to find places to hide as you are locking up. But yes, I know what it is like to want to be there and be afraid to be TOO there.


Anonymous said...

YES, YES, YES! THANK YOU for saying it!

I used to be one of those people who just wanted to creep into the back of the church and not be under a spot light.

Sure, Mass is a place to be joyful, but if we can't also be sad and mourn or be troubled at Mass, then where else are we supposed to go? The book of Lamentations and many psalms that involve lament and other strong "negative" emotions need to be prayed somewhere!

Everyone is so focused on "reaching out" that no one has stopped to consider that some people just want to be left alone...with God. For now. In fact, it's actually HEALTHY to want to go to God with what the world calls "negative emotions".

And being hidden...yup. I really wish there were churches around involving pillars and corners and little grottos to pray in...without an audience of curious onlookers who were formed with the same lateral theology you discuss.

So...when you found a church and happen to be working on design, can I be one of the consultants? :-)

Adrienne said...

Since I am so active in my parish, going to Mass sometimes feels like running a gauntlet. I would just like to be left alone without all this social rah-rah stuff.

The architecture of the newer churches is ugly, ugly, ugly. Besides, when I was a kid, it was the pillar that got you to church in a timely fashion so you wouldn’t have to sit behind one.

uncle jim said...

i always understood the pillars to be there for support - so who says it is to be only architectural support?

the little 'grottoes' with the votive candles, other nooks and crannies, a small space where someone cannot set beside me and expect a hug at the greeting of peace when i don't even feel like shaking hands - yes!


Unknown said...

Sometimes cradle Catholics wish to be left alone too...

Maybe a section just for grumpy or anti-social types like me?

We could call it the Saint Jerome Gallery.

Anonymous said...

"Those pews in the side aisle, that space to stand against the wall, that shrine, these are the places where those who are timid or hurt or lost find a place to hang on by their fingernails until they can be comforted into the front pew."

So true - exactly describes my slow progression back into the church after many years. I would come to daily Mass and sit in the far corner of a transept, and hope that no-one would notice me. I dreaded being "greeted", would arrive late or via side doors to avoid any contact with people at Sunday Mass. It took several months to feel at home enough to meet anyone's eye.

Hospitality always strikes me as one of the hardest and most sensitive ministries - how to welcome the lonely and shy, without scaring away the timid and tentative. Years later and very much involved in the parish, I try to be sensitive to people who look like they don't feel they belong.

Thank you for your perceptiveness and your gentle way of teaching us through your daily internet ministry.

Anonymous said...

I am fortunate to belong to an "old" style church. I love it. The description you gave could apply to us as we have many, many pillars, side pews and even the altar rail (unused) in tact. My sister and brother-in-law belong to a mammoth contemporary parish in Columbus. They are in awe when they come to Mass here. There is nothing like turn of the 20th century architecuture completed by immigrants who gave their blood, sweat and tears to building it.

Adoro said...

Fr V ~ I have to agree with what anon said and how it was said.

There's a church whose door I used to darken on occasion, and it had pillars. But the pastor insisted on making everyone greet each other.

I really was seeking a connection back to the Church...but this wasn't it. It was too superficial. And I knew it, so dreaded it.

But I wanted to come Home so badly that I endured this crap (which it was) just to try to get close to Jesus.

I would have preferred to have hugged one of the columns. It at least, would have listened to my questions, endured my tears, and not sneezed before shaking my hand with indifference.

All I wanted was connection and a few true friends to show me what the Catholic Church really meant.

All I got was a few paltry handshakes, perfunctory greetings with plastic smiles, and a knowledge that the real heart of the Catholic Church was being ignored in the face of doing what was popular versus what was proper.

And you can quote me on that. Over and over again, if it helps. With my real name. And send it to the Bishop and the Pope.

I'm guessing anon would say the same thing...albeit...anon. :-)

Fr. V said...


I thought I was the only one!

uncle jim said...

on occasion, but...
i really do try to make the 'greeting of peace' handshake or hug REAL to each and every one whether i know them or have met / seen them at mass before or not. i want it to be a moment of contact with my brother or sister in Christ.

Anonymous said...

You know that Reader named Doris in every parish who thunders even more clearly than God and whom everyone is afraid of? Well, much to my surprise, Doris high-fived me at an RCIA meeting once, when we both admitted that for Mass, we'd be delighted to have a tiny dark candlelit chapel with no seating. Is that a pre-Vatican II, all-pillars-all-the-time-or-choir-loft) High Mass thing? I don't know, but I do remember envying Quasimodo some of his privileges of privacy.

It is also why I go to a different church for confession and absolution--it offers a darkish confessional in which one can kneel behind the screen (or go sit in the chair like Bette Davis might, face to face), which means I won't be so nervous that I'll keep my sins down to a dull roar just so I can get the heck out of there.

A whole other Anonymous

Unknown said...

"i really do try to make the 'greeting of peace' handshake or hug REAL to each and every one whether i know them or have met / seen them at mass before or not. i want it to be a moment of contact with my brother or sister in Christ"

God bless and keep you Uncle Jim...

BUT, if one day the fella next to you you are approaching with arms outstretched has a look of horror on his face that could easily be me... And don't take it personally, I understand where you are coming from...

I will hug you after Mass. A big one! The good kind where we pat each other on the back and everything... In the mean time during Mass I am not comfortable turning away from the altar.