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Unambiguous Theocentricity: Church Architecture and the Traditional Mass

Shortly after my wife and I were married in 1998, we were able to spend some time in Venice. Visiting the churches there was a particular delight, as there was so much to discover. I recall especially the church of St. George with its spacious choir and sanctuary, and Santa Maria dei Miracoli with its large flight of steps leading up to the high altar—an arrangement I had never seen before.

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At first it seemed to me that these churches had what you might call “exaggerated features”: so much space given to the sanctuary, such grandeur to the high altars, such unexpected elevation and distance. But as I reflected on it (I was, after all, still a toddler traditionalist at this point in my life, with so much yet to learn), I started to see how thoroughly all of the old church architecture, in its broad lines as in its tiniest details, was inspired by the sacred liturgy. The liturgy gave form to these churches, it gave them a point of focus by emphatically placing the high altar in the center at the eastern end, with steps leading up to it, the most holy place where the sacrifice of Calvary is renewed, where God is worshiped in the one and only perfect way—an unambiguously vertical worship, directed to the omnipotent Father by the only-begotten, all-pleasing Son in the power of the holy and life-giving Spirit.

The ancient rites of the Latin Church furnish the very intelligibility of ecclesiastical architecture, be it Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, or Baroque. These styles simply cannot be understood apart from the ancient liturgy that inspired them. In its absence, they lose their intelligibility, their immediacy, their ability to speak to the heart with the language of symbolism. They are a closed book without the open book of the altar missals from whose rituals they were conceived. All of these styles, however disparate, come together in the one essential: that the Mass be celebrated with utmost reverence at the “still point,” the focal point, of the church building—the glorious high altar, placed at an elevation and set off by ample space, uncluttered, awaiting the descent of the Dove and the elevation of the Host.

The cancer phase of the Liturgical Movement (ca. 1950 to 1965), and even more, the Consilium reform and its implementation in the late 60s and 70s, fostered the widespread habit of a pathological avoidance of any expression of the mystery and majesty of the Mass, and especially of its essence as a priestly oblation offered to the Father on top of the “mountain” of the sanctuary, on behalf of the people gathered at the mountain’s base.

It follows that all architecture self-consciously built for modern man and his neo-liturgy will be un-Catholic, un-focused, and un-vertical. Put differently, the Bugninian reform and the Novus Ordo qua novus can neither inspire great architecture nor harmonize with it. The most consistent examples of architecture “inspired” by the liturgical “reform” are the ugly new churches built in the diocese of Rome, or, for that matter, in the United States. Here are just a few examples of the countless monstrosities that have disfigured the face of the earth and corrupted the faith of the people:

Lauded by cardinals and committees, such modernist abstractions (click here to see more of them) were already appearing in the post-World War II era, as the intelligentsia ramped up to their ultimate orgy, the “spirit of the Council”: aggiornamento, accommodationism, and agnosticism about the Alpha and the Omega, the first things and the last things.

A reader might raise the objection: “What about nicer new churches being built in some places for Novus Ordo communities? Surely these run against your thesis.” On the contrary, they confirm it. To the extent that these churches are recognized as beautiful, they are mimicking older churches designed for the Vetus Ordo. We see this especially in the neo-Romanesque, neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance, and neo-Baroque designs of such architects as Thomas Gordon Smith, James McCrery, and Duncan Stroik, who in their determination to follow great models and ideals of the past have created truly noble structures in which one can perceive the four marks of the Church: one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic. To the extent that new churches depart from Catholic architectural tradition—e.g., by lacking a high altar reached by steps, a communion rail, a proper pulpit, and side altars, or by sporting a Cranmer table—they are theologically impoverished and aesthetically inferior to the great churches of the past. Put simply, every architectural adaptation for the Novus Ordo is a step down, a dilution of the sacral vocabulary built up by centuries of Catholic worship, and a transmitter of mixed signals, as the Church’s vertical vocation struggles with the liturgy’s horizontal habitat.

For its part, the great old architecture resists, with its colossal and silent might, the paltriness of the Novus Ordo, which looks like a fish out of water in the midst of a Romanesque basilica or Gothic cathedral. Every time I have seen a vernacular Paul VI Mass in a grand old church, it has seemed like a farce or a parody, something bizarrely out of sync with the surroundings, and utterly dwarfed by them. It is not surprising, in this connection, that the French progressives have destroyed the sanctuaries of most of their magnificent Gothic churches by removing the resplendent high altars and installing a blockish modernist Cranmer table, in an unsuccessful attempt to regain control of the space and assert the relevance of the search for relevance.

In rejecting the ancient Roman rite, the Church repudiated her entire artistic heritage, which grew up in the ambiance of this rite and specifically for its sake. Just as experience has proved that the optionizing rubrics, linear structure, and participatio actuosa expected in the new liturgy do not furnish a welcoming environment for the Gregorian chant repertoire of Ordinaries and Propers, in spite of the endlessly and almost talismanically quoted lines of Sacrosanctum Concilium on how chant should be given “pride of place,” so too the new liturgy fits poorly into the great tradition of sacred architecture, furnishings, vessels, and vestments that came before it. This streamlined rite sits uneasily with the intricate and lofty beauty of traditional churches; the monumental certainty of the truths they proclaim; the holiness they house like a child in the womb, of incalculable dignity, yet silent and hidden.

Grasping this point permits us to understand the decades of fury against traditional sanctuaries, the furious haste to “renovate” and “redesign” them, the jackhammers wielded with satanic glee, the dumping of precious artefacts into rubbish bins and rivers, the painting over of murals and icons, the stiff opposition encountered by every pastor today who attempts to reorient the liturgy or reintroduce a communion rail. The philosophy of the liturgical reform demanded that unambiguous verticality and incarnational immanence of the Catholic Faith—in a word, the Eucharistic focus—be banished as outmoded and irrelevant to the modern world.

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Basilica of Poreč

Not long after this time in Venice, my wife and I visited Croatia with a family friend, and attended Mass at the Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč, an ancient and beautiful basilica in a Romanesque-Byzantine style. So far as I could tell, there seemed to be nothing heretical or irreverent about the Mass; but the experience provided me with painful insights into the folly of the Novus Ordo as it is typically celebrated.

The architecture, the baldacchino, the altar, the glorious mosaics—everything begged for a liturgy celebrated ad orientem, with priest and people facing altar and ikons, in a common worship of the transcendent Trinity. It begged for strains of chant and incense commingling in the air, hieratic gestures at the altar, speechless silence at the moment when the almighty Word leapt forth from His throne in heaven to dwell again amongst men.

Instead, the priest faced the people like a chairman at a meeting, a lecturer at a conference, or a host of a talkshow, and the liturgy never broke out of the purely human-horizontal-immanent dimension. It was all utterly uniform, with no noticeable articulation or variation. The liturgy was not Wordbound as if seeking a destination beyond all human endeavors; it was bounded by a fence of words, contained by speech as hamsters are contained in a plastic habitat.

Thanks to the myopic decision of churchmen to vernacularize and thereby vaporize the single unifying force of Western civilization, I was unable to understand a word that was being said in this Crotian liturgy. As a result, the “talk-talk-talk” nature of the Novus Ordo became more evident than ever. There was scarcely a moment for recollection, for a saturated silence, for the lingering pauses that allow the heart to burst upwards in aspiration.  The impoverished character of the Offertory, too, came across more forcefully than usual: the priest just lifted up the paten for a moment, then the chalice, and that’s it—the offertory reduced to a pseudo-Jewish meal blessing—in reality, a parody of a Jewish blessing. It had the nature of a pantomime too weak to be expressive, a vestigial organ that evolution had not entirely succeeded in leaving behind.

The thirty-minute homily would have been “justified,” so to speak, if there had been more substance to the Mass itself, especially in the Offertory and Eucharistic Prayer—but the homily seemed like the center of gravity, with the actual sacrifice relegated to an afterthought or postscriptum. This impression was underscored by the use of what I am certain must have been the Second Eucharistic Prayer, which takes less time to run through than many of the readings in the new lectionary from the historical books of the Old Testament. One can spend more time at the new Mass hearing about David’s adultery with Bathsheba or the lewd old men sneaking around Susanna’s garden than one spends commemorating the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus.

When the Church abandoned the old liturgy, she abandoned her apologetic stronghold. She gave up the mysterious portal on account of which so many modern men prior to the Council came to believe and to seek entrance into the Church. The liturgy has been, for all appearances, Protestantized. And wherever the Church has put all its eggs in that basket, we see the haunting indications of increasing irrelevance.

A non-believer who happened to visit the basilica of Poreč during Mass would have seen “just another prayer service.” What a difference if he had witnessed the sublime sacrifice handed down by tradition, with its age-old chanting and hushed awe! This liturgy is infinitely different from a Protestant prayer service: it is founded on the Cross, the Holy Eucharist, the mysterium fidei, everywhere the same mystery, transmitted throughout the West in the same ancient tongue, enveloped in the same curtain of silence. The very form of the Mass, its way of commanding a curious attention and often something much more than that, was the Church’s single greatest apologetic argument, drawing men and women to God by its sheer majesty, beauty, simplicity, sacred silence, aura of holiness.

The Novus Ordo tends to be so stripped down, so “profane” in its atmosphere, that it can be ignored, walked past, “heard” without being heard, treated as one among many ‘Christian’ forms of worship. The Old Mass, in contrast, can hardly be ignored; one feels compelled either to bend the knee or to run away shouting “idolatry”! A child who attends the old Mass will not grow up indifferent to it; either he will learn to love it or he will reject it. It demands a decision. As I have experienced myself and seen in others, it is possible to float in and out of the Novus Ordo environment like guests in a hotel lobby, since it places so few demands on the soul, leaving a person “free” with the raw freedom of indifference in the face of options. It does not perfect this natural freedom into a moral freedom of being drawn to the worship of God from a deeply rooted inclination of the heart.

This, perhaps, is why Martin Mosebach says in The Heresy of Formlessness that if traditionalists are right in their diagnosis of the weaknesses of the Novus Ordo, they should not despair about the apparently hopeless situation that confronts us at the moment. The house of cards must fall sooner or later, and the sprawling mansion of tradition, as eclectic, drafty, and foreign as it may seem, will have its day again. For it is in the nature of God, who is surpassing strange, and of man, who is full of holes, and of the God-man, who unites in a single Person two disparate natures, that we should dwell in pace in idipsum, in peace in the very same home our ancestors dwelt in—a house founded by the Word, built up and out by the Holy Spirit, and ripe for its consummation in heavenly worship.

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