For most of the Catholic Church’s 2,000-year history, it has been known for its magnificent churches. In the popular psyche, the stereotypical Catholic church has high, arched ceilings, statues of saints, massive crucifixes, incense that seems to pour from the walls, and gilded, beautiful, and (sometimes) obnoxious altars.
There is perhaps no better example of this than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Vatican itself, which fulfills every Catholic stereotype to the highest degree. If any building could embody the very essence of Catholicism, it would be the Vatican.
But those stereotypical churches are fading into the pre-Vatican II past and being replaced with churches that are, simply, bland. Statues of saints have been removed, the incense is gone, the ceilings and walls have a color palette comparable to Starbucks, and the Great Altars have been replaced with simple blocks of marble, or sometimes even wood. These losses may be aesthetic, but they reveal something deeper about the changes in the Catholic Church following the tumult and fallout of the Second Vatican Council.
Different Sources of Community and Outreach
I attend two parishes in Chicago with some regularity. One is a traditional parish that celebrates most of its Masses in Latin, doesn’t shy from public rosary or Eucharistic processions, and has a healthy, loyal congregation. This type of engagement — public on major feasts, but otherwise focused on parish-centric activities — used to be a major component of parish life that has largely dried up.
Parishes do still hold processions, pastors still assert themselves in the community, and faith is still lived outside the church building. But the style of community engagement and parish building that drove (and continues to drive) traditional Latin Mass parishes is vastly different from the way it is done in more contemporary parishes, and not necessarily in a bad way.
Activities like rosary groups, First Friday devotions, and catechesis-centered book groups may be old-fashioned, but they generally achieve the same ends as theology on tap and keynote speaker events do for other parishes. For example, the contemporary-minded parish I attend is similar to the traditional one except that its Masses are exclusively in English, there is a stronger emphasis on community-building (speaker series, networking opportunities, etc.), and displays of faith outside the church building are more limited. But it also has a strong, loyal congregation.
One of the major differences between the two is that the Latin-Mass parish kept its Great Altar, while the English one removed it long ago for something more modest. To many Catholics today what separates one parish from another is more about the politics of the place and less about the aesthetics. It is not uncommon for young adults or a young family to “parish shop” around their city or suburb until they find a place that aligns with their priorities.
Does the pastor speak more about abortion, or more about climate change? Does the parish school have a rigorous curriculum, or is it too watered down? How is the music at Mass? But one thing that is often overlooked, for whatever reason, are the aesthetics of a parish. Does it have a Great Altar?
What the Great Altars Symbolize
The Great Altars of the church do, at times, deserve the criticism they have received after Vatican II. Their gilded exteriors and baroque architecture can come off as gaudy if poorly executed. But if the grand altars, with all their gold and statues and size, are at their core outward signs of inward devotion — just like the Rosary and other sacramentals are for Catholics — then what does it say about plain altars that more resemble a table than a temple?
This isn’t to imply that people’s faith is weaker because churches are blander now than they used to be. But for a church that put so much emphasis on aesthetics for millennia, to shift away from it so suddenly would go a long way towards explaining the crisis that many parishes suddenly find themselves in.
The reform that came from Vatican II stripped a number of rituals (aesthetic and otherwise) from the Mass that had organically come into existence over time and for specific reasons. For instance, in the traditional Latin Mass the priest faces the altar in the same direction the congregation does, and his movements are choreographed down to which fingers handle the Eucharist. The altar, considered the point where heaven and earth meet, was designed with the according dignity.
Perhaps the largest disruption that came from the destruction of the old altars was the reordering of the purpose of the Mass, both literally and figuratively. There is a reason churches-in-the-round were rare before Vatican II, and why they are now more popular. The physical design of old churches was meant to dictate several things: ornate artwork on the walls, domes, and arches was meant to pull the eye upward and spark meditation on the divine mysteries, the altarpiece was placed in the apse to orient the congregation properly, and incense was meant to draw together and sanctify the individual properties into one event.
That sort of order and hierarchy has been misplaced and is often focused inward, not upward. The importance of physical design on the structure of the Mass is lost on a number of twenty-first-century, postmodern Catholics. But it is important to remember that how a building is designed is integral to its function.
That’s why removing the old altars was one of the most detrimental post-concilar things that could have happened: by reorienting the altar to meet the people, the Mass is now too often (though not always) about the people themselves. The number of Masses I have attended that function more as performance art and less as worship are sadly too many.
The Key Importance of the Central Focus
Vatican II certainly had a point that the church should be doing more to meet people where they’re at, instead of asking them to meet the church where it was at, which was often inaccessible. But re-orienting the structure of the Mass to focus on the congregation, in the long run, ended up de-ordering the priority of the Mass, which ultimately exists to worship God.
Whatever faults the old Mass may have had, one thing it excelled at was prioritization. Everything that happened had a reason behind it and each Mass progressed as a timeline recounting salvation history through Old Testament prayers and readings, and culminating in a re-presentation (not representation) of the “new and eternal covenant” in the Eucharist.
Contemporary Masses may be more accessible in a literal sense, but too often their priorities are in the wrong places. If a lively parish has a handful of priests to itself, why do there need to be ten or more lay Eucharistic ministers at every Mass? Why must every song sound like something from a low-budget Christian movie? And why must the altar and tabernacle be so plain?
Coming into focus 60 years after Vatican II is what we lost with the Great Altars. The Catholic Church has lost not only the altars themselves, and the artistic treasures most of them contained, but also an appreciation for the spiritual and religious impact aesthetics can have in a sacred space.
The rich history of the church — everything from Latin to kneeling for communion to saint statues — has been put on the postmodern, post-concilar backburner in favor of “innovations” that were supposed to bring the church into the present day. But have all of these innovations worked? That’s an open question, and one worth asking of reformers and traditionalists alike.