Continuing with the theme of honoring our past ~ building for our future, I would like to turn our attention to one of the main reasons for our church project: the overall arrangement of things in our church, most specifically the sanctuary and pews. How did the current arrangement come about? Who were the main players? What were their reasons? What issue(s) were they trying to solve? And finally, are those solutions still relevant today? How does our new church project honor the original intent of our current building while bringing up to date the norms of the Church?
When talking to parishioners who were here when it was constructed as well as four of our former pastors, they all told me stories about how, the pastor at the time, Fr. Kelly, demanded that the church be fireproof, thus cinder block and steel were the main materials used. The church was intended to seat 700 people facing the West where the Sanctuary and main altar was going to be placed. In my research, I was surprised to find other versions of the church that were drawn up prior to the final one we have now, some of which placed the altar on the East side of the building and others having very ambitious ideas for the entire campus.
After construction of our current church began in 1959, Fr. Edmund Murnane, pastor of St. Mary parish in Eugene and friend of Father Kelly persuaded Fr. Kelly to place the altar in the middle of the church so that people could see both the altar and the priest. Some pastors shared with me that there was talk coming from Rome that liturgical changes were potentially coming, thus another reason for Fr. Murnane’s encouragement to Fr. Kelly. Keep in mind that the Second Vatican Council had not yet taken place, so the Mass was in Latin with the priest faced ad orientum or liturgical “towards the east” along with the entire congregation. In that form of the Mass, much of the action at the altar was obscured by the priest’s body. So, when the rubrics called for the priest to raise the host or chalice after consecration, he had to raise it well above his head. This moment is the most commonly captured image when referring to that form of Mass, now called the Extraordinary Form. If you want to experience that form, we host specially trained prIests to come roughly every other month to our mission, Our Lady of the River, and offer that Mass. So, in the context of the time, putting pews to the side of the sanctuary would have been very avant guard yet practical in view of the goal of being able to see more of the action happening at the altar. That being said, the arrangement of the church interior was very controversial amongst parishioner then and has continued to be so until today.
When the Second Vatican Council concluded, the liturgy was to be reformed in light of ancient documents describing the earliest liturgies as well as a sense of “full, active, and conscious participation.” The post-conciliar document, Inter Oecumenici §91, spoke directly about the preference for altars to be centrally located and free standing in order to permit walking around it, i.e.. for incensing. The 1970 Missal and subsequent editions have encouraged the priest to face towards the people, ad populum, when possible.
In the time since the Second Vatican Council, many ideas have been offered for church construction and layout. Some have held the test of time while others have been corrected and/or removed. According to “Built of Living Stones,” the document from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, tabernacles can be placed in many locations. When they are placed in the sanctuary but not directly behind the altar, confusion has happened as to the proper liturgical gestures and behaviors are appropriate. Archbishop Sample, when I asked him what he wanted in a new church, gave me clear direction. He stated that he wanted a church to look like a church, to be beautiful, and the Tabernacle to be located directly behind the Altar, for “it would solve many issues.”
With these changes in the liturgy, the original reason spelled out by Fr. Murnane to Fr. Kelly for placing the sanctuary half-way down on the North side of the church with the pews on the side no longer offered the advantage for which they were intended. In my humble opinion, the only advantage to our current arrangement is the close proximity of the people in the pews to the sanctuary and the action at the altar. This an important feature when pondering on the placement of pews, but in our situation the disadvantages, over time and experience, outweigh this singular advantage. When our Core Building Committee began meeting three years ago, it was clear that they wanted the church to have all the pews facing the same direction. They felt the orientation of the pews to be more distracting than helpful when it came to paying attention. They voiced their concerns that the acoustics inherent in our current arrangement, regardless of the sound system, made much of the Mass unintelligible. They voiced concern about the issues created by not having a main aisle and how we had missed many opportunities to host weddings for our parishioners in lieu of other parishes that “looked and felt more like a church.” These issues and more were likely unforeseen in the process of discernment when our current pew layout was being planned.
So, with the needs of the preconciliar Church being met by Fr. Kelly, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council offering reforms, the norms of our Roman Missal giving us new clarity, the guidelines by our bishops giving us guidance, and the reflection from our Core building Committee giving ideas on how to meet today’s needs, I think that it it is safe to say that if our new church plan was built back 1959, it would have been received well. That is another way to honor our past.
I will be offering more about our history in forthcoming bulletin articles. So, keep your eyes peeled to this column in the weeks ahead.
Fr. William Holtzinger