A reflection on reordered churches

During my time in Manhattan this trip I have visited quite a few Catholic churches.  I have been amazed at how badly some of them have been mutilated, and stupidly so.  Some are still being mutilated according to tired old ideas that are now, in the minds of the younger clergy for sure, cliché and monstrous.  The outgoing regime with their tired ideas are still doing damage even as their theological wheelchairs are already turned in the direction of the door.

On Inside Catholic there is an article reproduced from the November 1995 issue of Crisis Magazine.

Read the whole piece for some context and some reflections on death and awareness of mortality.  At the end, however, the writer offered some pretty harsh comments about the fruits of the post-Conciliar reform.

Fair?  Unfair?

Having come from a parish where the all chaos and foolery was over the decades avoided, because of the guidance of well-informed pastors who thought with the mind of the Church, and being a convert, I was spared the full force of the idiocy that went on far and wide.   But I have certainly been around the pike a few times and seen what she was talking about.

Take a look … with my emphases and comments.

The writer is speaking of time spent in a church before the Blessed Sacrament.

He Came Down from Heaven: A Consolation [In the Incarnation, and at every Sacrifice of the Mass.]
Alice Thomas Ellis


There was a silent peace with a hidden promise of unimaginable joy to which all the objects of devotion attested: the altar, the statues, the crucifix, all the appurtenances of faith belonged to no one and to everyone. Still and worthy of trust, they were there yesterday and now and would be there tomorrow. Inanimate yet living testimony to a vital certainty. It is rare now to find such a church. Stripped and barren, while the people themselves are encouraged to buy more and more to support the market economy and cram their houses with trivia, the churches are denuded in the name of progress.

It is impossible to understand without laying bare the motives of those who wrought such destruction. The result is terrible in the terms of disillusion and loss, and those who say they wished only to affirm life and community have robbed us of consolation, giving death a greater power than is his due. The here and now is what concerns us they say, forgetting that life is short and but a preparation.

The new and re-ordered churches are symbolic only of a denied but underlying despair, a loss of faith to the sad conviction that death is the end. [The fruit of the modernist error: immanentism.] The noisy ceremonies that now fill these churches, the guitars, the clapping, swaying, and showy raptures are a mere extension of the drug culture, a whistling in the wind, a neurotic insistence that happiness is attainable immediately and does not need to be waited for or earned. The notion that suffering can bring forth good, that deprivation can nourish the soul is unacceptable. [I believe this is what I was driving at in that sermon I gave for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on 14 Sept 2007 at Fr. Finigan’s parish.  We remove the Cross at our peril.  We must keep the Cross at the focus point so that we can deal with what St. Augustine called "our daily winter", fear of death.  It is there, in what the Cross reveals, that we encounter mystery both alluring and fearsome, and we are readied for what lies outside ourselves and the passage of the grave.] Suggest that the saints lived their lives in the promise and not the fulfillment of joy and you will not be heard. The Protestant cult of the "born again" with its ecstatic overtones has laid hold of a Church that still claims to lay all store on baptism. We are at the mercy of doctrinal error, often imposed from above, with little recourse to authority which is often too pusillanimous to argue with the trend. The wolves are in the fold.

Now that the churches are no longer peaceful but full of people determined to convey to you their loving care, their innate virtuousness, with handshakes and smiles, the bereft are best off in solitude, listening for the still, small voice. [The still small voice which the prophet eventually heard.  I often use the image of Moses, posted by God at the cleft in the rock.] The country graveyard is perhaps now the place nearest to God on earth, for that too is neutral ground where death has had his way, is satisfied and thus of no more significance and no threat. Freedom lies in looking on the face of death and knowing that there is no true battle here, that he does not need to be fought and defeated, for he is only God’s instrument and God lives.

We remove the Cross and worship redolent of His Sacrifice at our peril.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Thank you for posting that, Father. The late, great, Alice Thomas Ellis is one of the most criminally underappreciated novelists of our time, England’s answer to Flannery O’Connor.

  2. HighMass says:

    Were I live three Catholic Church’s in Town, out of them only one has a “High Altar” which is great because we are about to move the N.O. alter When we have TLM once a month…..

    The other two parishes one was remodeled during the council and again last year, no allowence was made for a High Altar, although the N.O. Altar is moveable so it can be moved up a step or two, there may be distance between the Altar and Tabernacle….but still do-able…..

    The Third was built in 1967 after the council, the person who designed it still brags it was the First Church built in the diocese w/o a Holy Communion rail…..
    and believe you me, the Church Built in 1967 looks and feels like it came from that post-VII era……

    Sad to say the first two Church’s had the Comminion rail but are long gone……we did recover the old sanctuary light we the 2nd church was re-remodeled last year…..Tabernacles are still the center of focus of all three church’s…..What can we do but pray…..

  3. Thomas G. says:

    “The outgoing regime with their tired ideas are still doing damage even as their theological wheelchairs are already turned in the direction of the door.”

    Wonderful line, that.

  4. teaguytom says:

    What is sad is when you see the high altar and reredos sitting bare as a backdrop for the freestanding altars. Granted some of the freestanding altars are beautiful, but many of the altars are nothing more than ugly cranmer tables. The high altar being used as just a shelf for the flowers and devoid of the Blessed Sacraments, which long ago was shelved to a side altar. Even the candles being replaced with just two candle stands next to the new altar. I used to remember being in elementary school and wondering what the big altar at our old church was actually for, since we used it for nothing. Thankfully my current parish was lovingly restored by the diocese. The ugly table has since been pushed into the corner and a new faux marble rail was installed complete with the gate.

  5. DWB says:

    Unfortunately, it seems like the only way to stop a “reordering” is for the parish faithful to refuse to participate financially. These projects do, after all, cost money. We recently avoided a proposed remodeling that would have stripped all Catholic identity from our church. Fortunately, enough parishioners refused to participate financially that the project was halted.

    Troubling to me is that there seemed to be an out-of-state consulting group that coordinated part of the planning and fundraising for the project. The group seemed well versed in presenting a slick presentation, and using (misconstruing) just enough quotes from Church documents, to justify what they proposed – while ignoring clear directives to the contrary. It gave the appearance that there are businesses that, for a fee, promote to parishes the idea of reordering their facilities. Not for theological or liturgical reasons, but for a fee. They seemed to be promoters of sorts.

    FYI, it was almost 2 years before the plans were presented parish wide. In the meantime a lot of time was wasted and a lot of money paid to consultants for work that will (thankfully) not be done.

  6. JosephMary says:

    I give thanks to God to be in a parish with a 100 year old church that was remodeled before the council. We actually have some parts of the communion rail. I hope one day to receive Our Lord at that rail! And we have a high altar that I hope to see used again one day but it has 6 candles on it as well as the tabernacle. What we do not have is a Crucifix other than the processional as we have an image of the Saint for whom the parish is named on the front panal.

    But it makes you almost want to cry to go into a lovely from the outside old church and to find it whitewashed and statues and beauty removed, except for maybe the stained glass windows that could not be destroyed. I cannot help but sit there sometimes and think what a little color and so forth could do for the ‘worship space’.

    And I had the misfortune previously of being in a round church. Ick. The eyes are drawn past the altar to the goings-on across the way. And the pews are angled such that few are direct line to the altar on the ‘stage’. Glad to not be there anymore.

    Having lived in barren church land for most of my life, I wept at the beauty of some of the churches in Europe when I was blessed to go on several pilgrimages. I just could not hardly take it in; I had never experienced such beauty in a church before in my memory.

  7. medievalist says:

    Reminds me of a recent comment on the BBC of all places.

    In advance of the Pope’s visit to England and Scotland, a trio of seemingly liberal Catholics were trotted out to mouth the usual lines but one of them upset everything by saying that Vatican II wrecked the Church. She asserted (correctly in my opinion) that the fruits of the Council did away with popular devotion and its physical objects (crucifixes, processions, etc). Basically, an iconoclasm. The Church was taken away from the working-classes and made eminently middle-class and overly intellectual. Gone was the beauty and physicality that has marked Catholicism since its earliest days. Thus why our “worship spaces” look like barren concrete wastelands rather than oases of holiness.

  8. The Egyptian says:

    “But it makes you almost want to cry to go into a lovely from the outside old church and to find it whitewashed and statues and beauty removed, except for maybe the stained glass windows that could not be destroyed. I cannot help but sit there sometimes and think what a little color and so forth could do for the ‘worship space’.”

    For your viewing horror, http://germanegyptian.blogspot.com/2009/10/carthagena-st-charles-seminary.html

    posted this months ago, and yes they even got the windows! Now ugly blue and white pop art figures of saints, tacky and disgusting. and this is a seminary, just 6 miles from me, explains that attitude of some of the priests, now turned into a retirement home for the CPPS and lay Catholics, the seminary moved to Dayton years ago. Sigh

  9. You know what the only course of action for these churches which have been redone? We need to reredo them, of course!

  10. Jason Keener says:

    This past Sunday, I attended the Ordinary Form of Mass at Gesu Parish in Milwaukee. Gesu is a huge Gothic church that serves the Marquette University community. Not to be dramatic, but a profound sense of sadness was over me throughout the Mass that day thinking about how far Catholic worship and Catholic architecture have disintegrated. The once great high altar of Gesu was removed and in its place is a presider’s chair. The prayers at the foot of the altar are replaced by a meet and greet with your neighbor. The Gregorian Chant replaced by a woman screaming what sounds like a broadway tune into an overly-amplified microphone. Baskets lined with cloth take the place of the sacred vessels and on and on… All I could do was implore St. Ignatius of Loyola that the once lofty Jesuits will one day return Gesu Parish to a place of Catholic worship.

  11. Kate says:

    Amen, Fr. Z!

  12. JimGB says:

    I agree that some older churches are still at risk of being “wreckovated” because, in fact, many of the priests that “came of age” in the 70s and 80s are still pastors who might believe that it would be a great capstone to their careers to preside over the modernization of an old church. Fortunately, many active parishoners today would not be supine and most dioceses require the plans be submitted to the chancery before a pastor takes drastic action.

  13. Central Valley says:

    Recovations? 70’s floor plans? Visit any diocese in Kalifornia. Typical in Kalifornia churches is the water fall baptismal pool. In a parish near me, the pastor built a multi-million dollar church, which on its face looks somewhat traditional until you encounter the water fall and the altar/stage with a rail to seprate the people from the sanctuary. The only hope for Kalifornia is that several are within retirement range and some are ill and will probably go early. Pray for us in the land of Fr. Serra, who must be crying in heaven when he looks down on the distruction.

  14. Marcin says:

    “The outgoing regime with their tired ideas are still doing damage even as their theological wheelchairs are already turned in the direction of the door.”

    Indeed, worthy putting on a T-shirt for the WDTPRS Store.

  15. “… a neurotic insistence that happiness is attainable immediately and does not need to be waited for or earned.”

    This is a very poignant observation. Proper, reverent Catholic worship should refute the lie of immediately attainable happiness. This is why Gregorian chant is so essential to the Mass, over and above its beauty and the dignity it brings to the liturgy. Gregorian chant is not only beautiful. To me, what it principaly conveys is an intense, heart-breaking longing, a longing that can be filled only by and in Christ.

    Last Saturday I was a server for a Missa Cantata. When the choir started singing the Sanctus at the start of the Canon, I quite frankly lost it. It was a good thing I was facing the altar, so that the congregation could not see the tears streaming down my face. That’s the kind of longing that only Gregorian chant inspires in me.

  16. mwa says:

    Yes, the mutilation continues. Consider St. Charles Borromeo, in N. Hollywood, CA. Much of the congregation is desperately fighting (and has been over the past 8 years) the proposed “Voskovation” of their historic and beautiful church http://tolucantimes.info/letters/the-controversy-at-st-charles-borromeo/, and has formed a guild to that end http://www.st-charlesborromeo.org/. They also have a remarkable choral tradition, with Roger Wagner and Paul Salamunovich having directed for more than a 50 year span. Please say a prayer for them.

  17. PaterAugustinus says:

    Very fair; spot on, in fact. I liked his description of “Protestant Ecstasy,” and the “Continuation of the drug culture, a whistling in the wind, a neurotic insistence that happiness is immediately attainable and not something to be earned…” – exactly why I left Protestantism, and Liberal Humanism in general. It is a masturbatory culture loving itself to death, descending into the void surrounded by garish banners whilst singing “happy” songs. “Newchurch” is the very sacrament of death by drug-overdose.

  18. Wayne NYC says:

    I was 18 years old when the iconoclasts
    made their presence known. Once the Mass
    was “reformed” anything was possible.
    To this day I will never forget my Mother’s
    shocked sorrow at seeing a layperson take
    the Holy Eucharist in their hands to give
    them self Communion. The West has since fallen.
    “All your Churches are belong to us “.

  19. Reredos. :)

    Yes, we have to look on the bright side. If stuff is painted over or whitewashed or plastered, we can take off the add-ons or paint over it with something new. If the communion rail has been removed, we can always put up a new one of some kind. If we need statues, we can get them.

    Btw, folks — The way many new churches get their beautiful “wall paintings”, without the trouble and expense and high insurance premiums involved in scaffolds and fresco, is that the artist paints on canvas, and then the canvas is hung on the wall without a visible frame around the canvas. This also protects the paintings somewhat from building wall temperature changes; and if the wall needs a new coat of paint or the painting needs cleaning, they can just take the paintings off the wall until the maintenance is done. Obviously the paintings themselves aren’t cheap, but you don’t have to get them all done at once, either.

  20. TJerome says:

    mwa, well the power of the purse generally works. If most of the parishioners are in fact opposed to the “renovation” of St. Charles Borromeo, they can say it with money, meaning, NO MONEY until this madness ceases. I cannot imagine the pastor paying for this out of his own pocket because liberals NEVER spend their own money. They spend OTHER peoples money. Good luck to them.

  21. Andrew says:

    The term “reordered churches” reminds me of a unique phenomenon I have observed in many places, in various countries even, the appearance of the asymmetric chapel arranged in such a way that you can’t tell where the front is, where the side is, everywhere you turn something is facing the wrong way. It is natural for us to assume a symmetrical position when praying: it just seems irreverent to pray with one leg forward, one arm up, the way we might want to sit when relaxing. Chapels that are not symmetrical seem to be designed to foster an attitude of relaxation instead of prayer. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the interior of so many modern chapels and churches is arranged in a very disordered fashion.

  22. pewpew says:

    You’re a convert? I didn’t know that, and from what if I may ask?

  23. irishgirl says:

    Excellent post, Father Z!

  24. Supertradmum says:

    immanentism–thanks for referring to this common, yet misunderstood Modernist heresy. One of the priests in this diocese, who is about my age, said he wished he could take all the statues and paintings out of the church, which thankfully, is a historic monument and protected by heritage laws;

    Where did this priest learn such minimalism and why does he hate devotion? He went to St. John’s Collegeville for seminary.

    Also, minimalism, or just bad taste, reveals a hated of the Sacred, the Divine.

  25. Supertradmum says:

    PS my Grandfather purchased a gorgeous and expensive tabernacle for his parish in the 1940s. I do not know where it is.

  26. marypatricia says:

    A priest friend has just been moved to a country parish.
    The lovely old church is in the process of being renovated. Fortunately the outside has been done first and the next phase is the inside.
    He is delighted that he is just in time to save the altar rails and pulpit as the architects plan is the usual wreckovation—get rid of everything like that including statues.
    The fight has already started but he is determined that their plan is not going to be implemented.
    His own plan is to not only retain these but to replace the original altar where it belongs in front of the reredos and put another altar in front of it as at the moment he says the N.O. Mass.
    There is plenty of room in the sanctuary for this.

    He however wants to know if there are any recent documents referring to the use of the pulpit that he can use in his arguments with the architects.
    He is thinking of getting rid of the ugly modern ambo and using the pulpit for the readings and Gospel, but is not sure how this will work out in practice.
    Can anyone help please?

  27. “Where did this priest learn such minimalism and why does he hate devotion? He went to St. John’s Collegeville for seminary.”

    I went to St. John’s in Collegeville, got my BS there — no pun intended. I graduated in 1987. The hatred of the old Faith there was palpable and appalling, and I have not heard that it has gotten any better in the 23 years since I left.

  28. Pulpits -are- ambos. A built-up pulpit structure is a lot more like a real ambo than a modern lectern ambo is. Look up the stuff about ambos in early Christian churches, and you’ll see.

    If it’s the kind of ambo pulpit that’s high up, or even better, that’s further into the body of the church than on the edge of the sanctuary, the priest can always talk up stuff like “making the proclamation of the Word more visible” or “bringing the Word right into the midst of the people”. (I can talk this kind of buzzword stuff all day.)

    Anyhoo, the word “pulpit” was used in English translations of Vatican documents until very recently (as you can see on vatican.va). This indicates that it’s a term of perfectly equal dignity with the more recent “lectern” and “ambo” usages. So call it whatever you want, I’d say.

    When it comes to actual truth, the Catechism says that:

    “1154: The liturgy of the Word is an integral part of sacramental celebrations. To nourish the faith of believers, the signs which accompany the Word of God should be emphasized: the book of the Word (a lectionary or a book of the Gospels), its veneration (procession, incense, candles), the place of its proclamation (lectern or ambo), its audible and intelligible reading, the minister’s homily which extends its proclamation, and the responses of the assembly (acclamations, meditation psalms, litanies, and profession of faith).”

    About the ambo specifically, under 1184:
    “The lectern (ambo): “The dignity of the Word of God requires the church to have a suitable place for announcing his message so that the attention of the people may be easily directed to that place during the liturgy of the Word.” (64)

    The GIRM says that at 260 that the readings, “where possible”, should be “proclaimed from an ambo or a lectern”. Then in 309, it says “309. The dignity of the word of God requires that the church have a place that is suitable for the proclamation of the word and toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns during the Liturgy of the Word.[117]

    It is appropriate that this place be ordinarily a stationary ambo and not simply a movable lectern. The ambo must be located in keeping with the design of each church in such a way that the ordained ministers and lectors may be clearly seen and heard by the faithful.

    From the ambo only the readings, the responsorial Psalm, and the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) are to be proclaimed; it may be used also for giving the homily and for announcing the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful. The dignity of the ambo requires that only a minister of the word should go up to it.

    It is appropriate that a new ambo be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual[118] before it is put into liturgical use.”

    So a stationary pulpit is obviously superior to a movable lectern. However, if the proposed ambo is ugly and expensive, that would probably fall under “where possible”, because obviously it’s not possible to purposely give place to an ugly piece of church furniture over an attractive or inoffensive one. Ugly art is wrong to place on purpose before the Lord, and it just encourages blasphemy to pay good money for it. (Unless you were trying to save the artist’s life or something. Even then, you could pay him and just not install the montrosity.)

    JPII called beauty “the visible form of the good” in his 1999 letter to artists. He also said that “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”

    So clearly, an ugly ambo would contradict the Word of God and the nature of God in the very place where His Word is proclaimed and revealed. A beautiful pulpit is a proclamation in itself, which is the right way to be.

    Other documents say that the place where you read from should be “suitable”, should “enthrone the Word of God” (that’s in the instructions for a Feb. 1, 2000 day of witness to the Eucharist), should be a little separate from the altar, and so on.

    So a pulpit’s obviously fine.

  29. marypatricia says:

    Thank you very much Suburbanbanshee for such a quick and comprehensive reply. I will copy it if you don’t mind and e mail it to the priest in question. I didn’t think there would be so much information for him to use. Hopefully there will soon be a lovely church enhanced and restored in a Diocese with a lot of modernised monstrosities. Thanks.

  30. Supertradmum says:

    Sean P. Dailey,

    I am sorry to hear that. This man went away to seminary “smart” and came back “modernist”. As you have clarified the source, I am not surprised.

  31. I was fortunate to have grown up in a church (St. Mary, Help of Christians in Sleepy Eye, MN) that never got the chance to be wreckovated, due to some very wise decisions made in the early 1960’s, believe it or not. The church retains its beautiful, ornate (and huge) carved wood altars, pulpit, confessionals, and communion railing. The altar is very similar to the one at the St. Francis de Sales Oratory in St. Louis (though not quite as tall). Sleepy Eye is a town of a little over 3500 people, but the church seats about 1000. It was built between 1900 and 1902 in the Gothic Revival style, and the twin spires can be seen for miles around. There are two photos on my blog: http://concertinaconfessions.blogspot.com/ (really, do go and take a look).

    The church (and altar) were solemnly consecrated by Bishop Alphonse Schladweiler in 1963. A very wise decision indeed. The mensa of the high altar is a huge slab of granite that is supported by three large brick pillars that pass through the sanctuary floor and down into the ground under the church. I’m thinking that those pillars are what saved the entire church from being gutted during what my grandfather facetiously calls the “Reformation”. Of course, we still have a wooden freestanding “altar” in front of the high altar, but everything original is still there, ready for the Traditional Latin Mass to be said on it (Deo volente).

  32. Gail F says:

    There is no excuse for “renovating” a perfectly good church these days. In the 1960s, when so many of these weird renovations were done, people just did not care much about preserving old buildings. They wanted to tear out the old and put in the new, no matter what the building was. New was better! I researched this once for an article on “adaptive reuse,” which is the architectural term for using an old building for a new purpose while retaining a lot of its original design, and I was shocked. As someone born in the 1960s, I never realized how many things were destroyed or torn down on purpose.

    But that was then, this is now. The “rip everything out and replace it with airport design” craze is OVER. Anyone who does it is waaaaay out of date.

  33. “As you have clarified the source, I am not surprised.”

    At your service, STM. It was only thanks to finally reading Tolkien in 1990 that I was able to make a full recovery.

  34. AnAmericanMother says:


    Now THAT is a High Altar! What a marvelous work of art – Mary Help of Christians, Sts. Peter and Paul, the lovely lunette of Christ on the face of the altar itself . . . all the elaborate carving . . . magnificent!

    The pulpit complete with sounding-board (‘the priest squasher’ as we called it in the Episcopal cathedral) and the Four Evangelists is another work of art in itself. How blessed you are to have such beauty to contemplate!

    We just don’t have anything like that in the South, all our buildings are too recent and you couldn’t get anything like that today unless a multi-millionaire decided to hire a bunch of Old Country woodcarvers . . .

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