QUAERITUR: Guidelines for “environment” for the liturgy coordinator. Fr. Z rants.

From a priest:

Read the black, and do the red seems to work well. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?] I am training a new liturgy coordinator. She will be in charge of the environment in the church. In the past that meant flowers and banners. Are there any Magisterial documents on this topic? How are we to decorate our church. We do have antependiums made with specific liturgical colors, what other criteria are there?

Good question. First, I’ll guess you are in the USA. The US bishops have a document about these matters called “Built of Living Stones“. I am not much impressed with certain aspects of it, such as their (purposely?) inaccurate rendering of GIRM 299 about the position of the altar. But that is not your main concern. BLS may be a little squishy but perhaps it could be a good starting point.

I will open this to the readership. Perhaps priests in parishes can help you out with this one. I’ll be interested to see the advice.

For my part, antependia are good. I would do things the old way and avoid flowers during Advent and Lent. Don’t overdo it at Christmas and Easter. Potted plants should be forbidden through interdicts and latae sententiae excommunications. If I hear that you have arranged pumpkins and dead branches and corn cobs around the place for Thanksgiving, I may have to hunt you down. If I ever hear that you have allowed the “reconciliation room” to be pimped out with a little table, a fat candle, and a little bowl of pebbles, I will hunt you down. At the first appearance of anything with a rainbow on it… well… it gets worse from there.

I think what you see in church should make you think about the Church Militant, Suffering and Triumphant and about the transcendence of God even before the humility of Christ and his Passion and Resurrection, pointing always back to the central position of the Eucharist in the church. Things which don’t do that … well… just get rid of them. And get rid of anyone who suggests pebbles anywhere, anything tie died or finger-painted, and just about anything that looks like it could have been worn in a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.

Finally, depending on the space, sometimes less is more.

PS: Convert the reconciliation room immediately to a real confessional with a fixed barrier and grate.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Legisperitus says:

    If you want the Vidi Aquam, just sing the Vidi Aquam. Don’t supplement all the Paschaltide Masses with a trickling fountain with a microphone pointed at it. Think of all the folks who may have bladder-control issues. :^)

  2. Paul says:

    In addition to Father’s list of forbidden objects, may I add to your Index, art work done by parochial students? As proud as you are of the crayon representations of Noah’s ark, they DO NOT belong taped to the altar of sacrifice, as if it is some refrigerator, set on its side.

    On the positive, I am great fan of tasteful, traditional, statues and stained glass.

  3. RichR says:

    Also, don’t let anyone beat you over the head with Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, either. It has no canonical status, and the NCCB had to issue a document clarifying its lack of status because certain liturgists were using it to justify weird stuff, all the while saying it was what the American Bishops wanted.

  4. mike cliffson says:

    “Convert the reconciliation room immediately to a real confessional.”
    Why not buy a a confession box and relabel the reconciliation room the levitation room and see what happens?

  5. Hidden One says:

    Tabernacle veils! Don’t forget tabernacle veils – one for each liturgical colour. But not simultaneously. No, not simultaneously. No. Don’t. No. No rainbows. No.

    Also, please, please, please never put in an electric fountain or anything of the sort in the sanctuary or the nave. Never. Unless and until some competent and unappealable authority orders you to. Then do it.

  6. Charlotte Allen says:

    Please don’t have a spritzer of Purell in the sanctuary for you and/or anyone else to sanitize your hands with before giving out Holy Communion. Our former pastor was a Purell fanatic, and we still have Eucharistic ministers lining up at the Purell stand right after the Agnus Dei. If people are worried about germs, can’t they wash their hands before the Mass begins, not during it? The Purell rite looks blasphemous at worst, highly inappropriate and distracting at best.

  7. Charlotte Allen says:

    Also, Fr. Z, aren’t potted Easter lilies OK for Easter? And potted poinsettias for Christmas?

  8. Ef-lover says:

    Stay away from anything thing felt

  9. Kaneohe says:

    I am the Liturgy Coordinator for my parish and have found the best way to keep things orderly is to never say what needs to be done in music or sacred art and environment as if it is my personal opinion. I always prepare a write up on the season, it’s liturgical/theological themes and quote all the documents possible as far as do’s and don’t’s.

    Two excellent sources of information are:

    The Ministry of Liturgical Environment by Joyce Ann Zimmerman, published by Liturgical Press (www.litpress.com) This small booklet is full of excellent suggestions all based on church documents, it aims to curb the excesses that often occur. It is the only one of many books that I’ve read and kept. All the others were trashed!

    The second book is Ceremonial of the Liturgical Year by Msgr. Peter J. Elliot (Ignatius Press) – all his books are excellent resources.

    Built as Living Stone is the main USCCB document- even though some people still try to refer to Environment and Art in Catholic Worship published by the USCCB in 1978. That documents has been replaced and should not be refer to or used. See BLS #9.

    Don’t forget to check out the GIRM which often tells what’s appropriate for the liturgical year, and others such as Paschale Solemnitatis (On Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts) etc.

    The main problem is that all the information is scattered throughout many, many documents….so it takes a lot of research, reading, etc… but these will at least get you started on the right foot.

  10. danivdp says:

    LOLing at pumpkins….we have those now, complete with other squash and a HAYBALE!! I thought to myself “When did Fall become a liturgical season?”

  11. APX says:


    Yes, being from Canada and it being Thanksgiving long weekend, our parish has a looooovely display of pumpkins, corn, various other squashes, some cornucopias filled with fruit. Thankfully no rubber turkey, ’cause that would just be tacky.

    I will give them props for displaying it at the back of the church, and not at the foot of the altar, as is the custom in other parishes…a long with the bale of hay.

    I once went to a parish where the baptismal font was filled with field stones and draped in purple cloth with vases of twigs during Lent, and another parish in the same city had a a huge display of cacti and sand in its baptismal font. But the best is my parish back home which removed all the crosses and crucifixes and replaced them with weird abstract cloth art. I thought it was just an Easter thing, but I was wrong.

  12. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Remember: It’s God’s house.
    Remember further: Lift the minds and hearts of the people to the things of God.
    Remember: Introibo ad altare DEI
    Remember: Domine, non sum dignus; ecce Agnus Dei

    Forget: Relevant
    Forget: meaningful
    Forget: Active Participation

  13. heway says:

    Sorry Father, but we have pumpkins, squash and other fall harvest in the sanctuary. We are a farm and ranch community in the southwest. For the first part of the monsoon season -there were no monsoons , no rain for the crops. When it finally came, we had plenty. Rain is something we ask for during the intercessions. Those who grow the wonderful crops you love to cook, are very thankful for the gifts our Blessed Lord bestows on us. The placement of the vegetables is to remind you to ‘be thankful’ to your Creator.
    We will also have potted poinsiettas at Christmas and live potted lilies at Easter. Both of these plants have significance during these seasons.. [It was pretty clear which potted sort of potted plants I was talking about. It is absurd to think I am against lilies at Easter. Entirely absurd.]

  14. heway says:

    In defense of the potted plants: (Googled material)
    Often called the “white-robed apostles of hope,” lilies were found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane after Christ’s agony. Tradition has it that the beautiful white lilies sprung up where drops of Christ’s sweat fell to the ground in his final hours of sorrow and deep distress. Churches continue this tradition at Easter time by banking their alters and surrounding their crosses with masses of Easter Lilies, to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and hope of life everlasting.
    Poinsettia Legend An ancient legend connected the poinsettia with Jesus’ birth. A young brother and sister had nothing to offer to baby Jesus at Christmas. They took the long way to church hoping to find something along the way. Desperately, they picked up some green leafy weeds and brought them into the church. The story differs after the children entered the church. In some accounts, the children lay the weeds at the feet of the baby Jesus, in other accounts before the Blessed Virgin Mary. In either case, the weed suddenly erupts into sparkling red blooms that overshadow all the baby Jesus’ other gifts, and the children rejoice. Poinsettia and Jesus’ Birth and Crucifixion The poinsettia with its star shaped foliage pattern has been connected with the Star of Bethlehem shining at the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:1-21). The poinsettia’s blood red leaves symbolize the blood sacrificed for love of God. Scriptural events connected with the poinsetta include the deaths of the Holy Innocents, babies killed by King Herod madly in search of Jesus (Matthew 2:13-18) as well as the Jesus’ death and crucifixion (all four gospels).

  15. Joe in Canada says:

    but … what am I to do with the boxes of stoles from the 70s? I’ve got tie-dyed, I’ve got macrame, I’ve got burlap, I’ve got polyester, …. I was going to make a mobile to decorate the middle of the giant dream-catcher suspended from the ceiling in my neighboring parish….

  16. Lori Pieper says:

    I am lucky to go to a truly gorgeous Gothic style church in the Bronx (St. Nicholas of Tolentine). Congregation is mainly Spanish and Vietnamese. The church has the most beautiful gray stone walls, stately columns and stained-glass windows – even a rose window in the back and on each side of the transept. Also a wooden baldachino at the altar! You don’t see too many of those anymore. Fortunately they don’t do too much to mess this up. Vases of flowers at the altar, and the crib at Christmas are about it.

    But they also have some things I’ve never seen before in other churches. One is that they hang a cloth drapery in the apse behind the baldachino. The crucifix hangs from the front of the baldachino, so you can see it against a colored background, which changes from time to time. The colors usually don’t seem to be liturgical – buttercup yellow, bright blue, etc. It’s striking and on the other hand, it’s odd.

    Then there are the colored streamers that are draped from column to column every now and then.This really spoils the effect of the columns. It’s not exactly as if we’re having a birthday party. I think that’s something I would change.

  17. Elizabeth D says:

    The book “Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite” has a good amount of best practices advice about environment. This is a good and respected book that is unlikely to steer someone wrong. http://www.amazon.com/Ceremonies-Modern-Roman-Rite-Ministries/dp/0898705266 I put it in the sacristy at church, so I don’t have it in front of me to refer to. Some helpful portions of it can be previewed with the “Look Inside!” feature on Amazon.com.

    At the very traditional style church near me that has a big Hispanic community, they had a huge balloon arch and balloon garlands in the church for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the colors of the Mexican flag. Their exhuberant devotion was sort of touching, but the English language priest and parishioners didn’t really relate to the balloon art so much. No balloons.

  18. Phil_NL says:

    In the category ‘more serious recommendations’: try to make sure that there is a distinction between how the chruch looks at ordinary days, and high feasts. For example, in our parish, we have two sets of candlesticks for the high altar against the back wall (which, sadly, isn’t used, but at least it wasn’t wreckovated out and it still has the tabernacle) – one relatively modest, and one set that’s a fine work of art, noticeably bigger and heavily silvered. Use of the second set, polished to the nines, immediately signals that there’s something major going on, and is used for Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, our patron’s feast etc.
    Combined with additional flowers (yellow and white can be used for a big chunck of the year) such small but noticable changes give emphasis to the liturgical year.

    Also, if there’s a statue of the parish patron saint or the Holy Virgin or both somewhere in/near the sanctuary (and there should be, if you ask me), also emphasize those at appropriate times. even a single modest floral arrangement in the right spot can make quite a difference IMO.

  19. Sarah H says:

    I’m fortunate that my current parish tends to be tastefully decorated, but at a parish I attended a few years ago there was an “art committee” that had been allowed to run amok. For the Christmas season their main addition to the sanctuary was a life sized figure, naked except for some strategic drapery that had been painted gold and suspended upside down from the ceiling. Apparently this was supposed to represent “God breaking into human history through the incarnation”. We left that parish before we could see what travesy they came up with for Easter, but as a result of the experience I’m now a little more forgiving of felt banners because hey, it could be so much worse.

  20. Charlotte Allen says:

    Yah, our parish does the “desert” thing during Lent. No holy water in the fonts, so you feel like a fool when you dunk your fingers and come up against dry marble. Plus, someone drapes a large “sand”-colored sheet of canvas over the steps in the sanctuary leading up to the altar and puts some papier-mache “boulders” down on the canvas, along with a bunch of items that I think are supposed to have symbolic significance. There’s always a big jug (???), a couple of loaves of real bread that sit on those steps for all 40 days of Lent (don’t they attract mice?), and, of all things, a red-and-white blind man’s cane. I gather that the last has something to do with spiritual blindness, but I’m not sure. The whole thing looks like a bad school play set.

    I don’t get it: Why do we have to pretend we’re in a desert during Lent? Lent is Lent, with its own liturgical color: purple, not beige.

  21. Also, if the art is a little more secular (like a balloon arch), there’s nothing stopping you from, say, having the balloon arch out in the vestibule or even outside over the church door, and a more formal arch inside church. (And that would be nice to wrap in streamers, for instance.) Kids’ art in the basement for people to look at during coffee and donuts, sacred art in church. And so on. The Church doesn’t hate whimsy (or giant dragon puppet banners spitting firecrackers for accompanying the Beating of the Bounds). It’s just that it’s nice to have the fun stuff and the serious stuff in their proper places, so that both can give their proper kind of honor to God.

  22. Will D. says:

    In the category ‘more serious recommendations’: try to make sure that there is a distinction between how the chruch looks at ordinary days, and high feasts.

    Very true. Our pastor has taken to doing this the last few years. Plenty of candles and flowers during Easter, much more restrained during Ordinary time. And very spartan indeed during Lent and Advent.
    Unfortunately, we still get some corny things. Twigs and rocks during Lent. A big loaf of sheepherder’s bread, a bunch of wheat, and a retired clay “chalice” for Corpus Christi and the Holy Thursday Mass.
    You win some, you lose some.

  23. GirlCanChant says:

    Just say no to pots of bare sticks during Lent.

  24. APX says:

    It’s decor that looks more like folk art,and DIY arts and crafts time than anything else that seems to be the most hideous and cheap. IMHO, what does on inside of our churches is far too important for anything to look hideous and cheap.

    My parish usually keeps it pretty simple (aside from the tacky Thanksgiving display it has at the back of the Church right now and tacky tapestry hanging off the OF Altar and podium where the intentions are read.) with plenty of flower arrangements around our statue of Mary and on the high altar in the silver vases between the candles. It looks very nice and not overdone.

    During Lent, rather than fill the church with twigs, rocks, cacti, and sand in the stoups, they just removed the flowers and kept things really bland until Easter. Doing this seems to have more of an effect on what’s going on during Lent, and it’s more noticeable as various things are removed throughout Lent rather than adding more frivolous tchotchkes . You get that real depressing penitential feel to it. OF Good Friday at my then parish just seemed like too much happy with all the extra decor and music after my minimalistic Lenten Sundays.

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