Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

“Before” More In-Tune With Vatican II Than “After”

July 20th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Trolling parish websites once again I came across before and after photographs of the chancel of the church of St. Joseph the Worker in the Sts. Isidore & Maria Torribia Parish in Addison.



We could probably choose before and after pictures from a variety of parishes in the diocese and make the same or similar observations that I lay out below. St. Joseph’s just happens to be handy so the folks there needn’t take my remarks personally.



The before photograph of St. Joseph’s chancel was taken during Christmas time, 1966. I don’t know when the chancel was renovated to its current state but it was obviously after 1966 and the Second Vatican Council. I’m making the assumption the 1966 chancel was a “pre-Vatican II” arrangement even though the picture could be of a recently renovated chancel completed after the start of the council. At any rate, it’s not essential to the points I want to make.

Hands down I prefer the before chancel to the after renovation chancel because the before chancel better reflects in my opinion, the wishes of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. It conveys the real Spirit of Vatican II.

Let me explain.

All but the most “spirit of Vatican II” progressives among us would probably agree that most of the council fathers were not interested in a liturgical revolution but more of a fine-tuning –to clean the liturgy (and the liturgical environment) of layers of stuff that had come to cloud the understanding and experience of the Mass for the clergy as well as the assembled congregation. The fathers were influenced by the liturgical reform movement of the first half of the 20th century. Rightly and appropriately there were cautious attempts after the council to once again make the altar, the tabernacle and the crucifix the primary focus of attention. Much of the devotional imagery that had accumulated in the chancels was scaled back or moved to appropriate side chapels or shrines for private prayer. As the council documents called for, such images were never meant to be discarded altogether.

But then we all soon got sidetracked into removing nearly all imagery and decoration, labeling it “distracting” to the “action of the Mass.” Nearly everything visual went, including patterns and design work which were painted over in neutral colors –our beigeification period, someone has called it.

None of these radical interpretations had any valid foundation in the council documents. They were merely fantasies in the minds of those liturgists, architects and consultants for whom the Protestant Reformation had not gone far enough.

Now, let’s look at the pre-Vatican II chancel of the Church of St. Joseph the Worker. Was there anything there that the fathers would have found in need of fine-tuning?

I doubt it.

The altar and nicely veiled tabernacle are certainly of primary focus. Using the tabernacle as a base for the crucifix is improper but that’s a fairly minor issue especially given that the crucifix is small. Yes, a larger crucifix attached to the wall would have been better given the consensus of opinion among liturgical reformers leading up to Vatican II.

I don’t know exactly what the subject of the stained glass window is but even if it were primarily devotional (e.g. an image of St. Joseph) the fathers insisted that no works of art having historical, artistic, or cultural value be removed. At the very least the window probably has historical value for this church. The window, as we can see, was in fact retained in the renovation.

I don’t see any devotional imagery in the apse of the 1966 chancel at St. Joseph’s. So that wasn’t a problem needing to be addressed.

The pattern on the walls and ceiling of the apse was quite appropriate. I can’t make out the symbols but the overall pattern recalls the decorative walls of the Old Testament Jerusalem Temple and imagines the sense of the New Jerusalem -the New Heaven; Paradise. There was certainly no need to beigeify the chancel walls. Doing so actually worked against what the fathers of the council wanted to do: restore the cosmic and eschatological meaning to the liturgy.


Stained glass window in Prague Cathedral. The large fields of richly pattern window are meant to convey a sense of the transcendent --of heaven. Consider the size of the pictirial image given the size of the areas given over to colorful pattern.

But, what about the altar; didn’t the council call for a free-standing altar, and Mass facing the people? Nope. It didn’t. Where possible when renovating, and in new churches especially, the fathers recommended free-standing altars so as to get away from altars that looked more like shelves for statues and flowers than altars and so that priests could walk all around the altar to incense it. They didn’t call for the destruction of current altars and they went out of their way to caution against doing anything to unduly disturb the historical, artistic or cultural value of existing liturgical furnishings. The council did mention that a plus for a free-standing altar was the flexibility to celebrate with priest and people facing each other. It didn’t mandate or even recommend, I don’t think, that Mass be celebrated with priest and people facing each other.

Facing East –literal East or liturgical East- has always been the tradition of the Church since ancient times. The practice even predates Christianity. In the Mass we face East in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ; we face East in anticipation of the advent of the New Jerusalem, the New Heaven. In the luminosity of the stained glass rose window of St. Joseph’s we even have the suggestion of the rising sun, a symbol for the coming of the Son at the end of time.

Given the 1966 altar, patterned wall, and luminous colored window what more could you ask for in terms of a proper orientation and disposition for celebrating Mass?

The council rightly wanted to correct –among other things- some liturgical art problems that had arisen and become popular in the Victorian era. Among them the crowding of the chancel area and altar with devotional images that did not conform to the right ordering of things according to the Church’s orthodox understanding of the liturgy. Many, many post-Vatican II liturgists and clergy interpreted that to mean that all images had to go, and so they went, until we were left with a sterile minimalism that Father Richard Vosko and other post-Vatican II liturgists and consultants seemed to hawk as a goal that was advocated by the council.

The current chancel of St. Joseph’s –and any number of churches we could point to- actually contradicts Vatican II. Both the altar and the tabernacle have been visually demoted and a devotional statue of St. Joseph has been added and given primary focus, overshadowing the scaled-back tabernacle (which still, incidentally, supports a crucifix). The prominence given the sculpture visually robs the altar of importance.

Perhaps the good folks at St. Joseph’s should use the before chancel picture to guide them in their next renovation. Perhaps we should all search for the before photos in the archives of our parishes. Let’s hope that now that we seem to be fully engaged in “reforming the reform”, many renovations of the renovations will be guided by the real “Holy Spirit of Vatican II.”

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12 Responses to ““Before” More In-Tune With Vatican II Than “After””

  1. annonymouse says:

    Bernie – you state that the purpose of the Council’s liturgical reform was “restore the cosmic and eschatological meaning to the liturgy.” Please tell me where you find that in Sacrosanctum Concilium or any of the other conciliar documents.

    I find that the liturgical reform had these things in mind: “to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church.” (SC 1) I’m sorry, but I’m not seeing the “cosmic and eschatological meaning” that you are.

    If anything, the pre-conciliar liturgy had much cosmic and eschatological meaning, but precious little that would lead to building the kind of communion the Fathers envisioned for the Church here and now.

  2. Bernie says:

    Annonymouse: Thank you for your comment. I can see your confusion.
    The fathers were interested in cleaning-up the liturgy and restoring or making clearer to modern man the eschatological nature of the Divine Liturgy. To do this the fathers recommended removal of things that had been accumulated over time that not only did not add to the liturgy but actually detracted from it and smothered its eschatological meaning in the minds of worshipers. In the context of my post, it means a return to observing a hierarchy of images in the sanctuary by a refocusing on the crucifix, the altar (as also table), and the tabernacle so that modern man might more actively (consciously)participate in the Divine Mystery and experience the eschatological dimension of the liturgy -that what was happening at the altar had an eschatological reality and meaning to modern man. Not only did they foresee a removal of some things but also a return to things that had been lost. Simply stated they wanted the purpose of the Mass to be made clearer in the minds of the faithful; a conscious active participation of the faithful in the Mass as opposed to private devotion.

    “Sacrosanctum Concilium” recommended sacred art be composed of “signs and symbols of heavenly realities” meant to be “expressive of God’s boundless beauty” (SC, 122), It also asked that all sacred arts be “in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws” (SC, 122) Denis R. McNamara makes these citations in his book “Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy” p217 although in a slightly different context.

    I think it is also important to keep in mind that the fathers of Vatican II had been exposed to the discussions of the liturgical reform movement that had been going on for years prior to the council. Much of that discussion centered on unburdening the liturgy of things that had been accumulated over time –sometimes by accident- that made it difficult for modern man to be predisposed to receiving all the graces that flow from the Mass.

  3. Raymond F. Rice says:

    You are a diocesan treasure!!!!

  4. Bernie says:

    Ha ha! Thanks Raymond.
    I’m just a poor smuck trying to figure things out, putting things out there and seeing if they can survive any close scrutiny.

  5. Bernie says:

    Annonymouse: I have in mind SC 2 -the section just after the one you cite: “… It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek. …”

    I’m thinking also of SC 8: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory.”

  6. JLo says:

    I just want to add my thanks to Bernie for all he teaches us. I read about our Faith and Church and saints all the time, but the beauties and meanings of the art treasures and architecture are only in my purview during my “lessons with Bernie”, so I am very grateful. Just a thought… how about a word on those flags which so many of our churches insist on flying right there on the altar!! Talk about distractions! +JMJ

  7. annonymouse says:

    Bernie, with all due respect, the eschatological nature of the liturgy was present in oodles before Vatican II (we have always sung a hymn to the Lord’s glory…).

    What the Fathers tried to do, and what many still resist, is to bring into the liturgy the sense of building communion – the community – of God in Jesus Christ here and now, so that the Church, nourished by Word and Sacrament, will go forth to act as God’s Sacramental presence to the world and build the Kingdom right here and right now.

    To do that required (requires) rather significant changes from the individual piety that was so prevalent in the liturgy and required the full, active and conscious participation in the liturgy among all the faithful. The renovated St. Joseph, by virtue of removal of the barrier (altar rail) and needless distractions on the wall, is (in my opinion) much more conducive to the goal of the liturgy that the Vatican Fathers intended and about which they wrote.

    In terms of needless distractions, I’m glad that St. Joseph didn’t move their organ pipes to the front wall.

    With respect to the tabernacle, I think it’s best situated where it is not the focus of the Mass (what’s happening at the ambo and the altar is the focus of the Mass) but where it is reverently and prominently displayed and conducive for private devotion outside of the Mass. Except that it requires too much searching to find it, I think they did a great job with the Blessed Sacrament chapel at our Cathedral.

  8. annonymouse says:

    Further to my last post, I will acknowledge that many churches, in an attempt to respond to the Fathers’ desire to reform the liturgy to build community and foster full participation, have lost the very eschatological and cosmic meaning of the Mass of which Bernie speaks. In other words, many have gone much too far.

    The question is, how far is too far? How do worship spaces foster liturgy as a participatory act of the community and still maintain the divine, eschatological meaning as well?

  9. militia says:

    Will someone please explain to me how our turning away from the Real Presence, just consecrated, from the Son of God, to shake hands with eveyone within arms reach can possibly be consistent with worshiping our God? How can it be reverent for a priest to leave the Precious Body and Blood alone on the altar and descend into a glad-handing spectacle possibly be setting a good example?

    My pastor said (during the winter flu season) that a handshake is optional, so I have opted out. Being seen as anti-social is better than selecting who to shake hands with, and avoiding the person who has been wiping his or her nose, coughing in their hands etc., scratching their heads. That is understandably seen as passing judgment and discriminating.

    But it is still awkward to simply smile and say “Peace be with you” when not shaking hands is viewed so negatively. Maybe this is supposed for foster “communion” with the community, but I find it very distracting, with people even crossing aisles or getting out of the pew to go elsewhere and shake hands.

    In dioceses where people kneel for the “Agnus Dei” it is easier to handle, as those not wanting to shake hands simply kneel at this point.

  10. Nerina says:

    The question is, how far is too far? How do worship spaces foster liturgy as a participatory act of the community and still maintain the divine, eschatological meaning as well?

    Great question, Annonymouse. I don’t have a great answer at the moment, but I think your question is at the very heart of getting the liturgy “right” (i.e. where there is a balance between “horizontal” communion and “vertical” communion and worship).

  11. christian says:

    Thank you Bernie for your wonderful posts. I thank you also for educating us in liturgical art and environment as well as the intentions of Vatican II. As much as I agree with some of the reforms, I do not see why a high altar has to be taken down when a table/altar facing the congregation is used. The high altar adds to the continuity of the Divine come down to Earth for us; the connection of Heaven and Earth in our worship and in the Sacrament of the Mass. I do not see why altar railings have to be removed as they add to the architecture of the church and altar area. The altar rail also gives the option for those who wish to receive communion on their knees to do so.
    I agree, the 1966 illustration of St. Joseph chancel looks more in line with the precepts of Vatican II than the renovated post-Vatican II illustration. The 1966 illustration is very pleasing to the eye and in balance. It seems very conducive to worship. After seeing 1966, my first impression was “Yuck” while cringing. The renovation look is very distracting (“busy”) and unbalanced. It is not conducive to worship. As much as I like St. Joseph, his statue does not belong in the center prominent area over the tabernacle. It would be very appropriate to devote a side altar to St. Joseph. look of the church pre-Vatican II over the look of the church post-Vatican II.

  12. Bernie says:

    annonymouse: I think you are correct in your interpretation of the Council as mandating that efforts be made to encourage a sense of community, especially during the Divine Liturgy on Sundays. I certainly could not disagree with you.

    I am attempting in this post, however, to present what I think was in the mind of the Council when it issued “Sacrosanctum Concilium” regarding the arrangement and imagery of the chancel. In the context of the liturgical reform movement that the bishops had been exposed to prior to the Council, I believe they envisioned a cleaning-up and right ordering of the liturgy –and the things connected with the liturgy- so that the liturgy’s essential eschatological purpose would once again be made clear to modern man as he participated at Mass. I wanted to point out in this post that the before chancel of St. Joseph’s probably fit better the mind of the Council than the after chancel. The before chancel was free of devotional images and “things”: the altar, tabernacle, and patterned walls (and crucifix if it had been properly hung on the wall, and larger) all contributed to a clear expression of the eschatological dimension of the liturgy.

    The after chancel actually diminishes the importance of the altar, visually as well as symbolically. It’s now harder to see and has become a table more than an altar, a mere meal more than a sacrifice. The tabernacle has actually been returned in the after chancel to a pre-Vatican II status, a mere box overwhelmed by statuary.

    The “heavenly” and temple imitating pattern of the walls (in reference to I used the term “eschatological”) has been removed. How is man to experience the eschatological dimension of the Mass when we eliminate the things that make him think of heaven –and his ultimate goal?

    I don’t want you think I disagree with your interpretation of the Council’s intentions. I don’t. I hope, in this comment response, that I’ve been able to make my point a little clearer in regard to some aspects of the Council’s thinking. Have I? If not, perhaps in some of my future posts I might be able to do a better job of explaining my thinking.

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