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Church design expert proposes liturgy pastoral

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
South Bend, Ind.

The man considered by many observers to be America’s leading expert on church design has proposed that the U.S. bishops should produce a broad pastoral letter on liturgy.

The proposal was the first item in a five-point plan outlined by Fr. Richard Vosko for educating American Catholics about the liturgical renewal launched by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

In a March 31 speech at the University of Notre Dame, Vosko argued that the U.S. bishops should clarify the basic principles of liturgical renewal before issuing any documents on subtopics such as art and architecture. Though he did not mention it by name, Vosko’s proposal would mean shelving a new document on liturgical art and architecture, tentatively titled Domus Dei (“House of God”), currently making its way through the bishops’ conference (see accompanying article).

“It makes no sense to talk about liturgical space if there is little agreement about the nature of liturgy itself,” Vosko said. He was delivering the second annual Mark Searle lecture, sponsored by Notre Dame’s Center for Pastoral Liturgy.

A priest of the Albany, N.Y., diocese, Vosko has been a consultant on worship space for 31 years and is widely published on the subject. Dozens of cathedrals and parish churches in the United States and Canada have been renovated drawing on Vosko’s approach, which aims to translate Vatican II’s liturgical vision into architectural terms.

Because Vosko argues for placing emphasis on the key liturgical symbols -- the altar, the bread and wine, the assembly -- churches designed under his influence sometimes have a more Spartan look and feel than pre-conciliar structures.

That has made him a controversial figure among critics who believe the church’s heritage of art and architecture has been unduly squandered after the council. Michael Rose, author of The Renovation Manipulation, has accused Vosko of attacking “the very heart of Catholic faith” and “scamming Catholics in the service of liturgy deconstructionists.”

Vosko noted that some of his critics believe the focus of any act of worship should be on God, not people. “The reason for the new focus on the assembly is derived precisely from the recovered role of the people of God during acts of worship and not because of any subversive movement to discount the presence of God in the church,” he said.

Vosko pointed out that it is the assembly itself, not necessarily the worship space, that is called to transcend the ordinary.

The first element of Vosko’s five-point plan was his proposal for a pastoral letter from the U.S. bishops, which he suggested be similar to Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony’s 1997 letter on the Sunday Mass titled “Gather Faithfully Together.” Vosko proposed that the bishops’ pastoral be made available on the Internet, as a compact disc and as a videotape.

Second, Vosko suggested a think tank on Catholic creativity and imagination, qualities he said are missing from conversation on church art and architecture. Drawing on scholars, liturgists and practitioners, it would create a forum for the exchange of ideas and would publish a journal.

Third, Vosko called for education in the arts in Catholic seminaries, pointing to the success of a similar program at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It exposes students to design, fine arts, literature and music, giving them a better foundation for decisions about worship space.

Fourth, Vosko suggested that Catholic academic institutions develop an interdisciplinary degree program for training in both architecture and liturgy. No such program currently exists.

Finally, Vosko proposed that a Catholic media network should be formed by the bishops to “provide unbiased news, talk shows and special-interest programming in a manner that is as creative as other networks.” Such a network would “terminate the advancement of extreme viewpoints on all issues of importance to the Catholic community that only confuse and hurt the membership of the church,” he said.

Vosko said his plan is necessary because there is a lack of education about liturgical matters in the American church. There is currently not a single degree in liturgical art or architecture being offered by a Catholic university, he said, nor a program in the seminaries, and no broad-based effort was ever made to educate Catholic laity on liturgical reforms.

Another factor in battles over the arrangement of worship space, Vosko said, is that “Catholics in the U.S. are first of all Americans -- focused on independence and free thought. Within the Roman Catholic church, they do not have control over ethical teachings, the language of the Mass or even who their pastor will be. But church space they can control. And they cling to that.”

While many ornate, highly decorated churches stand as icons of the Catholic faith, Vosko pointed out that “a highly ornate and decorative worship space is no guarantee that the assembly will be inspired to worship God more attentively or to carry out works of justice more responsibly than a space that is designed in the spirit of the very liturgy it houses -- noble and simple.”

Vosko encouraged architects, liturgists and designers to use their imaginations when constructing and renovating churches, quoting Thomas Merton, who said, “One of the big problems for an architect in our time is that for 150 years [people] have been building churches as if a church could not belong to our time.”

Ironically, Vosko was delivering his lecture at a university whose School of Architecture is home to two leading critics of the approach Vosko represents. Duncan Stroik and Thomas Gordon Smith have championed a return to classical principles in church design.

During a question-and-answer period after Vosko’s lecture, Stroik said that he took issue with what he interpreted as Vosko’s summary rejection of the past. He said he wondered if Vosko had anything at all positive to say about the past and its contributions.

Vosko responded that he supports building on the church’s tradition, not rejecting it.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000