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Bishops’ staffer defends process, rejects rumor on turning altars

NCR Staff

Though some experts have complained of inadequate consultation, the chief of staff for the U.S. bishops’ committee on liturgy says a new document on church design reflects a more comprehensive effort to solicit input than any previous statement on liturgy.

Fr. James Moroney also told NCR that despite rumors circulated on the Internet, the new document, tentatively titled Domus Dei (“House of God”) will not advocate a return to the ad orientam style of celebrating Mass in which the altar is turned toward the East and the priest’s back is toward the people.

Prior to discussion of the new document at the November 1999 meeting of the U.S. bishops, a group of liturgists called for it to be set aside in favor of a two-year nationwide consultation on the state of liturgical art and architecture. Among other criticisms, the liturgists noted that the document makes no mention of the only indigenous form of church architecture in the United States, the Spanish-style missions of the Southwest.

During floor discussion in November, some bishops echoed the call for wider consultation. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles suggested a series of three or four hearings across the country, “bringing together more of our art and architecture consultants -- priests, religious and laity.”

In response, the liturgy committee held a series of Internet sessions in chat rooms on America Online. Moroney said they involved more than 100 people. The committee also received more than 800 written comments, he said.

Several liturgists complained that the on-line sessions were insufficient. Some interested parties were not notified until after the fact, they said, and a series of technical problems made accessing the chat rooms cumbersome. Moreover, the nature of the process froze out anyone who was not an America Online user.

“Asking if there’s been enough consultation is like asking if you’ve got enough money,” said Moroney, executive secretary of the liturgy committee. “I have no idea what’s enough. But I can tell you there’s been a greater effort to consult with architects, artists, liturgical consultants, pastors and liturgists than on any previous undertaking.”

Moroney told NCR that plans call for the document to go before the bishops for a vote at their November meeting. He said the name of the document might change before that time.

Moroney said that while the 1978 document was poetic and inspirational, the new text is intended as “a commentary on the universal law of the church with regard to liturgical space.” Whereas “Environment and Art” had 107 paragraphs, Domus Dei has 640; the former had 33 footnotes, the latter has 269, Moroney said.

The question of turning altars and priests toward the East came up in the wake of a February talk Moroney gave at Mount. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. Afterward a report of his remarks circulated widely on the Internet. It quoted Moroney as saying “there is a definite push to facing East again” in the Mass, and that the issue would be addressed in Domus Dei.

Moroney told NCR the report “reflects the active imagination of a first-year seminarian.” He said Domus Dei would not address the orientation of the altar.

On the hot-button issue of the placement of the tabernacle, Moroney said Domus Dei will take its cue from the new “General Instruction on the Roman Missal,” an introduction to be issued by the Vatican for the book of prayers for the Mass. Observers said the new Latin version of that text is expected on Holy Thursday.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000