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Domus Dei: 
Breaking new ground 
or just rearranging furniture?

ML has never been to a meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, but a bishop or two has let it be known that — like most business meetings — it is usually a ponderous affair. Not many of the bishops get involved in the floor discussions.

However, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune, a significant number of bishops (33, including 5 cardinals) made their way to microphones at their November meeting to get in on the discussion of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy’s proposed new document on church architecture, Domus Dei.

Domus Dei started out as a revision to the popular and widely read Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy statement, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1978). In the early stages of the project, though, the BCL decided to write an entirely new document. During the three years the project has been in progress, discussion about the text has been limited and restricted.

The bishops have had their chance to comment on Domus Dei, but the document is still not widely available for public discussion. ML contacted several people to comment on the proposal. Many who have seen it have seen only “borrowed” copies and did not feel free to speak on the record. Others, including directors of liturgy offices for major dioceses, have not seen a draft at all.

The Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy was prohibited by the National Conference of Bishops from sending out electronic copies of the draft to anyone but their brother bishops.

ML was able to collect the following reactions to Domus Dei from a handful of experts around the country who have read the document. Richard Vosko is a nationally recognized liturgical design consultant. Paul Turner is pastor of St. John Regis Parish in Kansas City, Mo., and a widely published author on liturgical and sacramental topics. Lois Paha is the director of worship for the diocese of Austin. Jane Bernard is the director of worship for the diocese of New Ulm, Minn., and a frequent speaker on art and environment issues. Stephen Obarski is the director of worship for the diocese of Kansas City, Mo. Nathan Mitchell is the director of research for the Center for Pastoral Liturgy at Notre Dame University.

The decision to make copies of the draft available is up to each bishop within his own diocese. You may be able to get a copy from your bishop’s office or your worship office. However, if your bishop is not making the document public in your area, you may need to wait for the final version to be promulgated or “borrow” a copy from a neighboring diocese. The bishops were originally scheduled to vote on the final text at their June 2000 meeting.

The language of the document is technical and “churchy,” lacking the poetry one would hope for in a document concerned with art and aesthetics.

What is significant about Domus Dei?

Richard Vosko: Environment and Art in Catholic Worship is more poetic, artistic. The drafts of Domus Dei seem more legislative in spirit than Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. In this regard, it could correct some errors in the references cited in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship.

Lois Paha: Upon reviewing the October 1999 draft copy of Domus Dei, I am grateful for the extensive documentation that has gone into this work. However, I hope that if and when this document is ever promulgated, it will advance our theological understanding of the meaning of the celebration of the Eucharist, the center of our Christian life. The placement of the tabernacle for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in relation to the altar for the eucharistic sacrifice must be studied in the light of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Paul Turner: Some church documents unveil a dramatic new vision of what it is to be church. Others can best be summed up as follows: “It doesn’t break any new ground.” I believe Domus Dei will land in the second category. Its greatest contribution is that it compiles the church’s thinking on a wide range of topics relating to art and architecture. It faithfully presents the tradition. For those wanting to know the answers to questions both vexing and trivial, Domus Dei will provide a guide. Domus Dei does not call for a revolution in the design for our houses of worship. If it had, it would have been another kind of document.

Jane Hanson: While Environment and Art in Catholic Worship may be short on footnotes and references, Domus Dei has so many that it is often cumbersome and sometimes confusing. I cite as an example the section on the cross. I also appreciate the references to those with disabilities and the importance of making the environment for worship accessible for members of the assembly and ministers of the word.

Stephen Obarski: I realize that Domus Dei is the draft title. I would strongly prefer the balance afforded by using Domus Dei, Domus Ecclesiae. The document itself makes the point that “church buildings are holy because they are the house of God but also because they are the house of the Church” (187). I do expect the final draft to be a helpful tool in working with parish building and renovation committees.

My hope is that committees willread the ritual books, historybooks, and theology books along with various commentaries on the environment for worship in order to get a bigger picture ofthe issues.

If it is approved, what impact will it have on local parishes?

Richard Vosko: Some parish committees have not yet heard of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. If approved, Domus Dei could become their main reference. A lot will depend on the weight local ordinaries give to Domus Dei. My hope is that committees will read the ritual books, history books, and theology books along with various commentaries (books, articles, videotapes, etc.) on the environment for worship in order to get a bigger picture of the issues.

Lois Paha: The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called for the diocesan liturgical commission to assist with the implementation of the reforms. My hope is that the local church will look to the diocesan liturgical commission as one of its significant resources for the building and renovation of churches. This does not diminish the importance of the artists, liturgical consultants and architects needed for the building and renovation of these sacred places. The combined wisdom and lived experience of liturgical commission members provide additional insights from their reading of the people’s experience to ensure the best possible outcome.

Jane Hanson: The language of the document is technical and “churchy” (e.g., “nave” and “narthex”), lacking the poetry one would hope for in a document concerned with art and aesthetics. For example, the first section of Domus Dei sets out a good theological reflection on art and environment; however, it is long and technical, dense and deep. My sense is that the average building committee may walk into it, find it ponderous, scamper out again and go directly to the more practical sections.

Paul Turner: Some Catholics use documents like weapons in the battle of religion. The faithful do so as if civil war were raging within the church. Pace Pogo, the enemy is not us. Documentarian fundamentalism has made it difficult for the spirit to get beyond the letter.

Stephen Obarski: In collaboration with a capable consultant, parish committees will be called to the principles set forth in universal law and Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. They will also encounter a renewed emphasis on the commissioning of art and objects for worship “capable of bearing the weight of mystery.”

What will be the status of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship should this document be approved?

Richard Vosko: I am not sure. Some say it will no longer be printed by the United States Catholic Conference. I suspect that, for those who have read it, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship has already made an irreversible impact on the life of the Church not only in the United States but in other countries as well.

Jane Hanson: I have used and appreciated Environment and Art in Catholic Worship for many years. Its theology is understandable and in harmony with Vatican Council II and the tradition of the church. Its language is poetic and quotable. It is succinct yet inspiring. More footnotes and pictures representative of a greater variety of styles would have been helpful. Although I understand that Environment and Art in Catholic Worship is problematic for some, I have found nothing in it that contradicts or undermines the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal or the spirit of liturgical renewal set out by the Second Vatican Council. I understand that many are convinced that we need a new document. I number myself among those who would rather see a revision of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship or an updated companion to that document along the lines of Liturgical Music Today.

Nathan Mitchell: Clearly, it is time to “revisit” Environment and Art in Catholic Worship — though it is not clear, to me, that it is time to discard it in favor of another (and quite different) document, that is to say, Domus Dei. The committee responsible for the draft of Domus Dei would have done well to consult with our neighbors to the north. The Canadians’ Our Place of Worship is a model of clarity, brevity and sound pastoral process. It sees the building (or renovating) of a church as an act of pastoral care (like initiating a catechumen or witnessing a marriage) — not as an act of ideological revenge.

Does Domus Dei promote anyparticular ecclesiology (e.g.,People of God, Church Militant, etc.)?

Richard Vosko: I do not believe the intent of Domus Dei is to promote any particular ecclesiology.

Jane Hanson: I appreciate the discussion on cultural diversity, but I find it odd that no examples are given of architecture influenced by the Hispanic culture. The three churches mentioned are all on the East Coast and represent primarily white European culture. These three churches look pretty much alike — big, basically gothic, with a long center aisle, many rows of pews facing the sanctuary. The document does state that “no divine blueprints have been given” concerning the design of church buildings or the art that adorns them. However, because these three churches are mentioned specifically, people could assume that they represent what a Catholic church should look like. This could, by default, exclude a myriad of other styles and configurations.

If you were advising the bishops about this document, what would you tell them?

Richard Vosko: The draft needs a lot of work. It is not organized well. There are contradictions within the text. It is too long. It is couched in language that I believe many will not want to plow through. Some key references are listed only as footnotes while others are given prominence in the body of the text. On the other hand, some primary references are nuanced in the text. What will the bishops say to pastors who faithfully followed Environment and Art in Catholic Worship?

Lois Paha: I trust that the process of preparation will continue to include wide consultation to provide a document that will assist the life of the church now and in the future.

Jane Hanson: Domus Dei is a long document. It feels like it was written by a committee, which of course it was. It needs the crafty touch of a skillful editor to give it the cohesiveness and flow that it lacks. The preface mentions “universal law” and “particular law.” This is again technical, church language that will likely mean little if anything to that same building committee. These are, however, important issues warranting an understandable explanation, and I can find none. It would be helpful to have a section that deals with the design and building of new churches and another section dealing with the renovation of existing churches.

Stephen Obarski: Concerning a place of reposition as a consideration for a church well appointed to celebrate the Triduum: In a church being prepared with proper provisions for eucharistic reservation, a second suitable place for adoration following the Mass of the Lord’s Supper seems redundant because the presumption of the rite is that the Eucharist will be reserved and adored in the chapel. This section really should be omitted.

Nathan Mitchell: Drafters of Domus Dei, take note. Why reinvent the wheel? What harm could come if the U.S. bishops simply asked the Canadian Catholic Conference to “adopt” Our Place of Worship as our own “update” of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship? The Domus Dei drafting committee could then vote itself out of business, and we could all move forward with the important pastoral work of building faith environments that “share the quality of ‘transparency,’ revealing the Creator behind the created object” (Our Place of Worship 9). What a refreshing change that would be from the endless politicking and posturing that seem to surround every document that comes before the NCCB.


What do YOU Think?
Send an e-mail to ML Editor
or post an entry on the ML Current Issue Discussion Board. (All submissions become the property of RPI and may be edited for length.) 

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