Monday, November 19, 2012

Churches Are Not Concert Halls

I know of two concerts held in churches in the last week or so (in different dioceses and different states); between the two of them, they violated these regulations: 1) the music was not exclusively sacred music; 2) the musicians were seated in the sanctuary; 3) in one case, the Blessed Sacrament was not removed; and 3) in one case, admission was charged for the concert.

These points are explicitly addressed in a document called “Concerts in Churches published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments in 1987. Let me address the violations using the words of the document (my emphases).

First, the music for both concerts was, from all reports, beautiful and beautifully performed. One concert included sacred music; the other was purely “contemporary Christian”. But the document notes that

The most beautiful symphonic music, for example, is not in itself of religious character. The definition of sacred or religious music depends explicitly on the original intended use of the musical pieces or songs, and likewise on their content…(paragraph III.8.)

Second, the document also states unequivocally that, “The musicians and the singers should not be placed in the sanctuary” (paragraph III.10.e.).

Third, the document states, “The Blessed Sacrament should be, as far as possible, reserved in a side chapel or in another safe and suitably adorned place” (paragraph III.10.f.).

Finally, with regard to charging admission, the document says, “Entrance to the church must be without payment and open to all.” (paragraph III.10.c.).

I’ve brought up the question of non-liturgical concerts in churches before…and I think perhaps I am beating my head against the proverbial brick wall.

Several people – including a bishop or two – have commented dismissively that they weren’t concerned about this kind of abuse because, “they even do it in Rome”.  All righty, then. Following that kind of reasoning, we might say that, even though artificial contraception is against Church teaching, the vast majority of Catholics couples use it, probably “even in Rome”. Does that make it okay?

Hmm. What’s that quote from Venerable Archbishop Sheen? “Right is right, even if no one is right. Wrong is wrong, even if everyone is wrong.”

Here are another couple of questions worth looking into: WHY did the CDW issue that document, and WHY is it ignored?

The document answers the first question itself. In a paragraph sub-titledThe Character and Purpose of Churches”, it says:

According to tradition as expressed in the rite for the dedication of a church and altar, churches are primarily places where the people of God gather, and are "made one as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one, and are the Church, the temple of God built with living stones, in which the Father is worshipped in spirit and in truth." Rightly so, from ancient times the name "church" has been extended to the building in which the Christian community unite to hear the word of God, to pray together, to receive the sacraments, to celebrate the Eucharist and to prolong its celebration in the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament... (par. 5)

The church is a place where liturgical worship takes place. That is its primary purpose. The document continues:

Churches, however, cannot be considered simply as public places for any kind of meeting. They are sacred places, that is, "set apart" in a permanent way for divine worship by their dedication and blessing.

In other words, a church is not a concert hall.

As visible constructions, churches are signs of the pilgrim Church on earth; they are images that proclaim the heavenly Jerusalem, places in which are actualized the mystery of the communion between man and God. Both in urban areas and in the countryside, the church remains the house of God, and the sign of his dwelling among men. It remains a sacred place, even when no liturgical celebration is taking place.

Care must be taken to preserve that sacred place. That’s why the document stipulates that “the performers and the audience must be dressed in a manner which is fitting to the sacred character of the place”; that “the musicians and the singers should not be placed in the sanctuary”; that “the greatest respect is to be shown to the altar, the president's chair and the ambo; and that “the Blessed Sacrament should be, as far as possible, reserved in a side chapel or in another safe and suitably adorned place”.

In the “contemporary Christian music” concert mentioned above, the Blessed Sacrament remained in the tabernacle because the singer desired to be near Jesus. The article I read said that she pleaded for the Blessed Sacrament to remain, and she assured those responsible that there would be nothing in the concert that would offend Him.

I felt sad reading this.  Some of the people involved are good friends of mine, and I have no doubts about their desire to live the faith fully, to be true to the teachings of the Church, and to bring others closer to God. And I suspect this singer was sincere in her love for Jesus and the Eucharist. I’m sure that all concerned sincerely believed that Jesus would be honored by the music. They just didn’t know any better.

I’m convinced that Our Lord was pleased with that singer’s devotion, and with the “good intentions” of the organizers. I don’t think anyone there intended to disobey Church teaching or purposely offend God!

But I cannot believe that Jesus was pleased about the lack of understanding of why a concert of that nature should not be taking place in a church in the first place, especially with the musicians placed in the sanctuary.

Now, why do we see an ignorance of the “rules”, and why, even when the rules are brought to the attention of those who need to know them, they continue to be flaunted?  The CDW document suggests that maintaining the sense of sacredness of the church

…will only be possible in so far as churches maintain their specific identity. When churches are used for ends other than those for which they were built, their role as a sign of the Christian mystery is put at risk, with more or less serious harm to the teaching of the faith and to the sensitivity of the People of God, according to the Lord's words: "My house is a house of prayer" (Lk 19:46).

I submit that the very architecture, furnishings, and treatment of our “modern” churches (meaning those built or remodeled post-Vatican II) does not itself to our understanding the nature and use of the sacred space. The priest stands behind the altar, facing the people; oftentimes the choir is situated in or next to the sanctuary; the tabernacle is often located such that you have to search for it; laymen in street clothes traipse through the sanctuary during Mass as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion; the altar rails are gone. In short, the boundaries of the sanctuary are blurred – both physically and spiritually.

The whole arrangement of the sanctuary in the current, common usage suggests a stage, but we could change all that pretty easily. If the faithful were more used to ad orientem worship, the focus would be changed, and the sanctuary could be seen as it is meant to be seen: as a space for the altar of God, where we offer our worship to Him, led by a priest who really acts like a priest, rather than a talk-show host. If the altar were treated more in keeping with its nature as well – as an altar of sacrifice; as an altar where the Real Presence of Jesus is brought at each Mass by the actions and prayers of the priest; an altar which retains its sacred nature even when Mass is not being said – then the idea of seating musicians around it, even if the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the tabernacle, would seem irreverent and disrespectful.

If we returned to ad orientem worship, vested the altar appropriately (instead of using it as a backdrop for floral arrangements), and had an altar rail marking off the boundary of the sanctuary, then using it as a stage would be unthinkable for most people. Explanations and rules would not be required. The faithful would know because they would have a heightened awareness of the sacredness of the sanctuary and altar.

And who knows? Perhaps we are headed in that direction! CNA reports (my emphases):

With the Vatican's approval on Nov. 14 of its restructuring, the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will shift its focus more intensely on art and liturgical music.

The restructuring is in accord with a Sept. 2011 apostolic letter issued by Pope Benedict XVI, where he noted that the changes will help the congregation in “giving a fresh impetus to promoting the sacred liturgy in the Church.”

This will be achieved mainly through a new office dedicated to sacred music and liturgical art – including architecture – which will become operational next year.

Its charges will include issuing guidelines on liturgical music and the structure of new churches so that they reflect the mysterious encounter with the divine, as well as follow the dictates and instructions of the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

In his letter, the Pope wrote that these all must be in accord with the Second Vatican Council's “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” Overlooking that 1963 document has allowed for the post-conciliar trend of building unedifying churches and filling them pop-influenced music.

Well, it’s a start! 


  1. Unfortunately you are beating your head against the wall as you said. In our lifetime these things will likely NOT change for the better. Most Bishops and Priests have little concept of what obedience is and if they do at all it is subservient to their desire to be popular at all costs. Tragically the Church (at least in the USA) is little different than society in general. And, as was obvious in the recent election, the mentality is "it's all about me" and what have you done for me rather than what have I done for the country/Church.
    My prayer is that somehow our rural area attracts a group of traditional, obedient Priests who establish a chapel we can attend. It is those Chapels which will ultimately be the rallying points for the "leaner but more orthodox" Catholic Church that will replace the very non Catholic church we are stuck with at the moment.

  2. Yes people are off doing their own thing .
    They worship in their casual style , look around at the horror of how people act and how they dress.
    Please dear God give us Holy Priests who will preach the TRUTH and reflect the TRUTH so that we can return to the HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH !

  3. I am frustrated with things like this. This year, for the first time, the children's Christmas program will be in the Church. They have practiced twice this week - both times on the altar steps, with their back to the tabernacle, where Jesus was reserved and the sanctuary light still burning.

    THe first time I printed up the CDW guidelines you reference here and politely asked for Jesus to be removed from the tabernacle. THe priest did not wan to see them and told me he had more important things to do and go ahead and report him!

    The second time, I quietly asked the school principal & got told "The children genuflected when they cam in and will again when they leave and Jesus will be removed for the concert tonight." The Church secretary proceeded to tell me to lighten up - that they are practicing and we can't move Jesus every time some one comes in to the Church and clean or when athe altar boys practice.

    I am so frustrated right now as I type! UGH! People are just telling me I am too uptight and over reacting!

    Just needed to vent. Will check for a reply later.

  4. I sympathize completely! I have the same experience here. The common response is either "This isn't Rome" or "They do these things in Rome, too". Doesn't matter who does or doesn't break the rules! There's a reason for them, and that reason ultimately is Jesus.

    I think all we can do is tell the Lord we did what we could, and the rest is in his hands. He can convert those frivolous hearts! And we can unite our suffering to his on the cross. He is bearing much more grief than we are!

  5. The answer is obvious, though not all that pleasant. We are told we are salt and leaven and that we are to affect the people around us. Unfortunately many prefer a parish of choice where they can fraternize with like minded folks and not have to deal with this frustration. This has led to a serious exodus of traditionally minded Catholics from their local parishes. If, like myself, you choose a community of place rather than preference then you are in for a certain degree of frustration. Moreover you are confronted with the righteous indignation of my colleague at Witness and it truly wears at the soul. I have watched our priests catechize during the introduction of the new missal translation. They made a serious effort but I am still one of a handful who reverences the Blessed Sacrament upon entering and leaving the church and who follow the GIRM regarding reception of communion. There are times when I feel quite abandoned and all the indignation over irreverence does not help one bit.

  6. I once asked a priest why he and other priests were always willing to "bend" (and break) the rules for those who wanted them bent or broken, while rejecting legitimate requests by "Trads" to have the rules followed. He understood my point, but he didn't have an answer for me. And this was a priest with a pretty orthodox view of things. The split in the Church is pretty obvious, and it's not going away any time soon.


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