Things to Consider

Liturgical Design Consultants: Their Tasks

March 07, 2007


Assumption in AtlantaIn the lexicon of post-conciliar vocabulary, there are few words that produce more anxiety within a Catholic community than the words "renovate" or "build new."  For the most part these feelings of stress are legitimate.  The building or renovation efforts of the last twenty years have placed before our eyes a vast and varied field of uneven quality.  Lacking clear theological or pastoral vision and suitable support structures, the building and renovation efforts of many communities have not always shown the best face of renewal.  Given this history maybe there is a wisdom in the apprehension felt in communities undertaking such projects.  It is a wisdom that can be instructive if carefully nurtured.

In addition to the anxiety associated with any change or renewal there is another issue that further complicates the task of a liturgical design consultant.  The liturgical documents call for a consultant but give little insight into the skill and service this person must offer.  Therefore, the contemporary Church in North America has dealt with all manner of person claiming to be a liturgical design consultant.  A careful observation would conclude that the range of contribution offered by these people has been as varied and uneven as the renewed worship spaces which surround us.

It is within the context of the two factors of anxiety in communities and the lack of a clear role definition that I have over the years sought to claim a role which combines a love both of the liturgy and the arts.  It has been my hope that this combined love could find a place of service within the Church.  The search for a role -- a ministry, if you will -- has led me to define four key areas which help describe the task of a liturgical design consultant. 

»    Process is just as important as product.  Too often the renewal of worship space has fractured a community or stunted its own renewal.  The stories from people so affected attest to the need for healing in the Church.  At times, abrasive, inhospitable behavior and a thinly disguised authoritarianism have been justified in the name of the arts and liturgical renewal.  If the renewal or construction of a worship space is to support the symbol of the gathered assembly as the Body of Christ, then the assembly must be treated as the Body of Christ during the planning process.  The liturgical design consultant must be as skilled in people matters as he or she is skilled in the nuances of liturgy and design.

When a community chooses a consultant, it is advisable to interview from a perspective of process and renewal of the liturgical ministries, in addition to competency in liturgical design matters.  The key to any process is that the community can learn through this building experience and will be able to claim ownership of the project as it unfolds.  The liturgical education of the community is not an addendum to the project; it is at the core of it.  Building and renovation can be a rich, pastoral opportunity.

»  The liturgical design consultant helps to preserve and renew the tradition.  Theologian Tad Guzie said that "to have roots is to be wrapped in a cloak of many colors."  The task of a liturgical consultant, especially in renovation work, is to help the community maintain a delicate balance.  On the one hand, the community is called to have an abiding reverence for the past; on the other hand, the community is much more than museum curators.  Each age must use its unique gifts to write a new chapter, while at the same time cherishing the heritage it has received.  To accomplish this, a community, aided by a consultant, must embark on the task of identifying its core treasures and its unique inheritance.  Once these have been named, the task is to preserve, refashion and combine these treasures with new forms that speak a renewed story.  Slowly we are learning that many, many elements from our tradition, especially devotional items, are not antagonistic to the liturgy, but are also suitable vehicles for the holy.

The best of our renewed worship spaces have a quality of joyful ecclecticism about them.  This ecclecticism is similar to all the wonderful homes we know which show us that a lively and rooted family lives there.

»  A liturgical design consultant is concerned with imaging a future.  A building project takes an inordinate amount of energy, anxiety and sacrifice.  Sometimes, for all this effort, the project achieves only the status quo.  A new, old church has been built.  The day the new doors are opened becomes the day the space is outmoded.  A good liturgical consultant helps the people to stretch -- not to the point of breaking, but to the point where they know they they have been stretched. 

Again, it is a delicate balance.  The relationship between a community and a consultant is similar to that of Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.  Peter, like many communities, is a conserver who tried to bring into the experience of Jesus the best of the tradition he has known.  Paul, impassioned by the experience of Jesus, tries creatively to explore and expand the new horizons which this experience demands.  The grace of the Early Church and our hope for today is a creative dialogue that balances the dynamics of conservation and expansion.  The results of this delicate balance is a suitable worship space for today and a gift to the future.

»  A liturgical design consultant helps to mediate the trade-offs.  Whenever we are dealing with human relationships, and the Church at its best is intensely relational, we are dealing with unevenness, messiness, imperfection and trade-offs.  We leave the safe realm of pure forms and abstract, liturgical theory.  From the relational perspective, renewal, whether of communities or of buildings, is the art of the possible. 

In the life of any building/renovation project there is the inevitable time when the rubber meets the road and the stuff of dreams is tempered by cool reality.  It is here that many otherwise successful projects are won or lost because of the trade-offs necessary to make the work doable or affordable.  If a community is not careful of the trade-offs, many valuable liturgical and aesthetic elements are easily lost.  In the face of practicality, these more intangible aspects are the first to go.  The design consultant is the special advocate for these areas.  There are many projects of sizable cost where much is accomplished; yet, there is little or no liturgical improvement made.  In that case, one must judge the results of such a project as inadequate.

Trade-offs are inevitable.  Which trade-offs to make depends upon the collective wisdom of the community and its consultants.  There are nine categories that serve as a filtering system for channeling this wisdom and determining suitable trade-offs.  No one of these categories is more important than the next.  All have a voice that must be considered.  The nine categories are:   local tradition, theology, liturgy/ritual, aesthetics, pastoral implications, cost, time, form, function.  The liturgical design consultant should be knowledgeable not only about these categories but, more importantly, about their interaction.

There is generous wisdom in the saying that tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.  When making the trade-offs, the challenge to community and consultant is to overcome traditionalism and to mediate the search for authentic tradition.

John Buscemi of JB Studio, Inc. is an artist and liturgical design consultant in Albany, WI.  He is the author of Places for Devotion (Meeting House Essays Series, No 4) (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1993)

Photo of construction of the Church of the Assumption in Atlanta.

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