Touchstones for Environment & Art Committees

March 17, 2008


Banner being createdIt might be tempting for parish environment and art committees to focus primarily on the tasks at hand, of which they are always many, and not pause periodically to reflect on and discuss what I call “touchstones” for the essential ministry of preparing the liturgical environment. I will name ten such touchstones, but I invite you/the environment and art committee to add to my list. You will no doubt be able to name others.

The Liturgical Environment Serves the Liturgical Event at All Times

The primary context for the liturgy and its environment is the Paschal Mystery, which unfolds throughout the seasons of the liturgical year. The liturgical year is the universal framework for the Church as it gathers to celebrate its encounter with the living God. All aspects of the liturgy – the music, texts, movement, proclamation, silence, architecture, environment, etc. – are intended to help us, the Church, approach the mystery of God and offer praise, with Jesus Christ, to God.

The Primary Focus of the Environment Is Always the Sacramental Celebrations of the Assembly; Particular Devotions, though Important, are Secondary

The liturgical year has seasons; the seasons have feasts and festivals, the most important being Sunday. The feasts, festivals, and other “events” are not more important than the season, or the Sunday celebration of Eucharist. They can give life to the season; in a sense, they punctuate the season. They can be recognized and celebrated without undermining the importance of the season. Environment for these feasts, festivals, or special days can complement the liturgical setting, colors, and images of the season. Such environment is likely more temporary and should be planned with this in mind. It should be understood by those responsible for it, and those who enjoy it, that it is for a short time only. There should be no anxiety in removing it; it should not become part of the fabric of the space, lest it lead to clutter and diminishment of its original sense of being special.

Good Communication and Right Information Are Important

Good communication and right information are important, in part, for their formative value, especially in culturally diverse faith communities. This can lead to understanding and even engagement in the devotional practices of others. This might mean the environment and art committee has representatives from different ethnic groups in the parish. All committee members need to be committed to providing an environment that is appropriate, sensitive, and reflective of the community.

We Need to Start with What We Share, Not with What Separates Us

As a Church, we share common symbols and traditions; these are central to our liturgical celebrations and worship spaces. However, there are also many elements that can be appropriated to our assemblies that are culturally diverse. Keep in mind that each of us is tied to a culture, with its own way of thinking, seeing, acting, feeling, prayers, and understanding. Even Jesus lived in a particular culture, time and place – different from our own. Begin with what members of the parish share.

The Liturgical Environment Should Present a Certain Unity of Arrangement

Does the liturgical environment in your parish reflect a unity, that is, a harmony of color, texture, and scale? There is an integrity of space that needs to be respected. A place of worship has a personality, a character that sets it apart from all other spaces that we inhabit. This spatial unity should reflect a harmony that underlines the very purpose of liturgy – to draw all people together in one great act of praise of God.

The Liturgical Environment Is Like a Language

It has a grammar, rules, and a text that speaks to those who gather in the midst of it. The assembly is invited into the environment, as they would be into any conversation that has layers of meaning. It is part of our attempt to enter the mystery, so we need to be engaged in its language. We know that God is no contained in, or exhausted by, our human efforts of artistic display or creations. But our shapes, symbols, forms and vessels are traces and avenues of the spiritual imagination that God gives us.

A Desire for the Authentic, Prayerful and Appropriate

There is always a need to keep open the dialogue between the norms of the Church’s liturgy and the practices of the local faith community. A desire for that which is authentic, prayerful, and appropriate is necessary when planning and arranging environment, choosing art, and making our spaces and celebrations culturally inclusive.

The Active Participation of the Assembly Is Fundamental

The environment and appointment for any parish worship space must always serve the liturgical action of the assembly. The active participation of the assembly is a fundamental criterion for the liturgical environment. Worship is always a communal activity.

All Art for Liturgy Must Be of Good Quality

All art for liturgy, whatever the form or texture, must be appropriate and of good quality. Quality means love and care in the making of something, honesty and genuineness with any materials used, and the artist’s special gift in producing a harmonious whole, a well-crafted work. Appropriateness can be described as the demands made by the liturgy upon an art form in the service of worship. It has two components. One, it must be capable of bearing the weight of mystery, of the awe, reverence, and wonder that the liturgical action expresses. Two, it must clearly serve the liturgical action, which has its own structure rhythm, and movement.

The Genesis for Liturgical Environment Rests in the Spiritual Imagination of the People Responsible for Its Preparation and Care

Environment and art committees do well to begin with the stories and images of Scripture and to remember that the liturgy functions on the level of symbol and metaphor.

Rev. Phil Horrigan is the Director of the Art and Architecture Department of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Chicago, Illinois.


A Checklist for Environment & Art Ministers
Building and Renovation Projects ~ A Conversation in Four Parts
Ten Key Principles for Arranging the Worship Environment
The Environment & Art Committee: A Parish Ministry
The Hospitable Environment for Liturgy

Photo: a banner by Lucinda Naylor is being created                      
Photographer: Johan van Parys, Minneapolis, MN

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