How To Guides

Building a Church that Is Catholic: Collaboration Between the Parish and Diocese

June 11, 2007

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THOMAS G. SIMONS

In the Rite of Dedication for a new church, the introductory rites call for the "handing over" of the building to the bishop.  He reminds the assembled community, at the door of the church, that they are called to become "one temple of his [the Lord's] Spirit."  Then the "bishop and the assembly enter the church," inferring that the shepherd is leading his flock into this new place of worship.  The rituals surrounding the dedication of a church express our ecclesiology, which includes our understanding of the bishop as the overseer of a local church in collaboration with pastors.

This "overseeing" role includes the process that leads to the dedication of a new church building.  As the chief liturgical leader of the diocese, the bishop is responsible for promoting the liturgical life of a diocesan community.  When a parish has discerned that a new church is needed, it is important to consult the bishop and his collaborators so that they can be involved, at the onset, in a supportive way.  This is an expression of our identity as "Catholic."  We are more than individual and independent communities of faith.  We are "one body" in which our unity and diversity are interrelated.

The Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Español] affirmed the role of the local bishop and stated that "when new churches are built let great care be taken that they are well suited to celebrating liturgical services and to bringing about the active participation of the faithful" (para. 124).  Bishops are asked to set up a liturgical commission to be assisted by various experts, including those in art (para. 44).  This role is affirmed in "Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship" published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  It states that "the construction of a new church requires the permission of the bishop, who must consult and determine that the building will contribute to the spiritual welfare of the faithful, and that the parish has the necessary means to build and care for the church" (para. 34).  There are at least 15 other references in this document that form the basis for the bishop and diocesan involvement and usually form the basis for diocesan guidelines about building new churches.

Many dioceses have an Art & Architecture Committee who assist the bishop in his role in promoting the liturgy of the Church as expressed in official liturgical documents, including the ritual books of the Church's liturgy.

The following represent some of the most common elements where the bishop and his diocesan collaborators are usually involved in a community's decision to build a new church.

1. Initial Contact.  Making contact with the diocese at the very beginning of the process will help the local community to consider and include all the theological principles that give shape to a place for Catholic worship.  They will also assure that any legal and financial issues are addressed.  So, the local community should contact the diocese when it begins a project.  Often the diocese will have a written polity that outlines all the various steps and stages.  Find out what those are and have your building committee, liturgical design consultant and architect become familiar with them.

2.  Formational process.  Often a diocese will offer its services, usually through a Worship Office/Liturgical Commission/Art & Architecture Committee, in developing a parish formation process that will help the community to learn more about Catholic worship and the sacred environment we make use of for liturgy.  They can often recommend speakers and resource materials that will assist this extended process for learning, interacting and planning.

3.  Initial design plans and master site planning.  At the point where a parish has developed some schematics, the diocese, through its Worship Office/Liturgical Commission/Art & Architecture Committee will meet with the parish to review all of the liturgical dimensions of the plan.  This is usually followed by a session with a separate advisory group, often a Diocesan Building Committee, in order to review all the construction and financial issues involved in the project.  These lead to recommendations and refinements to help finalize planning.

4.  Resources for prayer.  Throughout the course of the planning process, the diocese can recommend resources for prayer for the parish planning committee and the parish at large as the project moves ahead.  Like the disciples gathered in the upper room praying for the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we too pray that the Spirit will guide the work of our hearts and hands.

5.  Final review of the plans.  Sometimes a final review of the plans completes the planning process and assures that all areas have been considered and covered.  Diocesan committees usually include persons with varied backgrounds in liturgy, art, design, construction, planning and finances, and provide valuable insights and feedback to a parish.  They will often recommend ideas and considerations that a local community may not have thought of.  That is a valuable benefit and a means for us to benefit from our "catholic" character.

6.  Rite of Dedication.  Finally, the diocese will help the local community prepare for the rite of dedication and the bishop's role in the celebration.

Every diocese has variations and additions to the above, but the bottom line is that the diocese wants to offer an enabling role.  No one wants red tape, roadblocks or barriers.  The role of the diocese is to provide more eyes and ears, with vision and values to help us discern, plan, refine and give final shape for a sacred space for God's people, the Church.

In addition to the documents mentioned above, some helpful diocesan resources include:

Guidelines for the Building and Renovation of Churches from the Archdiocese of Chicago, Office for Divine Worship on Church Art and Architecture

Policies Relating to Art and Architecture for Worship of the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa  (If you cannot open the PDF file of this document, go to www.davenportdiocese.org.)

Guidelines for Building, Renovating and Restoration of Church Buildings from The Worship Center of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

A House of Prayer: Building and Renovation Guidelines from the diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan (in the process of being updated; contact the Grand Rapids Diocesan Worship Office).

Rev. Thomas G. Simons is a priest of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan and pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Muskegon, Michigan.  He is the former director of the diocesan Worship Office and chairman of the Church Art & Architecture Committee.  He is the author of Holy People, Holy Place: Rites for the Church's House (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1998) ISBN-10: 1568540957; ISBN-13: 978-1568540955.

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