Thursday, August 21, 2008

Architecture and reverence

There are those for whom a church is just a church; not a few Catholics couldn’t care less whether they assembled for Mass in a soaring Pugin masterpiece, in a sumptuous baroque temple, in Cistercian austerity, or in a shrine to ultra-modernity, all glass and girders and fluorescent lights which, if they took out the seating, could double as an aircraft maintenance hangar and which, in the words of Michael S. Rose, is as Ugly as Sin. To such souls, any church will do.

Melancholicus, however, is not of that company. He likes to know that the building in which he is praying is sacred to the LORD his God, and one of the means whereby this sacredness is manifest is in the design and furnishings of the structure, provided these rise above the level of the ordinary and mundane.

UCD Belfield campus churchHere at the university, there is a chapel on campus, and Melancholicus occasionally pays a visit to the Blessed Sacrament en route to the sandwich counter in his lunch hour.

This chapel, dedicated to Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, is ostensibly a Catholic church but, in the ecumenical spirit of the times, is shared with the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. As the latter is almost entirely composed of low-church protestants of the kind that would be horrified by any notion of eucharistic reservation, Melancholicus is relieved to report that the tabernacle is used only by the Catholics; otherwise there would be no way of knowing if one were actually receiving Christ or only bread at holy communion—a gauntlet run all the time by those foolish enough to share tabernacles with our separated brethren.

The Dublin archdiocese experienced phenomenal growth during the ’fifties and ’sixties, necessitating the constitution of a raft of new parishes, and the building of new churches for each. As a result, Dublin is full of these odd barn-like structures, which have as much resemblance to traditional churches as do post offices, or credit unions or airport waiting lounges. dedication plaqueThis edifice on campus was consecrated in 1969 by John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin, and one wonders what his grace must have thought of the architecture of the building he was blessing as a church. It is an octagonally-shaped church in the round, of a style belonging to the era of Vatican II and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

That said, the Michael Devlin memorial church is not the worst of them. Melancholicus finds that he can at least pray with facility in the building, which he supposes is the true test of any church. Nevertheless, he does not approach it without criticism, and probably the worst thing he can say about it is that the sanctuary is conspicuously lacking in merit. Seat of Wisdom sanctuaryThe reader may glean from the picture what sort of “sacred space” we are dealing with here: the altar obviously in the form of a table (to serve for men to eat upon, as Ridley said), without even ‘a fair linen cloth’ upon it; the prominence given to the presidential chair (which has built-in controls so that the celebrant can play piped music during the service); and not least, the shunting of the tabernacle off to a stand on the side, with the Blessed Sacrament reserved behind gaudy multi-coloured doors. Nevertheless, there is at least a sanctuary lamp behind the tabernacle (although not visible in the picture), and although there are no altar rails, the sanctuary is separated from the nave by being against what should be the east wall and is raised on a dais, so at least it is elevated above the level of the worshippers.

When Melancholicus entered this edifice for the first time in 1997, there were traditional church-style wooden pews in the nave for the congregation to sit on, and there was a small but aesthetically decent traditional crucifix on the wall behind the table altar. Both of these appurtenances have since disappeared, the latter replaced by a ghastly so-called “Taizé crucifix” which looks like it was painted by a five-year-old. Melancholicus remembers asking one of the college chaplains what had happened to the original fixture, but the fellow rolled his eyes as though deep in thought and could provide no satisfactory answer. To this day the location of the crucifix remains a mystery. In August 1997, Melancholicus received a scholarship from the Norwegian government for a year’s study at the University of Oslo, and when he returned to Ireland in 1998 the traditional pews had been replaced by padded chairs with fold-up kneelers, a renovatio which must have cost untold thousands of pounds. This refurbishment has considerably increased the seating capacity of the church, but as the average size of the congregation continues to decline, most of these seats remain unoccupied, except for special occasions such as concerts and recitals and the like which are held from time to time.

Melancholicus has no objection to the new chairs in themselves, but he has noticed a definite change in the comportment of the faithful in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, and this change he attributes (at least in part) to the changing of the furniture.

Although they lack the convenience of armrests and adjustable backs, the new chairs are comfy. Quite considerably so. The old pews were of course hard wood, the only padded appurtenance thereof being the kneeler. In making their private prayers, some of the faithful kneel, while others prefer to sit. In the days when the hard-benched pews obtained, the balance was altogether in favour of those who knelt. Today, amidst the comfy chairs, the balance is altogether in favour of those who sit.

Nobody kneels any more!

And hardly anyone ever genuflects. Entering the church, they proceed sans genuflection to the nearest chair, upon the seat of which descends their well-fed behinds.

Nor does anybody ever do the stations of the cross. At least Melancholicus has never seen anyone so engaged, even during Lent, and he has spent many hours in prayer in this church during his years at the university. But if one were to see what passes as the stations in Seat of Wisdom, one would hardly wonder. Melancholicus neglected to take a photograph, but even if he had, there would be nothing to show, except a few lines of stencil etching on a small off-white plastic background, in which it is impossible to tell one station apart from the next. He must admit in fairness that he has himself never done the stations in this church—but as what stations there are are hardly conducive to the devotion, the reader will not be overly surprised.

Lest he seem overly critical of a church building of which he actually is quite fond in spite of its obvious bauhaus novus ordoism, Melancholicus does have something more to add in its favour. There is a shrine to Our Lady, complete with statue—a plain wooden sculpture but aesthetically pleasing and without profane misrepresentation or other unworthy features. There is also a ‘reconciliation room’, but on the down side this seems never to be used for its intended purpose. For confession, one must approach one of the chaplains directly; and they never preach about confession during Mass, which Melancholicus considers a most unfortunate omission.

The building is not now in good repair. Melancholicus is not qualified to speak with authority on this matter, since he is not involved with the buildings and maintenance department, but from the increasing number of dark stains appearing on both seats and carpet, it would seem that the roof of the building has begun to leak—a serious problem in an Irish climate which is becoming wetter and wetter by the year.

Melancholicus has heard it said (anecdotally, he must admit) that these new church buildings erected in such prodigious numbers owing to the expansion of the Dublin diocese around the time of the council, are not only inferior in terms of the sacred, but inferior in their construction also. That said, their building probably cost the diocese a lot of money at that time, and their replacement will cost the diocese more money still. The good news, however, is that if these buildings really are falling down now and must be replaced in increasing numbers over the next twenty years, we might be able to replace them with something better, with new churches that more clearly identify themselves as such in their design and furnishings.

But the problem, of course, is that the decline of the Church in Ireland has reached such unprecedented levels that unsound churches are more likely to be closed than replaced—and to remain so indefinitely.

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