Decorating the Church


The church is the people of God, and we need a house in which the people can celebrate its liturgy. A common approach to decorating this house for the church is to start with the sanctuary and ask, ”What can we put in front of the altar?”
A better process is to consider the entire space where the people of God worship and look at the various areas and focal points within this. The first task of parish art and environment ministers is to ensure that each area that makes up the worship space is fulfilling its ministerial function.
For example, the dominant feature of the baptismal area will be flowing water, sacred vessels of oil, and the paschal candle. The size and design of the baptismal font or pool enables full or partial immersion. The area itself allows all present at a celebration of baptism to gather around.
Only after these primary symbols and actions are taken care of do liturgy planners turn their attention to enhancing the environment with other art and seasonal decorations. The focus here, too, is on facilitating the assembly’s active participation in worship.
One part of the worship space that is sometimes overlooked is the surroundings and entry areas of the church building. Pathways and the vestibules are where we move from home into liturgy. These transitional spaces can be used to good effect to prepare people for worship and to provide a link between liturgy and life.
For example, a display of photographs with brief write-ups in the church foyer can tell the story of where this community spends its time and energy. Give a photography student a few rolls of film to shoot a variety of events with the instruction that the images should capture the life of faith of this parish. This might include parish pastoral council members at a meeting table, a youth group activity, choir practice, a minister to the sick visiting a parishioner, and the social justice committee engaged in outreach.
Outdoor areas and pathways can be used for displays often more effectively than the usual sanctuary. On Palm Sunday, for example, clusters of large palm branches can adorn outside walls, stairways and gathering spaces to great effect and should line the route of the procession.
After moving through pathways and vestibule, worshippers encounter the baptismal area if it is located at the church entrance. A restrained use of decorations related to the season of the liturgical year or of nature can be used to enhance the primary baptismal symbols of water, oils and paschal candle.
This might take the form of a beautifully crafted hanging or tapestry, something without words, or a long piece of fabric suspended from the ceiling with its draping folds drawing attention to the waters of the baptismal pool below. Such a three-dimensional display gives more life to the entire area than a banner hanging against a wall.
The nave is where the members of the assembly sit, stand, listen, respond, sing, acclaim, intercede and give thanks. Although its visual focus shifts, the assembly’s common actions occur here, and the nave should be decorated as intentionally as any other area. Hangings from pillars or on the surrounding walls or lengths of fabric in seasonal colours draped over crossbeams for the entire length of the church are just two examples of how this might be done effectively.
Finally, let us divest the altar table of its excessive accoutrements. So often, floral arrangements, nativity scenes, baskets, flags, books and papers, even school projects clutter the altar area and distract from the ritual actions that occur there. Whatever we put near the table should enable and invite us to gather around (at least visually), pray the eucharistic prayer and eat and drink the eucharistic food.


Elizabeth Harrington