Wrangling over Renovations


It has almost become a truism in the Catholic Church that the mere suggestion of renovating an existing church will result in controversy and bitter disputes in and beyond the parish community. Even plans to clean a church and renew its furnishings to make it more attractive can result in strident criticism.

Such reaction is especially problematic when those in favour of having worship spaces which facilitate the “full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful” remain silent because they are intimidated by a vociferous minority.

Differences of opinion about the essentials of Catholic belief inevitably lead to disagreements about church architecture, so that the building or renovation of churches becomes the battleground for theological disputes.

In addition, some people seem to have a strong emotional attachment to particular features in their church and where they are placed. Items that are quite inappropriate in light of post-Vatican II theology and liturgical practice have been retained in some churches because they were donated by a current parishioner or his/her family. This results, for example, in churches which still have imposing and elaborate communion rails that make the distribution of communion difficult or statues in central locations in the worship space where they compete with altar and ambo for the attention of worshippers.

I recently had a call from the president of a parish council asking how to deal with a situation where a parishioner donated a statue of Mary and demanded it be placed at the front of the worship space and the existing statue moved to the back.

Sometimes people react strongly to changes in church architecture when in fact it is the circumstances that have necessitated the change which is the real source of their anger or frustration. A complaint about a church being reconfigured might reflect concern about declining numbers of priests or consolidation of Mass times that has led to the change.

Conducting a process of consultation before building or renovating a church is appropriate but will be successful only if all parties are prepared to listen to other points of view and be open to new insights. It is important that people be catechised about the central tenets of Catholic faith and how this faith is given expression in liturgy and in settings for public worship.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal offers principles in the area of church building and renovation that give helpful guidance in the area of church construction and renovation:

“Churches should be suitable for carrying out the sacred action and for ensuring the active participation of the faithful. Sacred buildings and requisites for divine worship should, moreover, be truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities.” (288)
“Church decor should contribute toward a noble simplicity for the church itself, rather than ostentation.” (292)
“Care should be taken that the number (of sacred images) not be increased indiscriminately, and that they be arranged in proper order so as not to distract the faithful's attention from the celebration itself.” (318)

Finding ways of honouring the tradition while accommodating the new will help unify a community and put an end to unseemly wrangling about our places of worship.


Elizabeth Harrington