Catholic worship

Transfiguring the Crystal Cathedral

It doesn't take a doctorate in church architecture to know why every pew in every Catholic cathedral allows worshippers to gaze toward the altar. What happens on the altar during Mass is the heart of Catholic faith.

Meanwhile, architects that design Protestant churches make sure preachers have everyone's attention when they rise to preach. What happens in those pulpits is what matters for most Protestants.

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, on the other hand, asked the legendary architect Philip Johnson to design the world's first great church specifically built for use as a studio for televised worship.

Leaders of the Diocese of Orange will have to meditate on that fact as they work to turn the Crystal Cathedral into a spiritual home for Orange County's nearly 1.3 million Catholics, according to an architect who has published an sketch of possible changes in that structure. The diocese recently completed its $57.5 million purchase of the property.

"It would be hard to imagine a more symbolic project that this one," said Mathew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's classical design program and an architect at Cram and Ferguson Architects in Concord, Mass. The firm specializes in traditional church designs.

"What we are going to see at the Crystal Cathedral is sort of like a collision between the therapeutic American Protestantism of the television age with all of the symbolism, art and ancient traditions of the Catholic Church and its worship."

At this point, the Diocese of Orange has not taken formal steps to hire an architect and the Crystal Cathedral congregation has three years to find a new home. Acting on his own, Alderman sketched some possible changes to illustrate a piece for an Anglican periodical called The Living Church.

It would be impossible, he noted, to retroactively convert this modernist classic -- a structure so open that it seems to have no true walls or interior space -- into what most people would consider a normal, conventional cathedral.

"While traditional styles can often be mixed within historic interiors," wrote Alderman, "the modernist movement was such a destructive act of self-exile that great care must be used when adding traditional elements to a dated modernist interior. Plopping down a Gothic altarpiece into a 1968 ecclesiastical wigwam usually just makes the wigwam look worse."

The crucial decision, according to Alderman, is whether to turn the direction of the seating so the faithful will face down the 415-foot length of the sanctuary toward a newly created altar platform built inside the existing glass building. This would create a traditional nave with a center aisle for processions toward the altar and the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament. Currently, the church resembles a long amphitheater in which worshippers face a stage and giant video screen in the middle of the cruciform building, which is 207 feet wide.

"Strong processional movements from the back of the church to the altar are practical, but also theological," said Alderman, reached by phone. "We are the people of God and we are traveling somewhere -- together. We are moving toward Christ and the altar. That's the focus."

The local Catholic leadership has already concluded that the Crystal Cathedral is "not a highly liturgical space in the traditional sense. Yet, the Diocese of Orange considers it a 'clean palatte,' " wrote Msgr. Arthur Holquin, in a paper entitled "Domus Ecclesiae (House of the Church)."

"While renovations are called for, not much deconstruction would be required and the iconic personality of the original architecture and design would, for the most part, be retained." In particular, he added, the "quality of light and its allegory is consistent with the enlightenment of Christ."

Bishop Tod Brown recently challenged Catholics nationwide to help name the new cathedral -- proposing "Christological" names linked to the person and work of Jesus. As of Tuesday morning, more than 3,500 entries had been submitted. The deadline is Feb. 20.

Alderman has already turned in his vote, proposing what he believes is a logical name for a cathedral containing 10,000 windows of silver-tinted glass -- The Cathedral of the Transfiguration.

"The Crystal Cathedral is all about light and the blue sky being everywhere you look," he said. "It's the perfect place for dramatic images of Christ being transfigured and illuminated in divine light. ... You could also say this sanctuary is about to be transfigured, becoming a real cathedral."

No Hooters apparel in Mass!

Deacon Greg Kandra was well aware that modern Americans were getting more casual and that these laidback attitudes were filtering into Catholic pews. Still, was that woman who was approaching the altar to receive Holy Communion really wearing a Hooters shirt?

Yes, she was.

When did Catholics, he thought to himself, start coming to Mass dressed for a Britney Spears concert? Had he missed a memo or something?

"Somewhere along the way, we went from neckties to tank tops, and from fasting to fast food. And it's getting worse," noted Kandra, a former CBS News writer with 26 years, two Emmys and two Peabody Awards to his credit. He is now a deacon assigned to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, a 3,000-member parish in Forest Hills, a neighborhood in Queens on the north end of New York City.

"I recently had to tell a couple that no, they could not have their Chihuahua in a tuxedo as part of their wedding party," he added, in a commentary. "An auxiliary bishop in Indianapolis recently complained about people who tweet during funerals. Casual Catholics, it seems, have taken 'casual' to a new level."

After the Hooters incident, he decided it was time to stop whining about the rising tide of irreverence and immodesty and to start griping about it right out in the open. Thus, Kandra and the parish's other clergy have resorted to appealing -- in the parish bulletin and in public remarks -- for a hint of sanity or even some old-fashioned decorum.

One bulletin item proclaimed, with a gag headline: "PLANS FOR PARISH SWIMMING POOL SCRAPPED! After much study, our finance committee has determined it would not be feasible to construct an indoor swimming pool in our church. ... As a result, we can now announce with certainty that those who have been arriving for Mass as if dressed for the pool need not do so. Also, we hope to keep the air conditioning cranking all summer long. So you do not need to wear shorts, halter tops or bikinis to Mass."

Other missives in this series warned that late-arriving parishioners with allegedly faulty alarm clocks might be injured during their attempts to "find a seat by climbing over the rope strung across the aisle. This can result in falls or -- in some cases -- embarrassing displays of underwear."

And about the many active cellphones: "New research indicates that people who bring cell phones to church are more likely to suffer serious head trauma, usually caused by the priest throwing the lectionary at them. Such people are also more likely to be wounded by hurled umbrellas and rolled up missals."

It's easy to determine what is going on in his parish and elsewhere, said 74-year-old Monsignor Joseph Funaro. Decades ago, worshippers would dress up to go to church and then would return home to change into more casual clothing before heading to picnics, baseball games, the local pool or away to the coast.

Today, the sprawl of suburban life and omnipresent traffic jams -- especially close to Labor Day and beach-friendly weekends -- have tempted Catholics to abandon the old church-first schedule. The clothes symbolize larger changes.

"We have reached the point that just about anything goes," said Funaro. "We keep making appeals to our people, but it doesn't seem that anyone is paying much attention. ... Some of the ladies, well, you just have to wonder if they looked in a mirror before coming to church."

The key, he said, is not that formal attire has evolved into casual attire. That change took place several decades ago for most Baby Boomer adults and their children. Now, more and more Catholics have moved past casual clothing and have started wearing clothing that is distracting, at best, or is often aggressively immodest.

As a priest, Funaro said that he now worries that some of his parishioners are not really focusing on the Mass at all. Instead, they are stopping by the church while on their way to other activities they consider more important than Mass.

"I often ask people this question: 'Would you dress like that if you were going to meet the queen of England?' Of course, they always say, 'No, of course not.' Then I remind them that they are coming to Mass in order to meet someone more special than the queen. They are coming to meet their King."