worship

Striving to build the Kingdom of Heaven with timber, stucco, brick and iron

Striving to build the Kingdom of Heaven with timber, stucco, brick and iron

When Andrew Gould began designing a sanctuary for Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Charleston, S.C., he started by creating an imaginary backstory for the parish.

Instead of beginning with a circle of Orthodox families and converts in 1996, the art historian and architect imagined that a community of Russian immigrants had moved to Charleston in the mid-19th century. They looked at the city's famous mix of Southern warmth, Colonial style and coastal, Mediterranean influences and then built a church that was thoroughly Orthodox -- but fit into Charleston.

Working with local materials as much as possible, Gould designed a Byzantine church, but with a copper roof, plenty of exposed Heart Pine wood and stucco masonry painted in a gold-yellow tint common in historic Charleston. Then he included a unique saw-tooth cornice design, using local brownish-red brick, a pattern that had the added advantage of resembling traditions in Russia.

"I kept asking myself, 'What parts of Charleston's architecture could be baptized into Orthodoxy? What if this church had been built by Russians long ago and it's been here ever since and it looks totally at home in Charleston?", he said, describing the 2004 project that opened a new stage of his career.

"I have a kind of romanticized fantasy about the history of these churches and I have used this technique in other places. Keeping this kind of story in mind keeps me focused on what I'm trying to accomplish."

This goal shapes the work that Gould and other artisans do with his New World Byzantine Studios in Charleston, whether it's designing an entire church, one of his massive, circular ironwork chandeliers or other forms of liturgical art and church supplies. The goal is to maintain ancient forms and traditions, while blending in cultural, historical influences seen in life in a specific region.

For example, what would a Pueblo-style monastery in New Mexico look like if it were Orthodox, instead of Catholic, and featured altar cloths, carvings and icon-stand decorations influenced by Native American culture?

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

When newcomers arrive at a megachurch these days, they face an obstacle course of challenges -- from deciding how much to tip the parking-lot guy to tricking their normal children into looking like cherubs.

Finally, loaded with visitor swag -- donuts, coffee, official church water bottles, snappy Christian t-shirts, the pastor's new book -- they head into the flashing lights, dry-ice fog and pounding pop music inside the auditorium.

Now what? The bottom line: Look spiritual.

"On the powerful choruses, lift your hands high with abandon. On the subtler verses, tone it down a touch," advises the snarky narrator in the new book "How to Be a Perfect Christian," by the duo behind The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website.

After the guitar solo, there will be a "bridge" that worshippers sing over and over and over: "Go for it with both hands and a feigned expression of emotion on your face. Sway side to side like a tree in the wind. If you open one eye at this point, you'll probably notice that people … are staring at you in awe that they're in the presence of one so holy."

The book's goal isn't to mock Christianity, but to help believers understand that many churches have evolved into self-help supermarkets defined by trends in mass culture, said Bee founder Adam Ford. Often, faith turns into another "niche" product.

"We push back against the commercialization and 'celebritization' of so many aspects of the church," noted Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. "Get a famous pastor with a lot of Twitter followers, host the most carnival-like 'church services,' make sure everyone is as comfortable and entertained as possible, preach a Zig Ziglar-style message, and you'll get more people to come to your church. Like churches are circus franchises or something, with the ultimate goal being more butts in seats."

Ford wanted to become a pastor, but veered into the more private world of digital publishing (Adam4d.com). He founded the Bee in 2016 and recently sold the site, in part because of the hot spotlight caused by its success and a run-in with Facebook over content.

Words pastors fear saying to their flocks, part 1

The powers that be in professional sports know that it’s easier to fire embattled coaches than to push powerful athletes out the door.

Pastors know that the same pattern usually holds true when push comes to shove in religious sanctuaries. The sad result is often a vicious cycle of fear, stress, doubt, despair, workaholism, frustration and fatalism.

In his book “Counseling Christian Workers,” the late Dr. Louis McBurney — a Mayo Clinic trained psychiatrist known for helping clergy in times of crisis — summed it up with one sad, exhausted quotation from an anonymous minister hurt by powerful people in his pews.

“There’s nothing wrong with my church,” said this pastor, “that wouldn’t be solved by a few well-placed funerals.”

The Rev. Gary Brinn has heard clergy offer variations on that line, with the most common being that, on occasion, “pastors get to bury their problems.” It’s the kind of blunt talk pastors share when privately talking shop. It’s not the kind of thing they would say to their flocks, not even to the angry goats in the pews.

“You would think the one place people would practice some manners and show some understanding would be in church, but too often that just isn’t the case,” said Brinn, who leads the Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ, on the South Shore of Long Island. “Sometimes you just want to say, ‘Have a little kindness, folks.’ “

Recently, Brinn went toe to toe with one “bushy-bearded rogue” after this year’s late-night Christmas Eve service. In this case, the once-a-year churchgoer wanted the pastor to know that the service — which blended Christmas hope with the sobering realities of Hurricane Sandy and the massacre in Newtown, Conn. — was one of the worst services he had ever attended in his life.

The pastor turned the other cheek. Later he turned to his computer, pounding out a Patch.com commentary entitled “Secrets Your Pastor Can’t Share in a Sermon” that went viral. While many readers posted outraged online comments, said Brinn, in a telephone interview, his email in-basket was soon full of sympathetic letters from clergy.

Among his dark secrets, Brinn noted that clergy — usually experienced, seminary-educated professionals — wish their parishioners would remember that:

* Offerings are not tips exchanged for entertaining sermons, “nor are you paying for services rendered. Your stewardship, bringing your tithes and offerings to the community in which you worship, is a spiritual practice that comes right out of scripture. … Failure to give appropriately is a spiritual problem.”

* Clergy struggle to work 60 hours or less each week. Even on Sundays, he noted, they’ve “been ‘on,’ like rock concert ‘on,’ all morning. I’m smiling and being social, but I’m actually fried. … You know that important thing you needed to tell me as you shook my hand and headed off to brunch? I forgot it, along with the important things eight other people told me. Sorry, I didn’t mean to, but you better write it down, send it in an email, or leave me a message for when I get back in the office.”

* Truth be told, clergy care more about “the regulars. I know I’m not supposed to, but I do. You know, the ones who show up in the pouring rain, there for every fundraiser and Bible study. When a perfect stranger shows up demanding the rites of the church and treating me like I’m an unfortunate prop in their personal movie, it’s a problem. … I’m having serious theological qualms about this, I’m just not telling you.”

* Clergy work for a bishop, a vestry or another source of authority, but they ultimately must be able to confess that, “I work for God.” Yes, it’s hard to please everyone, but an honest preacher also must be able to say, “If I stop challenging you, you’ll know that I am either exhausted or scared. Neither is good for you or the church you love.”

Brinn said he didn’t worry that members of his small congregation would misunderstand this candid shot over the pulpit.

“I really wrote this piece for all of the pastors who don’t have the freedom to be this honest in their pulpits,” he said. “Way too many pastors try to bury their problems. … I am convinced that 75 percent of American clergy are terrified of their congregations.”

NEXT WEEK: Why are many clergy so afraid of their flocks?

To SHUSH or not to SHUSH in church

At the altar, the priest extends his hands over the bread and wine, then makes the sign of the Cross and leads worshippers into the most sacred moments of the Mass. The prayer is familiar: "To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord: that you accept these holy and unblemished sacrifices, which we offer you firstly for your holy catholic Church."

The atmosphere is reverent, or it's supposed to be.

The problem is the people in the pew right behind you who -- just -- will -- not -- stop -- talking.

What are Catholics supposed to do under these circumstances, as they kneel and try to pray? It's hard not to fire frustrated or even angry glances at these people. Is it sinful to chunk a Roman Missal at egregious offenders? How about heaving a loud, dramatic sigh in their general direction?

This is when the voice inside Andrew Sciba's head says: "It's come to this. The true presence of God is on the altar and these dopes aren't paying attention in spite of your repeated attempts to correct them." It's tempting to turn and politely whisper, "Excuse me, would you mind continuing your conversation after Mass?"

At this point, one of three things will happen, noted Sciba, in a satirical commentary entitled "Five Ways to Shush the Church Chatter" at the Truth & Charity website (truthandcharity.net). Scuba teaches theology at Loyola College Preparatory High School in Shreveport, La., but also, as a layman, has served on a parish staff.

There is a slim chance, he noted, that the chatters will feel guilty and fall silent. Then again, some will ignore your request and keep right on talking. Most offenders will simply be quiet for several seconds, then resume right where they left off.

Among the comments after Sciba's piece, one reader confessed that he recently tried this even edgier "shush" remark: "I'm sorry if my praying is disturbing your conversation. Would you prefer that I go outside and pray?" That one didn't work either.

These tense clashes happen in a variety of religious groups, but disruptive chatter is especially distracting in liturgical traditions in which services contain long periods of meditation, reverent hymnody or formal prayers.

While this kind of conflict rarely makes headlines, said Sciba, in a telephone interview, this topic stirs deep emotions for clergy and laypeople. Some are convinced that, in the age of multimedia screens and pop-rock praise bands, the trend toward chatty church informality is getting worse.

Who's to blame? Sciba's essay unleashed a blitz of comments, with some insisting that the worst offenders are elderly worshippers who really should know better. What about ushers who keep shaking hands and talking to the faithful, even as they line up to receive Holy Communion, then return to their pews to pray?

Others blame the young. After all, there are legions of teens, and others, who decline to silence, or even to stop using, their cellphones. In some churches -- those without soundproof "crying rooms" -- church leaders struggle to know how to gracefully handle parents who fail to understand that their tiny children are capable of making sounds resembling car alarms.

Eventually, as arguments ricocheted back and forth among frustrated readers, Sciba was forced to shut down the comments page on this particular article. "Things were getting nasty," he said.

It's clear, explained Sciba, that it does little good -- spiritual or practical -- to confront people about these issues during worship. It may help to post signs at sanctuary entrances instructing worshippers: "Please maintain sacred silence." One church has begun projecting an image of Jesus on screens at the front of the sanctuary, with the caption, "Need to talk? Try Me, I listen."

Clergy and lay leaders will certainly, during pre-service announcements, need to place a stronger emphasis on calls for reverence.

"I once asked an old Jesuit what we can do about people who talk all the time during Mass and he said, 'Nothing. If they knew better, they wouldn't be talking in the first place.' ... I think that we we're just going to have to reeducate a lot of people these days," said Sciba. Then he let out a long sigh.

"I think that many of these people genuinely don't realize that they're doing anything out of sorts."

The heretical art of Thomas Kinkade

When describing his painting "Candlelight Cottage," the late Thomas Kinkade said its "candlelight has a cozy, intimate quality -- especially when it's suffused in the soft mist of this fine English evening." Actually, the cottage windows are glowing so brightly that the entire interior appears to be in flames.

This painting, noted National Catholic Register critic Simcha Fisher in 2011, only makes sense as "a depiction of an oncoming storm, with heavy smog in some spots and total visibility just inches away (blown by what wind, when the chimney smoke rises undisturbed?), several cordless Klieg lights, possibly a partial eclipse and that most cheerful of pastoral daydreams: a robust house fire."

This is as lovely, she argued, as music created when "all of your favorite instruments play as loudly as they can at the same time. Listen, and go mad."

Secular critics have long detested Kinkade's art, in part because of his great popularity among heartland evangelicals who were eager to claim the University of California at Berkeley trained painter as one of their own. Now, three months after his death at age 54 -- while struggling with alcoholism, bankruptcy and a shattered marriage -- some religious writers are focusing on what they see as another troubling question.

The bottom line: Was Kinkade selling bad theology, as well as bad art?

Believers often reject fine art and embrace "mediocre substitutes just because they're labeled 'Christian,' " noted John Stonestreet of the Chuck Colson Center, in a recent BreakPoint radio commentary. "We've created for ourselves a kind of 'artistic ghetto.' ... 'Christian art' has become a synonym for anything that's charming, quaint or makes us feel good. It often portrays a one-sided world where evil doesn't exist and only 'positive' and 'uplifting' messages are allowed."

The problem is that this isn't the real world, which is full of sin and brokenness, as well as grace and beauty, he said, in a telephone interview. At it's core, art should be "a reflection of what it means to be human," he added. Believers who create culture are "supposed to look at all of creation, at all of human life, the good and the bad."

This issue looms over the Kinkade debates, he said, but it also shapes arguments about music, movies, fiction and other forms of popular and high culture.

"Squishy songs that turn Jesus into your boyfriend are not good art," said Stonestreet. "Christian romance novels are not good art. Naked little chubby angels in Christian bookstores are not good art."

Many debates about Kinkade have centered on his use of light, since he billed himself as the "Painter of Light" and said his glowing images represented God's comforting presence in the world. While the artist consistently avoided painting traditional religious scenes or symbols, he frequently said he was trying to capture the meaning of Bible verses, such as a lighthouse image that was said to represent John 8:12: "I am the light of the world."

Yet, in painting after painting, Christian critics note that Kinkade used light in a way that was completely different than in Christian iconography or the work of master painters. For centuries, religious artists have used light as a depiction of God's presence and activity in the real world -- often in the faces and forms of uniquely blessed people.

Thus, the source of this light is "explicitly God Himself," noted Fisher. Yet in Kinkade's work glowing, unreal, unnatural light is found everywhere -- seemingly at random. This matters because if "you follow the source of the light, you will find out where the artist thinks God is," she said.

For artists who are believers, the goal is to show God's light in the midst of the world's darkness, the work of God in the brokenness of real life.

Kinkade, on the other hand, sees "nothing beautiful in the world the way it is," argued Fisher. "He loves the world in the same way that a pageant mom thinks her child is just adorable -- or will be, after she loses 10 pounds, dyes and curls her hair, gets implants, and makes herself almost unrecognizable with a thick layer of make-up. ...

"Kinkade-style light ... doesn't reveal, it distorts. His paintings aren't merely trivial, they're a statement of contempt for the world. His vision of the world isn't just tacky, it's anti-Incarnational."

Baptists face Christmas, present and future

This is the time of year when many pastors sit in their offices muttering, "It happened again." The Rev. Rick Lance knows all about that. He has long been one of the true believers who battle the waves of "Happy Holidays" messages that define one of their faith's holiest seasons as the civic tsunami between Halloween and the inevitable wrapping-paper wreckage on Christmas morning.

The problem is that whining doesn't work. Thus, Lance has grown tired of preaching his all-to-familiar annual sermon on why the faithful should "keep Christ in Christmas" while making fewer pilgrimages to their shopping malls.

If people actually want to celebrate Christmas differently, this countercultural revolt will require advance planning and real changes.

"To continue playing the game of 'ain't it awful what they have done to Christmas' may be a cop-out," argued Lance, the executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. "After all, we contribute to the commercialization of Christmas. We are a part of the supposed problem of abuse that the Christmas season has experienced. ...

"A revitalization of Christmas will not come from Wall Street, Main Street, the malls or the halls of Congress and the state legislature. The chatter of talking heads on news programs will not make this a reality."

It would help if their churches offered constructive advice. That's why it was significant that, just before Dec. 25, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service published several commentaries by Lance and others raising unusually practical questions about how members of America's largest non-Catholic flock can fine-tune future Christmas plans.

For example, Christians for centuries have marked the pre-Christmas season of Advent with appeals to help the needy. It's significant that Baptists -- who tend to ignore the liturgical calendar -- have long honored one of their most famous missionaries and humanitarians by collecting missions offerings during this timeframe. This Baptist missionary to China even has her own Dec. 22 feast day on Episcopal Church calendar.

Thus, Lance noted that, this year "my wife and I decided to make our largest gift ever to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. … This may be a small step, but we believe it is a step in the right direction."

One big problem is that America is a highly complex culture that observes at least three versions of Christmas, with the secular often bleeding into the sacred. They are:

* The Holidays: Formally begins on Black Friday after Thanksgiving. The season slows around Dec. 15, with few events close to Dec. 25. Shopping malls and lawyers define these Holidays.

* Christmas: This season begins in early December in most churches, with many concerts and festivities scheduled between Dec. 7 and Dec. 20, so as not to clash with travel plans by church members. There is at least one Christmas Day service.

* The 12 days of Christmas: This celebration begins with the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on Dec. 25 and continues through Epiphany, Jan. 6. This ancient tradition is all but extinct.

So what are believers supposed to do next time to restore faith to the Christmas season?

The Rev. Todd Brady of First Baptist Church in Paducah, Ky., urged parents to think twice before -- literally -- adding Santa to their outdoor Nativity scenes.

"Children in today's world already have a difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and reality," he said. "Christmastime often blurs even further the line between what is real and what is not real."

Church historian Nathan Finn also asked parents to weigh the implications of discussing that magical list that determines "who's naughty and nice." Children quickly realize this is an empty threat.

"Far more troublesome is the sub-gospel message this tradition sends. Santa is cast as the judge of all children," he noted. The problem is that the real Christian Gospel insists that, "every kid deserves the coal. Every parent deserves the coal. I deserve the coal. ... There is nothing we can do to change our circumstances and move ourselves from the naughty list to the nice list."

The bottom line: The true meaning of Christmas isn't that Santa Claus is the highest authority on sin and grace.

"We are moved from the naughty list to the nice list," stressed Finn, "not because of something we do, but because of what Jesus had done for us."

Rome ponders iMissal app

When it comes to liturgical details, the Vatican has clear guidelines about sacred objects that are blessed for use during a Mass. "The Church has always sought," notes the Book of Blessings, "to ensure that all those things that are involved in any way in divine worship should be worthy, becoming and beautiful. ... Those objects that through a blessing are set aside for divine worship are to be treated with reverence by all and to be put only to their proper use, never profaned."

This includes books on the altar, as noted in the 2001 text Liturgiam authenticam (The Authentic Liturgy): "The books from which the liturgical texts are recited in the vernacular with or on behalf of the people should be marked by such a dignity that the exterior appearance of the book itself will lead the faithful to a greater reverence for the word of God and for sacred realities."

But the question some Catholics are asking these days is this: Can there be an app for that? What if clergy used iPads containing the Roman Missal?

At this point, the hierarchy has not publicly approved this leap, noted Father John J.M. Foster, who teaches liturgical law at the Catholic University of America. But that doesn't mean that the Vatican might not support the limited use of an iPad application, which recently was created by an Italian priest who is a consultant with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine priests walking in processions with iPads lifted high. Could that happen?

"Not yet," said Foster. "That doesn't mean that some parish somewhere isn't going to make PDF copies of the Gospels, put them on an iPad and hand them to the deacon. ... However, we shouldn't assume that something can be used in the liturgy, simply because it has not been forbidden."

This buzz began in June, when Father Paolo Padrini said he was releasing an app offering the Roman Missal -- the texts that are read and sung during Masses throughout the year -- in Latin, English, Italian, French and Spanish. Two years earlier, he created an iBreviary for the iPhone, containing the Catholic book of daily prayers.

The Catholic blogosphere reacted immediately. Certainly in iMissal would help priests, such as military chaplains, who were constantly on the move. Priests with weak eyesight could change font sizes in a few seconds. But what would happen if the app crashed during Mass? Could laypeople read along, or would they be tempted to check their email?

The church, however, has faced technical questions before. Hand-written volumes gave way to those printed on presses. However, priests cannot hear confessions by telephone. Internet confessions don't work, either.

Speaking as a "self-professed geek who is a lover of both technology and theology," Jeff Miller of the Curt Jester website confessed that he has mixed emotions about liturgical texts on mobile devices.

"This might be a question answered by the Vatican sometime in the future, though they are notoriously slow in answering questions of this type," wrote Miller. "I can certainly see why some priests would appreciate an electronic version of the Roman Missal. It would be much harder to loose your place and in fact easier to find the correct section each day. I love electronic versions of the Liturgy of the Hours because it makes it so easy to read ... without having to thumb through a bunch of ribboned bookmarks."

Some changes will be needed, stressed Jeff Geerling of Open Source Catholic. For example, the screens on these devices will need to operate without strong backlighting. Imagine the blue-glow distraction of iPads during candlelight services. And that omnipresent aluminum shell?

"An appropriate case," he noted, "would need to be manufactured to (a) mask the logo on the back, and (b) downplay the fact that a bit of electronic technology is being used. Something simple; perhaps a nice red leather case?"

At this point, noted Foster, no one knows how these apps will evolve. One thing is certain. Priests would need to look up prayers for special occasions and rites.

"There would still be work to do," he said. "That's why we have all those ribbons. It's not like you could just call up a day of the year and everything would be right there so that you could keep scrolling on and on and on. It's not that simple."

Synagogue for Jewish seekers

For centuries, Jews have watched their rabbis show reverence to God during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rites by doing a prostration at the front of the synagogue. This symbolic act takes place during the "Aleinu" prayer that reminds worshipers of their duty to "bend our knees, and bow down, and give thanks, before the Ruler, the Ruler of Rulers, the Holy One, Blessed is God."

Rabbi Shira Stutman isn't sure how many people will accept her invitation to exit the pews and perform this prostration for themselves during her seeker-friendly High Holy Days service at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. But many of those who do, she said, will find themselves assuming a familiar meditative pose.

It helps to know that this unusual synagogue offers occasional services that blend yoga with traditional Shabbat prayers.

"There are different ways to do a full prostration, but one of them looks exactly like the yoga position called 'Child's Pose,' " said Stutman, referring to a move in which individuals sink to their knees, bow their foreheads to the floor and extend their arms forward. "I'm guessing that for most of the people who will attend the service I'm leading -- young professionals in their 20s and 30s -- the Child's Pose will be more familiar than the tradition of the rabbi prostrating during the Aleinu prayer.

"This will let me use this simple yoga pose to talk about what the act of prostrating can mean for us in worship."

This is the kind of multi-layered experience that is common at Sixth and I, which offers four radically different services -- Orthodox, conservative, family friendly and progressive -- during the holy season that begins at sundown today (Sept. 8) with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ends 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement.

This multi-domed sanctuary on the edge of the Chinatown neighborhood has a complex and poignant history. Built in 1908 for the Adas Israel Congregation, it was sold in 1951 to the Turner Memorial AME Church and, by 2002, was hours away from being converted into a nightclub.

However, a trio of Jewish developers rushed in and purchased it for $5 million. Before long, they had created a coalition that focused on creating an urban facility that was part synagogue, part education complex, part community center and part concert hall -- yet independent from the branches of Judaism that have defined the faith for the past century or so.

"Jews in this generation, or generations, don't want to define themselves by the terms of the past," said Esther Foer, the synagogue's executive director. "Those denominational labels -- like 'Conservative' and 'Orthodox' and 'Conservadox' -- don't matter much anymore, especially when you are talking about how people want to worship.

"What matters, at the end of the day, is that we are all Jews -- who are praying."

While Stutman was trained in a liberal Reconstructionist school, she stressed that the synagogue does not have one defining congregation or rabbi. Instead, it uses six prayer books and is served by six rabbis and scores of other worship leaders. Her "Sixth in the City" services are attempts to create "primal worship" experiences, mixing English and Hebrew with themes from many sources, including Judaism, mass media and different world religions.

All of this is fitting in an age in which the vast majority of young Jews have no affiliation whatsoever with traditional Jewish institutions. Jewish leaders are struggling with this reality, as demonstrated by a 2001 survey that defined a Jew as someone whose "religion is Jewish, OR, whose religion is Jewish and something else, OR, who has no religion and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, OR, who has a non-monotheistic religion, and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing."

What matters, said Stutman, is that people are searching for connections and experiences that help define who they are -- as Jews.

"We are not defined by any one set of doctrines or dogmas ... so every Jewish service is a fusion service," she said. "At any Jewish service there are people in the room with 1000 different views of God and half of them are probably atheists anyway. That's a given. What matters is that people know there is a place where they find community and keep searching."

Fix your ugly Catholic church?

The sanctuary walls are, as a rule, made of flat wood, concrete and glass wrapped in metals with an industrial look -- often matching the furnishings on the stark altar. The windows are frosted or tinted in muted tones of sky blue, lavender, amber or pink. If there are stained-glass images, they are ultramodern in style, to match any art objects that make sense in this kind of space. The floors are covered with carpet, which explains why there are speakers hanging in the rafters.

The final product resembles a sunny gymnasium that just happens to contain an abstract crucifix, the Stations of the Cross and one or two images of the Virgin Mary.

"The whole look was both modern and very bland," said Matthew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's classical design program who works as a consultant on sacred art and architecture.

"It was a kind of beige Catholicism that was ugly, but not aggressively ugly ... and these churches looked like they were in a chain that had franchises everywhere. It was that whole Our Lady of Pizza Hut look that started in the1950s and then took over in the '60s and '70s."

The problem is that many Catholics believe that this look that represented an urgent response to contemporary culture -- especially after Vatican II -- has now gone painfully out of date.

Few things age less gracefully than modernity. However, few parishes can afford to "take a wrecking ball" to their sanctuaries. This is also highly emotional territory, since any attempt to change how people worship, whether they are modernists or traditionalists, will collide with their most cherished beliefs.

Thus, after years of studying intense debates on these issues, Alderman recently drafted a manifesto offering easy, affordable ways for make these sanctuaries "less ugly and more Catholic." He posted it at "The Shrine of the Holy Whapping," an online forum created by several Notre Dame graduates to host lighthearted discussions of serious Catholic subjects.

While some of his proposals are specific -- such as removing carpeting to improve church acoustics -- the designer said the key is for parish leaders to find a way to "bring a sense of tradition and beauty to their chancels and naves without having to break the bank." His basic principles included these:

* Do everything possible to return the visual focus to the main altar and the tabernacle that contains the reserved sacraments, the bread and wine that has been consecrated during the Mass. This can be accomplished with a few contrasting coats of paint, stencil designs in strategic places, the rearranging of altar furniture, a touch of new stonework or even the hanging of colored drapes. In many cases a platform can be added under the altar to make it more visible or a designer can darken the lights and colors around the pews, while increasing the light focused on the altar and tabernacle.

* Reject any strategy that tries to hide decades of modernity behind a blitz of statues and flowers in an attempt to create "a traditional Catholic theme park," he said. Too often, the result is "strip-mall classicism" that assumes that anything that looks old is automatically good.

"You don't want something that looks like its fake and plastic," said Alderman. "The worst case scenario is that you have bad taste stacked on top of bad taste, with some of the worst excesses of the old layered on top of all those mistakes that were driven by modernity. ... This kind of schizophrenia is not a good thing in a church."

* It's important to "work with what you have, and don't work against it" while focusing on a few logical changes that actually promote worship and prayer, he said. A chapel dedicated to Mary can appeal to those who are devoted to saying the Rosary. Candles and flower arrangements can focus attention on a statue of the parish's patron saint.

In the end, argued Alderman, "You may not be able to turn your 1950s A-frame church into Chartres, but if you try to find art that harmonizes with its perhaps now rather quaint attempts at futurism, while at the same time seeking to reconnect it with tradition, the result may have a pleasing consistency. ...

"While it may lack the grandeur of Rome or Florence, it can still become a beautiful, unified expression of the faith."