Temporary Sacred Architecture

Reflections for the Celebration of Mass Outside of a Church


Mural by artist Cristobal Almanza (with involvement by Michael Raia) at the
Mass for the Austin Diocesan Catholic Youth Conference

Whether it is a youth conference, rally, weekend retreat, or service project, numerous occasions arise each year in which Catholic communities celebrate Mass, and other liturgies, in a place other than a church. The preparation for these liturgies is often minimal, and understandably so, focusing on practical furnishings—such as an altar, and an object like a crucifix, or a sacred image placed off to the side. Yet, the Church’s view of sacred art and architecture as an integral part of the rite, and as an aid in the faithful’s participation in the Mystery of Christ, requires us to reflect on renewing our efforts to create a temporary sacred place for the liturgies planned for these annual events.

The goal of renewing our efforts in creating a sacred place at conferences or special parish events is not to turn an auditorium into a church. As Josef Pieper said, the architecture does not make a parish church, but rather consecration makes a building into a church. The goal of this article is to demonstrate that even an auditorium space used for liturgies at a conference, or special parish event should, in its own unique way, communicate visually the invisible realities of the liturgy and proclaim that the People of God are assembling for worship temporarily in this place.1

Sacred Architecture and Fruitful Participation

The places in which Catholics worship should be “worthy of so great a mystery” celebrated in the Sacred Liturgy.2 These places are to be “beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities.”3 The General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains that this applies to the church, and even the other places where Catholics worship when a church is not accessible for a given celebration, such as an auditorium used for a conference, or rally, or special event.4

Sacred art and architecture is intimately connected to the full, active, and fruitful participation of the faithful at Mass. This is demonstrated in Pope Benedict XVI’s discussion on this topic in Sacramentum Caritatis. He explains the importance of ars celebrandi (the art of celebration) as the “primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite.”5 By including sacred art and architecture in this context, it is clear that Benedict XVI is saying that the visual surroundings of a place of worship affect the participation of the people in the work of Jesus Christ, the High Priest, who continues His saving work in His Church through these liturgies.6 Benedict XVI continues by saying that “sacred art in general…” “…should be directed to sacramental mystagogy.”7 It should communicate the mystery that is assembled, the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, and the mystery being celebrated in the rites in a way that leads the faithful into this mystery.

Michael Raia was kind enough to answer questions on this subject as a designer and project manager at Jackson Galloway in Austin, Texas, a full-service architecture and interiors firm. Raia is also involved in conferences for youth ministry, so this is something he deals with regularly. “The participation of the faithful, and the quality and appropriateness of this participation, often depend on the art and architecture,” he told me. Raia explained that an environment can communicate the nature of the Mass, and the nature of the Church that assembles for the Mass. It can assist in bringing about a deeper participation. When the church building looks more like a meeting-hall, the participation of the assembly is affected. “The effect is that the liturgy is seen simply as a more formal or ceremonial version of the other components that make up the conference.”

Sacred Architecture: “Signs and Symbols of Heavenly Realities”
The importance of participation that the sacred place provides for a Mass is in its ability to express, through signs and symbols, “heavenly realities”8 as a “sacramental mystagogy.”9 The signs and symbols employed in places for regular or temporary worship, speak of the mystery of the Church as the New Temple constructed of living stones—the Christian people—making up the Mystical Body of Christ as seen in 1 Peter 2:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 3:9, 16-17.10 It should also express that the Church on earth is a pilgrim Church that anticipates the radiant nature of the Heavenly Jerusalem found in the Book of Revelation. The conversations surrounding the location of liturgies for these annual events should continue to renew our ability to transform auditoriums for Mass, on a temporary scale, in a way that communicates:

…the Church as the Mystical Body: radiant, glorified, centered on Christ, composed of earthly worshippers and heavenly saints, fulfilling the Old Testament promises and prefiguring the New Heaven and the New Earth.”11

Michael Raia suggests looking to key events and people in Scripture for inspiration: the covenants between God and Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus Christ. Raia also mentions the Sacrifice of Christ, and the link to Melchizedek, the Passover, the Last Supper, and the Heavenly Liturgy in Revelation. Other religious images that can be used include the Garden of Eden, the Temple, various imagery of Christ, and of His Church. “All of these support the narrative of the liturgy,” Raia says. In creating artwork for this purpose, harmony is essential as in any form of communication. He says in detail:

A church is a sacramental—it visibly communicates something of the invisible mysteries of God. Beauty is an essential part of the equation, and using it to communicate is an art. Capturing complex concepts like the simultaneous intimacy and immanence of God alongside the awe of his transcendence have been the aspiration of architects for centuries, and we have seen a great deal of over-emphasis on both ends of that spectrum—churches that cause utter silence without extending an invitation, and churches that welcome without inspiring prayer. Simple concepts like the configuration of the seating can emphasize or de-emphasize the role of the assembly and their role in worship. As the Body of Christ, we mirror and represent, mystically, Christ’s human body. We are structured and ordered, we are hierarchical. We offer sacrifice as a fulfillment of the Passover and the temple in which we encounter Christ—both in the physical setting and in our hearts—is a parallel to the temple in which Christ prayed and taught. Both the temple of our body and the temple as an image of the Church, Christ’s mystical Body—remember that Christ spoke of the resurrection of his body as a rebuilding of the temple—are to be resurrected and restored in Christ at the end of time. This imagery is very important to what we do in Mass because it speaks of the very purpose of liturgy. We are becoming one in Christ that we might become like him and live forever with the Father.

Using a summer youth conference, or diocesan rally, as an example, the young attendees that return to the main auditorium for Mass following a breakout workshop, should know that what is going on in the auditorium at this time is different from when they were present for a basketball tournament, or school assembly. They should also be able to read this transformed environment, seeing the story of God’s love, the story they have been learning about all weekend, and notice parallels from their workshops. As they enter a transformed place that speaks of the “Sacred Story,” they should be reminded that they are part of this story, and the liturgy is a celebration, and sacramental mediation of the grace of this Sacred Story. How is this done? First, in my opinion, by beginning with the functional items, and then looking for other unique ways to incorporate “signs and symbols of heavenly realities” in a way that is clear, balanced, and complete. All of this is done on a temporary scale.

Begin with the Liturgical Furnishings
The task of catechizing and inspiring through sacred architecture can be difficult with modest or minimal settings. As Michael Raia explains, this is important “particularly in environments that might host some of the more memorable and monumental liturgies our young people will experience.” Raia has a large number of friends and associates that attribute their conversion and, oftentimes, vocation discernment, to conferences and rallies.

Raia is already starting to ask “what can we do to put greater effort into creating a distinction between what we do during the rest of the rally or conference, and what we do when we approach God in the Eucharist?” He recognizes that putting forth greater effort on this front is not required. However, it can only better assist in the evangelization and catechizing of these participants.

The materials used for the furnishings, and other elements, should be made of materials that express the radiant glory of the Heavenly Jerusalem. This desire for the use of “precious materials” is even found in St. Francis of Assisi’s First Letter to the Custodians—this from a saint who embraced simplicity and poverty. In his Letter to the Entire Order, Francis explains the importance that these sacred objects have because they “impress upon ourselves the loftiness of our Creator.” These sacred objects and furnishings are not meant to be earthy because they do not refer to our fallen humanity, but rather they refer to the glory of God and the Heavenly Jerusalem. These furnishings and other objects include the altar, tabernacle (not always used at conferences), the ambo, the celebrant’s chair, a crucifix, candles, the placement of the choir, flowers, etc. Knowing why these furnishings or elements are used is the beginning of knowing what needs to be communicated with the help of precious materials.

The importance and meaning of the altar, ambo, and chair can be communicated through their placement in the auditorium in relation to the others—the radiant materials used, the general design, and artistic ornamentation, and decoration. Imagine a young person leaving a catechetical session on the history of salvation, and another on the Mass. Can she begin to perceive the dignity given to Scripture from the importance of the ambo?12 Can she begin to perceive that it is God speaking to His people, when the Scriptures are read at Mass?13 Can she perceive from the celebrant’s chair that the priest has a unique role in the community, and his role is to preside as celebrant, and direct the prayer of the assembled Mystical Body?14 Most importantly, can she perceive from the altar that it is intimately connected to the Cross of Christ, it is the place of nourishment and reconciliation with God, it is the center of the community’s life and that it signifies Christ?15

Michael Raia recognizes the great difficulty in implementing the grand theology of sacred art and architecture on a temporary scale, but he offers sound creativity, rooted in liturgical theology, as the path to further renewal. He continues:

It’s natural for a certain degree of resignation to lead us to taking a minimalistic approach, and assume the presence of these elements are enough of a transition for Mass. I personally believe that they receive a great deal of responsibility for communicating what a built church would otherwise communicate through the beauty and imagery of permanent art and architecture. In addition, elements used to support other activities during a conference or rally, such as theatrical lighting, video displays, and props, should be treated in such a way that they are subservient to the liturgy, and not the other way around. Technology can be of great assistance to serving the liturgy, but it can also potentially be a huge distraction, and finding a balance is an immense difficulty.

The hope for Michael Raia is that these large event liturgies will not only be the biggest Masses that many might attend, but that the liturgies will be some of the most beautiful and engaging.

Doing more: Sacred Portals and Liturgical Murals
Renewing our work to create temporary environments for the Sacred Liturgy at annual events may begin with the furnishings, but much more can still be done. Two initial thoughts—but several more are needed—would be through creating sacred portals and liturgical murals. Believers cross a threshold when they enter the church. Passing through the portal “symbolizes passing from the world wounded by sin, to the world of new Life to which all men are called” and serves as a reminder of our journey to the Father’s house, that we arrive at by His grace when Christ accompanies us over the threshold of death.16

To express this movement across the threshold, temporary holy water fonts could be placed at the portals for the liturgies to serve as a reminder that it was through the waters of Baptism that we first entered the Mystical Body of Christ that is being assembled for these liturgies. This movement can also be done with visual reminders of the need for silence when crossing through what was once an ordinary door, but is now a threshold, a sacred portal, into the sacred time of the liturgy.17 This silence will allow for prayerful preparation before Mass, and to serve as a reminder that this sacred time during the celebration of the liturgy is different than the hour spent in the auditorium earlier for the keynote.

Throughout the church’s history, many churches have often used murals on the rear wall of the church as a window of what is to come, what is received as a foretaste in the liturgy. Using various artistic styles, and emphasizing different themes, these eschatological murals present “a time when Christ reigns in glory with the angels and the saints.”18 This can be seen at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, or in local churches, like St. Peter Church in Omaha, Nebraska. Denis McNamara (from the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein) says in his article in the Catechetical Review (Spring 2015), “This rich figural imagery is not a distraction from the Mass, but the heavenly portion of the Mystical Body rendered knowable to the eyes. It is the visual Sanctus that looks beyond the veil to see the heavenly realities described in the Book of Revelation.” Creating a liturgical mural for such events will be difficult, due to the practical and temporary issues involved, but worth the effort. Michael Raia puts emphasis on transforming a place into a temporary sanctuary because this “is almost always the stage, which presents the challenge of all liturgical action taking on the appearance of a performance.”

At many conferences, an emphasis is placed on catechesis through the various keynotes and breakout workshops. The liturgical environment, when done well, is a “visual catechesis,” a “gospel for the eyes.”19 These visible expressions of the faith that make up a place of worship “should show Christ to be present and active in this place.”20 Through the furnishings, sacred portals, temporary murals, and more, this can all become a reality.

Sacred art and architecture, in a fixed or temporary situation, is not a magical recipe for success. Evangelization and catechesis is needed for the faithful to learn how to read the rites, and all that the rites entail. They need to learn the language of the liturgy. The traditional process for this is known as mystagogical catechesis. Mystagogy can happen in various forms, such as the way the liturgy is celebrated, preaching, or teaching. This is not the same as repeating the content of the mystagogical fathers, like Cyril of Jerusalem, or Ambrose of Milan. It’s about finding new ways to implement the process.

In Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI treated the issue of mystagogical catechesis within a section on internal participation.21 Remember that sacred art and architecture was linked to this issue of mystagogy.22 The goal of mystagogy is “fruitful participation in the liturgy” in which a person is “conformed to the mystery being celebrated, offering one’s life to God in unity with the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of the whole world.”23 This is accomplished through this mystagogical catechesis that helps to “make interior dispositions correspond to their gestures and words” to enable the faithful to live the mystery that is celebrated.24

Benedict XVI outlines this catechesis: understand the rites in relation to salvation history, come to understand the signs and symbols of the liturgy, and show how participation in the rites impact everyday life.25 The sign of an effective mystagogical catechesis is an increased reverence for the Eucharist.26

Raia believes that conferences allow for numerous occasions for catechesis that will unlock the power of sacred art and architecture for fruitful participation in the Sacred Mysteries. This happens in a way proportionate to temporary sacred architecture in a way that points toward the permanent experience back home in churches. There could be a “central teaching component prior to each liturgical component of a conference, most especially Mass. Any type of handouts or additional information about the Mass will supplement the nuances that might be difficult to achieve in a temporary setting.” Understanding the difficulty that the goals presented here have for conferences, as each conference has its own goals, Raia reminds us that if “a rich liturgical environment is difficult, we need to speak of the elements many teens encounter in their home parishes, so the conference is not setting an unrealistic expectation or norm. Many teens expect a rally liturgy as their reference point and ideal, and do not understand many of the things they experience, such as Mass in an arena or auditorium, are not meant to be the nor

Leading by Example: Priority & Transformation
The goal of an annual conference or parish event is not to display sacred art and architecture on a temporary scale. For the most part, these events are focused on developing a relationship with Jesus Christ, and taking the Gospel into the world. Renewing our efforts in creating a sacred place for liturgies to help the eyes of faith see what is unseen with physical eyes, may do wonders for this mission of connecting to Christ and evangelizing the world.

The Sacred Liturgy is the privileged place for deepening a relationship with Jesus, and entering into the life of the Blessed Trinity. Sacred art and architecture, even on a temporary scale, helps to deepen the authentic and fruitful participation in the work of Christ in the liturgy. Renewed efforts won’t hurt the mission of bringing others to Christ, but will only strengthen its fruition.

Keynotes, breakouts, and homilies often focus on the importance of living the faith in a secular world, and allowing Christ to transform their everyday lives. What better example of this than a secular auditorium transformed. Another popular topic has been the importance of the Mass, which can also be shown by the great efforts taken to transform an auditorium for the Celebration of the Mass, or Eucharistic Adoration. Keynote speakers, and breakout speakers, could use the temporary sacred art much like the mystagogical father, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, used the holy surroundings of the Holy Land in his preaching.

Fruitful Participation in the Deep Waters of Grace
Are people encountering Christ at these conference liturgies without great emphasis placed on temporary sacred architecture? Of course. Renewal, in this case regarding the sacred arts, is about a deeper encounter; it is the diving deeper into the great depths of the ocean of grace. Since the environment that sacred art and architecture create is meant to not only provide a place for the rites to be celebrated, but also unveil the reality of the sacred mysteries in the rites, the more that can be done to help in this unveiling/revealing the better.

Michael Raia, who is not only involved in church architecture, but also youth conferences, provides some sobering words for reflection from his years of experience in the trenches,

We all know that many, many teens leave these conferences with changed hearts and lives, but unfortunately many don’t. Listen to them, especially the ones that don’t. Be open to the possibility that teens who are not connecting with the liturgy are not necessarily needing louder music, an even more relaxed dress code, or more flashing lights. Those things can be a tool in ministry, but often times they can be dissonant with the message a teen needs to receive to really learn to pray the Mass. I think it’s a disservice to the efforts we put in to stay where we are and to not constantly ask how we can do it better, and this aspect of a deeper, richer liturgy, in my experience, remains largely untried in these settings. The goals of each are the same. If you have the slightest desire to allow the beauty of the liturgy to be more apparent in a conference setting, be an agent of change, and see what fruit will come as a result of the investment. I think while the short-term gains might be more difficult to see, the long-term effects will be enduring.

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter CCC) §1180
  2. General Instruction of the Roman Missal (hereafter GIRM) §288
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sacramentum Caritatis §41
  6. See CCC §1069
  7. Sacramentum Caritatis §41
  8. GIRM 288
  9. Sacramentum Caritatis §41
  10. Denis McNamara, “Inspiring Hope: Encountering Christ in Church Architecture,” The Catechetical Review, Issue #1.2, page 7.
  11. Ibid.
  12. GIRM §309
  13. Sacrosanctum Concilium §7
  14. CCC §1184, GIRM §310
  15. CCC §1181, GIRM §297-299
  16. CCC §1186
  17. GIRM §45
  18. McNamara, 10
  19. McNamara 6, see also GIRM §§289, 292
  20. CCC §1181
  21. Sacramentum Caritatis §64
  22.  Sacramentum Caritatis §41
  23. Sacramentum Caritatis §64
  24. Ibid.
  25. Sacramentum Caritatis §64.a-c
  26. Sacramentum Caritatis §65
Brandon Harvey About Brandon Harvey

Brandon Harvey is a writer and speaker on the new evangelization, liturgy, and mystagogy. He received his BA in Theology from Briar Cliff University, and MA from Franciscan University. Brandon is married with kids and resides in the Archdiocese of Omaha.

Blog: www.homecatechesis.com