Reverence and Respect

I’ve been reading Romano Guardini’s wonderful little book Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God with some of my students. I can’t recommend it highly enough. There is boundless wisdom to be found on every page. Allow me to mention just one example concerning the virtue of “reverence.”

Reverence, says Fr. Guardini, is “a surmise of greatness and holiness and a desire to participate in it, combined with the apprehension of being unworthy of it.” In reverence, “man refrains from doing what he usually likes to do, which is to take possession of and use something for his own purposes. Instead he steps back and keeps his distance. This creates a spiritual space in which that which deserves reverence can stand erect, detached, and free, in all its splendor.”

As you might have guessed, Fr. Guardini is referring here primarily to the reverence due the holy, but reverence also has “an everyday form,” he insists: respect. “Respect is the most elementary thing that must be perceptible if people are to associate with each other as human beings.” It must be shown irrespective of particular talents or accomplishments, but simply because the other person is a human being.

How is respect shown? Respect “means that one take another’s convictions seriously. I may fight against it, for if I am of the opinion that what he says in wrong, then I have right and, under certain circumstances, a duty to defend the truth as I see it.” But we must do this with respect, “conscious of the fact that I am dealing not with an abstract sentence in some book, but with a person” who, “if I see that he is mistaken, I may contend with him.” But I may not violate his conscience or wish to trick him by cunning.

Is ours a society that shows this sort of respect for the convictions of others?

So too, insists Fr. Guardini, there should be “respect for privacy.” Instead, “everywhere we see the urge toward publicity: a mania to see just that which is reserved; a greed for sensation which finds an odious pleasure in unveiling, stripping, causing shame and confusion.” What sort of respect is shown, for example, by those who do not grant privacy to a wife weeping over the death of a husband or child, and insist instead on posting photographs of what should be a private moment for the entire world to see and indulge its salacious appetites?

Ultimately, however, claims Fr. Guardini, “all reverence culminates in reverence for the holy. We feel it when we enter a church.”

At this point we realize how thoroughly Guardini, who died in 1968, represents not only a different generation, but also a clearer insight into the order of things. “Churches are built in such lofty and impressive style,” he insists, “that, even as we enter, the space affects us. If this does not happen, then it is not, in essence a church that we see, but merely an assembly hall.”

Romano Guardini
Romano Guardini

What can we say to this, but yes? This is precisely what we see, over and over again:   assembly halls, not churches.

Much of the blame for this de-sacralization of church buildings can be attributed to the unhappy influence of the 1978 book Environment and Art in Catholic Worship and its ideological predecessor, Edward Sövik’s Architecture in Worship, a book that called for “The Return to the Non-Church”: an assembly hall that could be used for all purposes. EACW was notable for its repeated emphasis on “the action of the assembly” and the church building merely as a “skin” around them. Most of the document’s prescriptions flowed from what was supposed to serve the assembly’s feelings, experiences, and needs.

But did the changes prescribed really serve those needs? Hasn’t the loss of reverence for the holy brought with it a loss of respect for the human? Has turning our churches into assembly halls brought about a greater respect and regard for our fellow humans? Or has a loss of reverence for God brought with it a concomitant loss of respect for human beings said to be made “in the image of God”?

As we have lost sacred spaces in which “man refrains from doing what he usually likes to do, which is to take possession of and use something for his own purposes,” have we similarly lost our respect for the inherent dignity of our fellow human beings – valuing them now merely because of their use, rather than simply because they are what God created them to be?

Is a church designed to fit the modern need to feel comfortable – a “safe space” – really better in the long run than one designed to inspire reverence for an order of reality that transcends our limited conceptions of our needs, a divine order we cannot control and in accord with which we are called upon to order our lives – a “sacred space”?

In ancient Greece, the goddess of the assembly was said to be Themis, the goddess of divine order. In Greek statuary, it was Themis who held the scales of justice. What the Greeks understood that we seem to have forgotten is “the assembly” can never merely be inward-looking. Rather, it must always be upward looking, attentive to an order of reality that transcends the immediate passions and needs of the moment. For only above can we come to know true Justice, and only by becoming living embodiments of that Justice, do we become fully human.

“All true culture,” says Fr. Guardini, “begins with the fact that man steps back. That he does not obtrude himself and seize hold of things, but leaves a space, so that there may be a place in which the person in his dignity, the work in its beauty, and nature in its symbolic power may be clearly discerned.”

Once reverence for God is lost, then as night follows day, respect for nature and persons won’t be far behind.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The Ancients were full of the sense of awe, best captured, perhaps, in this couplet of Ovid’s

    Lucus Auentino suberat niger illicis umbra
    Quo posses viso dicere, Numen inest.

    Under the Aventine, there lies a grove, dark with the shade of holm-oaks
    At the sight of which, one could say: there is a Presence here (Fasti III 296-7)

  • Michael Dowd

    Provocative article Professor Smith. Reverence is one of the key elements of worship that Vatican II destroyed. Not only in the ‘concert hall’ churches of today where one comes for entertainment and where the loss of Catholic Faith is evident in how folks comport themselves, dress themselves, receive Communion without confession, take Communion in the hand, often listen to a priest read a homily and the jokes he got from the internet, sing Protestant hymns, etc.

    It is all disgraceful, which means without grace, without God, without reverence which is an attitude lacking in fear, awe and love. What is the result. Loss of faith. The issue is: how can we get back reverence and faith?

    • mcblanc

      Au contraire, Michael. Vatican II cleared a path for the removal of false reverence that was more about properly executed mannerisms and intonations and the keeping of all thoughts and speech as “pure” and as incapable as possible of ever suspecting that anything in the operation of one’s church &/or parish could ever be–unholy.

      Thanks–Pope Saint John XXIII…
      You were right that time had come for all sons + daughters to Grow UP & assume more even-handed responsibility for our Holy Mother Church.

  • Dominic

    Come to the “table of plenty.”
    Our parish now has “greeters” with little adhesive paper name tags. And we rise before Mass and are instructed to “introduce ourselves to our neighbors.” Fun.
    Ugh!

    • monica

      After all, we wouldn’t want people to be focused on God right when Mass is about to begin. Better get them distracted. Hmmm…. Where do you think these ideas are coming from???

      • Dominic

        What a silly suggestion, Monica. Instead of having Adoration, perhaps we should have “Discussion while sitting before the Gold Thing Holding A Big Host.” Maybe a weather report after the Consecration… And instead of Latin, Esperanto!

  • Steven P Glynn

    This article ties in quite well with Mr. Miner’s article from yesterday, and is a topic generally, sadly overlooked. Thankfully my parish has recently built a new Church, that actually feels more like a Church than did the older building. Of course the “older building” was not very old and was being replaced due to it’s small size rather than the age of the building, but I do think I see a trend back toward traditional Churches. I remember when the Church I attended in my early teens was also replaced by a new building, my reaction to the new building was that I no longer saw the point in attending. The new “Church” did not fit my vision of a church at all. Low ceilings, minimal statuary, a tiny crucifix that appeared to have been added as an afterthought, and carpet on the floor, made me feel as though we were at a theatre multiplex just getting a few prayers in before the feature started. The good news is that this was in the 70’s, and it seems that this was when church architecture hit rock bottom. Our new Church may never be confused with St. Louis Cathedral, but the dramatic high ceiling, beautiful statuary, large prominent crucifix, and stone floors do serve to remind attendees of the purpose of their attendance.

    • Bro_Ed

      Designing a new church is a thankless job. First, you have all the worship needs described here, but then come the practical considerations: The old churches all had stairs only, no lifts. The handicapped and elderly often stayed home. There were no restrooms. They were difficult and expensive to heat and nobody even considered air conditioning. Many churches had no church hall (downstairs was a smaller chapel for overflow Masses). There was no after Mass coffee and socializing. There were few sound systems. If the priest wasn’t an “old time orator” he often could not be heard. Those high ceilings, in addition to wasting heat, were not always acoustically correct and made words and music (except for the pipe organ) difficult to hear. Yup, designing a new church is a tough and thankless job – but it must be done as the older churches are either rotting away with decay and bad roofs and cranky support system or they are just too far gone to renovate and upgrade. Read about the recent renovation to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NY City. It cost millions. Who can afford that today?

      • bernie

        The Church I attended in a Retirement Community in Baltimore is a hundred years old. It is astonishingly beautiful. It was the chapel at St. Charles Seminary before it was swept into near oblivion when the seminary was closed in the 60s. Today it is a “destination” for those who want to see the best or just want to visit their relatives and gawk at its beauty. In the mid 80s a Sulpician Priest became Pastor of the abandoned Church. After getting rid of the awful abuse that had taken place in the intervening years, he set about its restoration with financial help from the retirees living in the community. Today it is back to its original magnificence which is recognized by the reverence of all who see it. It is now a full fledged Parish of the Archdiocese. The AC is fantastic, the acoustics are perfect, the entire inside has been cleaned of all the grit and candle smoke, the original altar and tabernacle are in perfect shape and in their original place, (perhaps awaiting the day when the Church restores its sanity), the mosaics on the floor and altar and walls are all repaired perfectly. The incredible Altar that, in its entirety, is a portrayal of the Transfiguration, is beautiful beyond words. An altar has been placed in the Sanctuary area, as well as a matching Ambo. They are in perfect harmony with the original arrangement. The Priest who now lives in the Community is still the Pastor and carefully plans for ongoing maintenance. If anyone wants to see one of the most beautiful Churches in America, do yourself a favor and visit Our Lady of the Angels in the Charlestown Retirement community.

  • John II

    “Once reverence for God is lost, then as night follows day, respect for nature and persons won’t be far behind.”

    Perhaps “due respect” would be more precise. What seems to have followed today’s insouciant atheism is nature-worship and celebrity-worship. Augustine frequently suggests that all sin is idol-worship. That’s why the First Commandment is, well, the First Commandment.

    • Dominic

      And the idol most of us worship is “The Great I.”

      At least for me…

      • John II

        Yes, I forgot. In the West over the past 2,000 years, you can get a useful sense of the character of a particular era by looking to its idols. Walker Percy once remarked in passing that, in the present era, the idol of choice is the Ego.

  • I can relate to what Randall Smith is saying because I have been in churches that are magnificent and they inspire you to get on your knees and be in awe of God and this house of worship. I also have found some of those great churches cold and unfriendly and lacking in community. Lately I have spent a considerable number of hours at the hospital visiting with family members and my refuge has been the chapel. It is so simple and yet so peaceful. I believe we bring the reverence, the faith, the awe to our churches and it matters little what the building looks like. God will be present with us if we allow Him to be whether it’s a sad 1970s church or one of the great cathedrals of the world.

  • Dave Fladlien

    Thanks for this article which makes a number of excellent points. If I may add one more, will someone please point out to Eucharistic Ministers that some women’s fashions are probably not appropriate for a Christian at any time, but certainly not while distributing the Body and Blood of Christ.

    • GaryLockhart

      “If I may add one more, will someone please point out to Eucharistic
      Ministers(sic) that some women’s fashions are probably not appropriate for a
      Christian at any time, but certainly not while distributing the Body and
      Blood of Christ.” Dave Fladlien

      And while we’re at it let’s point out to Mr. Fladlien, along with many others, that Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion – EMHCs – ARE NOT Eucharistic Ministers. The title Eucharistic Minister belongs exclusively to validly ordained Priests only. If you mean that Priests – aka Eucharistic Ministers – are failing to properly catechize EMHCs – along with the majority of the laity – as to appropriate dress and decorum at all times they are in Church, not just when they are distributing the Blessed Sacrament, I agree. If you are incorrectly referring to EMHCs as Eucharistic Ministers then I do not. Let’s stop blurring the important distinctions between the ministerial Priesthood of the ordained with the common priesthood of the believer. We are Catholics not protestants.

      From Chapter VII of Redemptionis Sacramentum:

      1. The Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion

      [154.] As has already been recalled, “the only minister who can confect the
      Sacrament of the Eucharist in persona Christi is a validly ordained
      Priest”.[254] Hence the name “minister of the Eucharist” belongs properly to the Priest alone. Moreover, also by reason of their sacred Ordination, the ordinary
      ministers of Holy Communion are the Bishop, the Priest and the Deacon,[255] to whom it belongs therefore to administer Holy Communion to the lay
      members of Christ’s faithful during the celebration of Mass. In this way their
      ministerial office in the Church is fully and accurately brought to light, and
      the sign value of the Sacrament is made complete.

      [155.] In addition to the ordinary ministers there is the formally instituted
      acolyte, who by virtue of his institution is an extraordinary minister of Holy
      Communion even outside the celebration of Mass. If, moreover, reasons of real
      necessity prompt it, another lay member of Christ’s faithful may also be
      delegated by the diocesan Bishop, in accordance with the norm of law,[256] for one occasion or for a specified time, and an appropriate formula of
      blessing may be used for the occasion. This act of appointment, however, does
      not necessarily take a liturgical form, nor, if it does take a liturgical form,
      should it resemble sacred Ordination in any way. Finally, in special cases of an
      unforeseen nature, permission can be given for a single occasion by the Priest
      who presides at the celebration of the Eucharist.[257]

      [156.] This function is to be understood strictly according to the name by
      which it is known, that is to say, that of extraordinary minister of Holy
      Communion, and not “special minister of Holy Communion” nor “extraordinary
      minister of the Eucharist” nor “special minister of the Eucharist”, by which
      names the meaning of this function is unnecessarily and improperly broadened.

      [157.] If there is usually present a sufficient number of sacred ministers for
      the distribution of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion
      may not be appointed. Indeed, in such circumstances, those who may have already been appointed to this ministry should not exercise it. The practice of those Priests is reprobated who, even though present at the celebration, abstain from distributing Communion and hand this function over to laypersons.[258]

      [158.] Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer
      Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is
      prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged.[259] This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.

      [159.] It is never allowed for the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion to
      delegate anyone else to administer the Eucharist, as for example a parent or
      spouse or child of the sick person who is the communicant.

      [160.] Let the diocesan Bishop give renewed consideration to the practice in
      recent years regarding this matter, and if circumstances call for it, let him
      correct it or define it more precisely. Where such extraordinary ministers are
      appointed in a widespread manner out of true necessity, the diocesan Bishop
      should issue special norms by which he determines the manner in which this
      function is to be carried out in accordance with the law, bearing in mind the
      tradition of the Church.

      • mcblanc

        With all due respect, Gary…
        I believe Christ–Himself–would be rolling his eyes at this.

  • Randall B. Smith

    The Author Replies:

    God is present with us every moment of every day. He is present with us in the ugliest shack. This doesn’t mean we should build churches that look like an ugly shack. God is present with those who live in the ugliest inner-city ghettos. But don’t those who live in inner-city ghettos deserve to enjoy beauty every bit as much as the rich people in the rich neighborhood?

    As for whether designing a new church is a “thankless job,” it is admittedly often thankless when it is done badly. When the designers and craftsmen provide something beautiful, the thanks never stop. (We’re still grateful to the designer of Chartres Cathedral and the Duomo in Florence.)

    As for “practical considerations,” allow me to say three things: First, there is nothing more practical than prayer. Second, I don’t think the “practical considerations” (How are you going to get the cobwebs vacuumed off that high ceiling?) should take precedence over the fundamental purpose of the church, which is to give glory to God and provide a place where we can give glory and thanks to God. (Besides, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Beautiful churches are being built now with handicap access and all the rest.) And third, as for older churches “rotting,” no, sorry, that’s the Modernist churches built in the second half of the twentieth century.

    The Gothic churches and their older Romanesque counterparts have been standing for centuries and continue to be spectacular places of worship for those who are interested in doing so. Most modern buildings are built to last the duration of the thirty year mortgage. After that, all bets are off. Classical buildings were built to last centuries — and they have. Better to spend 25 million on a building that will last 200 or 300 years or more and continue during all that time to be a symbol of God’s glory rather spend than, say, 350 million dollars on a cathedral in Los Angeles which was an ugly assembly hall when it was built and will never be anything but an ugly assembly hall. Worse yet, it already looked “dated” before it was dedicated given how rapidly the latest architectural fads change. My advice: Sell it to somebody who needs a large assembly hall and spend half the money to build a beautiful church that gives glory to God and isn’t merely a tribute to the ego of the bishop who commissioned it. What to do with the other half of the money from the sale? Spend it to improve the poor neighborhoods around the new cathedral, which should be built not next to a freeway, but in the poorest neighborhood in L.A.

    Reverence God and the architectural heritage of the Church and build a church that shows respect for your parishioners by not insulting their intelligence and sensibilities, insisting that if they were just more ‘in tune with the times,’ more aesthetically ‘sensitive,’ and more artistically sophisticated, they’d realize that what looked like an ugly pile of junk was really great art.

  • PCB

    Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Limerick, PA (Arch-Diocese of Philadelphia) is a wonderful example of a newly constructed Catholic Church with a classic-church architectural design – it is a rather newly formed parish and has incorporated the best of the best architectural elements of four closed parishes – statuary, stained-glass windows, alter-pieces, chandeliers, stations of the cross, etc. – all recovered and reclaimed and re-used from the old to the new – It reportedly saved a substantial sum and saved irreplaceable treasures from the closed churches – Google it and see for yourself, what can still be accomplished for the Glory of God, even in these days of shrinking flocks and soaring prices.