Building Faith and Modern Churches
Art in Our Churches
By Louise Brass, Observer Correspondent
October 11, 2018
The Church needs architects, stated Pope St. John Paul II in one of his letters written during the last quarter of the 20th century. The Church needs places for the faithful to gather as they celebrate the sacred mysteries, he wrote.
The call to gather together is as old as the Letter to the Hebrews 10:24-25. Designing these places has resulted in big changes over the last few decades.
Even as styles change in art, attire and general architecture, so too have the designs of church structures, especially since The Second Vatican Council. 
Many church buildings erected since the 1960s have a rounded look with less interior decoration. Newer churches are often built with a low profile, and pews in a semi-circle or fan-shaped layout bringing people nearer to the altar.
Earlier architecture favored the traditional tall, cross-shaped structures with soaring bell towers and pews in an oblong formation. 
In his Letter to Artists, St. Pope John Paul II wrote a paragraph in which he speaks specifically about the service of architects to the Church:
“The Church needs architects, because she needs spaces to bring the Christian people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation. After the terrible destruction of the last World War and the growth of great cities, a new generation of architects showed themselves adept at responding to the exigencies of Christian worship, confirming that the religious theme can still inspire architectural design in our own day.” 
The quote was noted in a presentation by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend to the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame in 2014, called “Serving the Church Through Architecture.”
It was at Notre Dame that the results of an extensive study on church building design was solidified after Vatican II., according to Father Jonathan Bakkelund, director of the Diocesan Office for Divine Worship and pastor of St. Peter Parish in Geneva.
The semi-circular or fan-shaped design is the result of an extensive research study, which was not necessarily largely influenced by Catholics, Father Bakkelund said.
Shortly after the Second Vatican Council, a group of liturgists — including several lay faithful and priests — traveled around the country and held conferences to gain an understanding of what changes were happening in the Church, including moving the altar into a position so the priest could say Mass facing the congregation.
As they traveled, the group was joined by many Protestants. By the time they reached Notre Dame University for a conference, they included an equal number of Catholics and Protestants, he added.
With a then non-Catholic governing arrangement for the organization, it was decided that anyone in a church building should not be more than 70 feet away from the altar, meaning the traditional, cruciform shape would have to be changed, Father Bakkelund said.
“Our architectural way for doing that was to build fan churches. This move to fan-shaped naves was not because of anything that Vatican II said.” 
Some believe the change was due in part to the influence of modernists of the last century.
“It certainly was a change from the traditional,” Father Bakkelund said. “We had always had the lineal style or cruciform style. The Church has always embraced the lineal style.” 
The Rockford Diocese has many examples of both traditional- and modern-style church buildings. 
In 1977, St. Patrick Parish in St. Charles was divided into two parishes. St. John Neumann Parish would be established on the east side of St. Charles.
As St. Patrick Parish continued to grow, a second church building of the same name, a mission church, was built in 1991 on 30 acres off Crane Road. The modern building features Art Deco influences.
While the design of the new St. Patrick church building also has some hints of ancient and gothic pointed lines in windows, ceilings and entrances to the buildings, the newer, close-to-ground level style, allows the building to blend with residential structures in the surrounding, wooded, Crane Road area.
Holy Cross Parish in Batavia is an example of the subtle, low-profile, exterior shape so different from the taller, oblong church buildings with soaring steeples favored in previous centuries. 
St. Patrick Church in Rochelle was also built in the intimate, rounded or octagonal mode with very little interior decor. However, today the altar has been given a more traditional look reminiscent of an Italian Renaissance church whose interiors are illuminated by the brightness of white marble backdrops holding the tabernacles in central and honored positions.
Statues have also been added to many newer churches, which originally had fewer statues than was the tradition.
Placing statues have added warmth to the St. Charles’ newer Crane Road church building, said Msgr. Steven Knox, pastor.
“When you walk into a Catholic church, it is meant to be a sacramental place and lead you toward God. We are in a sacred space; a sacred place that leads your heart to prayer,” he said.
The move toward more simple, less formal architecture may have slowed today.
St. Gall in Elburn, the newest church in the diocese that opened in 2017, is shaped more in the traditional way, indicating that what is new can also evoke the traditional classic style.
The interior has one main, straight aisle in the center and straight side aisles, accented with pillars giving the look of an ancient cathedral. People entering, instead of walking down a short stretch, can walk the elongated way approaching the altar. For some, it might seem as if they are making their way heavenward — and perhaps having time to meditate further as they approach the altar.
According to Denis R. McNamara, associate director and associate professor at the Liturgical Institute of Mundelein Seminary, sacred art and architecture must use the means at its disposal to amplify the teaching of the Church and inspire piety and holiness.
This, he said, can be attained through what the 1963 Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, issued by Blessed Pope Paul VI calls signs and symbols of heavenly realities.