Where we celebrate Mass matters

Due to COVID-19 precautions and limited seating capacities, many dorm Masses have been ousted from familiar chapels and transplanted into non-liturgical spaces across campus. DPAC’s Leighton Concert Hall, and Debartolo 101, and the Stepan Center have hosted Masses for the majority of dorms across campus for this fall semester. While some halls have opted to celebrate Mass in their dorm chapels, even offering multiple Mass times to accommodate all students, many halls make the weekly trek to definitively non-liturgical spaces around campus. 

Let me be clear: I am incredibly grateful that we can gather for Mass as a community. The early months of the pandemic precluded public Masses, and these non-sacred spaces on campus are certainly an improvement on live-streaming Mass from the couch. However, we should not normalize the abnormal simply because it is the better of two unideal options. The rationale behind these large, airy, open locations is understandable. But I’m not sure we fully understand what we’ve traded away in exchanging our chapels for these spaces. We are spatial beings, and our surroundings impact our souls.

The 2000 USCCB document Built of Living Stones articulates the role of sacred architecture in the life of the Church. It states, “Church architecture embodies the Gospel and awakens true liturgical piety in all believers, drawing them into the life of the Triune God.” Sacred space invites prayer and devotion through architectural beauty and religious imagery. The places we pray can powerfully draw us into the life of the Trinity. 

Yet, the places we pray can also hinder us. “It affects us [to transport liturgy to secular spaces],” said Duncan Stroik, a professor in the Notre Dame College of Architecture, in an interview with the Rover. “On the one hand, a non-sacred space, whether nice or functional, tends to distract us in the wrong way during Mass. A good church like the Basilica distracts us towards heaven and helps us to focus on the things outside of us. A building like Stepan Center or an auditorium or a classroom will distract towards things that are not eternal or of religious merit.”

I have experienced first-hand the detrimental impact of celebrating dorm mass in the Stepan Center. Instead of the vibrant frescoes of the Basilica ceiling or the humble religious art of a dorm chapel, I turn my gaze upwards to find a faded grey-beige geodesic patched up with shining mylar. I can’t turn my gaze to Christ in the Eucharist in my prayer before Mass because an overhead projector stands where there should be a tabernacle. 

But to focus entirely on the experience of personal prayer outside of a sacred space is to miss the point. Our churches and chapels are specifically designed and designated to be houses of God. The beauty of these sacred spaces draws us to Christ, certainly, but it moreover seeks to honor the eternally transcendent God who dwells among us by virtue of the Incarnation. We celebrate the Mass not to appease a vaguely spiritual impulse, but to enter into communion with the Lord, who loves us freely, deeply, and perfectly.  

Thank God we can enter into this mystery as a community! But why are we still gathering in the Stepan Center? In DeBart 101? In Leighton Concert Hall? What obstacles stand in the path to a fuller, richer liturgy in a dedicated sacred space? What logistical excuse can we make in the face of a sacramental reality? Surely we can adhere to COVID-19 precautions within our dorm chapels, facilitating rather than neglecting our spiritual health alongside our physical well-being. 

At the end of the day, place matters. Place shapes our prayer, our perspective, and our participation in the mission of the Church. Built of Living Stones states: 

“When the Church’s buildings and artworks engender a contemplative attitude toward God’s creation, toward Christ’s redemption of history, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, they proclaim her faith in visible signs and evangelize the neighborhood, the city and the nation.” 

On the contrary, when we settle for secular space we communicate, despite our best intentions, apathy towards the mystery of the Mass. When the Eucharist is consecrated, Sunday after Sunday, on a plastic folding table, we have deadened ourselves to our duty to God. We have forgotten the world to come, concerned only with the passing fancies of this life. We have relegated Christ to the outskirts of campus, pacified by vague platitudes about community and comfort.

Is there no room in the inn? If we remain complacent in our celebration of the Mass, the source and summit of Christian life, what does that say about us as Catholics? If we can accomodate the socially-distant protocols of this semester with Library Lawn and Acousticafe, can we not attend with fervor to the mystery of the Eucharist? 

We are human beings, possessed of both bodies and souls. We must care for our bodies, but we have a higher imperative to care for our souls, to seek and praise God in every moment. We should be grateful for our communal celebration of the Mass, but we should nevertheless strive for the full goodness, truth, and beauty of celebrating that sacrifice in our sacred spaces of worship once more. 

Mary Frances Myler is a junior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and theology.  She is currently trying to figure out what to do with her life, so please send career suggestions to mmyler@nd.edu