IN GENERAL, I find that most alterations to most churches in Ireland in the name of the Second Vatican Council are to the bad. If one reads the documents in the name of which churches have been reordered, altar rails removed and sanctuaries modernised, one finds that their sentiments are curiously general and non-prescriptive. The gist of the Council's exhortations about worship is that the people are, in a sense, cocelebrants of the Eucharist, not merely spectators. You do not find condemnation of altar rails, or fulminations about pulpits in any of the Council's pronouncements. Yet the authoritarian fashion in which most Irish Catholic churches have been reordered has in nearly every case been justified by an appeal to the Second Vatican Council.
The way a church is laid out, of course, expresses its understanding of the liturgy: it would be difficult, for instance, to celebrate Mass for a modern Catholic congregation in an Orthodox church, complete with an iconoclastis, behind which the priest disappears at the consecration. Buildings speak more eloquently than the liturgy itself about the way religion is celebrated.
One would not, therefore, expect a modern church to be designed in the same fashion as an early basilica, though it would do no harm if contemporary architects were grounded in the evolution of ecclesiastical style. What is annoying however, is when an existing church is clumsily reordered to meet half-baked prejudices about the needs of contemporary congregations.
There is precisely such a row about Carlow Cathedral: the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Laurence Ryan, wants to change the sanctuary in accordance with the best, or at least, the prevalent, Irish practice. Six thousand people in the diocese disagree and have signed a petition saying so. They want the sanctuary left as it is. By way of compromise the Bishop appointed a mediation group, led by a barrister, whose recommendations did not substantially alter the original plans and were accepted. The group of concerned laity had the sheer impudence to say that the consultation group had not consulted them; indeed, there was some doubt about who exactly they had consulted, besides the Bishop.
Of course the Bishop took all this badly. Inevitably, he interpreted the objections to his plan as a personal attack, despite protestations by the group that they intended no disloyalty or disrespect. It was a dreadfully predictable response. It does not seem to me apparent that the Irish hierarchy and clergy are blessed with any aesthetic sensibility at all. They do not deserve to have nice churches because they don't know how to look after them. It may be time for ecclesiastical buildings to be protected from Bishops and priests, just as any other important building needs protection from insensitive developers. Any proposed changes to church buildings of recognised architectural importance should therefore be referred, not to the Bishops, but to a properly qualified commission made up of laypeople with an understanding of ecclesiastical architecture and sufficient independence to handle an authoritarian hierarchy. In England, priests do not have carte blanche to meddle with churches at will.
It is time Ireland followed that lead, starting with Carlow Cathedral.