• Tuesday , 12 November 2019

The Influence of the Second Vatican Council on Irish Church Architecture

In 1959 Pope John XXIII expressed his intention to convene a council to reaffirm the church’s ‘self-understanding by reinterpreting the catholic tradition in the light of contemporary challenges.’ (Rush, O. 2004, p. 4) This resulted in the Second Vatican Council; a turning point for the Roman Catholic Church, bringing about deep rooted change ‘reinstating the stature of the bible’ and the increased involvement of the laity. (Butler, C. 2015)

The greatest immediate effect on the lives of Catholics was through the central idea that there ought to be greater lay participation in the liturgy. As had previously taken place in modern theatre, there was a removal of the fourth wall. This emphasis on active participation led to a renewal in the rationale of form and plans. For centuries the Latin cross had provided a standardised plan. Contemporary layouts, with the congregation encircling the altar as the focal point, emerged with the intentions of allowing ’genuine participation in the sacred sacrifice.’ (Hurley, R. and Cantwell, W. 1985, p. 13) The belief that worship was a communal activity and that the congregation should be in no way excluded from sight or participation was a leading design criteria, and a freestanding altar with seating surrounding which enabled this now became the new standard plan. Simple, open-room plans were a common thread throughout modernist architecture and so, with a new focus on inclusivity, these spaces filtered their way into becoming a prominent feature of modern church architecture. (Hurley, R. 2001)

Church Plans (Hurley, R. 2001)

Church plans. (Hurley, R. 2001)

Liam McCormick led this revolution in Ireland with his church, St Aengus’s at Burt. Reknowned for its iconic circlular plan, it is considered by many to be his most significant contribution in the development of Irish church architecture. (Pollard, C. 2011, p. 7) This new style of plan allowed McCormick a freedom in the location of subsidiary spaces for liturgical purposes, accommodating the sacristy, baptistery and confessionals. (Hurley, R., 2001, p. 81) The off-centre round-within-a-round has seating on three sides of the altar with a central isle, creating an axis from the main door of the church through to the back wall where the tabernacle is located. The circular plan enabled the whole congregation to see the altar unimpeded, allowing for the integration of the congregation which Vatican II so encouraged. This was emphasised further by the absence of pre-Vatican II communion rails, therefore removing the barrier between the priest, altar and the people. It was a watershed in the career of Liam McCormick in which he discovered a newfound freedom. (Hurley, R. 2001, p. 82)

Plan of Church at Burt (Pollard, C. 2011)

Plan of church at Burt. (Pollard, C. 2011)

The results of the Second Vatican Council gave credence to and accelerated the wider movement which itself had pushed for the introduction of Vatican II. Though an ultimate church design was never specified, its emphasise on ‘full and active participation’ (Butler, C. 2015) was interpreted as the impetus to create a modern movement of church architecture. The development of new plan forms integrated laity into the mass and altered the relationship between the congregation and the clergy.  With the current and continued decline in mass attendance, church design may be overdue a re-examination as a means to promote a future vision of religious congregation.



(2001) ‘Sins of the Fathers – how post-Vatican II church architecture fails the faithful’, The Irish Times, 18th October, Bishop Christopher Butler (2015) The Sixteen Documents and their Consequences, Available at: http://www.vatican2voice.org/4basics/sixteen.htm (Accessed: 2nd May 2015).

Defendi, M. (2012) What Difference Did Vatican II make? 50 Years On, Available at: http://spiritualityireland.org/blog/index.php/2012/09/vatican-ii/ (Accessed: 2nd May 2015).

Rush, O. (2004) Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some Hermeneutical Principles, USA: Paulist Press.

Alberigo G. (2006) A Brief History of Vatican II, New York: Orbis Books.

Hurley, R. (2001) Irish church architecture in the era of Vatican II, Dublin: Dominican Publications.

Hurley, R. and Cantwell, W. (1985) Contemporary Irish church architecture, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Pollard, C. (2011) Burt, Dublin: Gandon Editions.

von Galli, M. (1966) The Council and the Future, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Smith, R. B. (2007) ‘Don’t Blame Vatican II’, The Institute for sacred architecture, 13, pp. 12-18 [Online]. Available at: http://www.sacredarchitecture.org/articles/dont_blame_vatican_ii/ (Accessed: 20th May 2015).

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