I was in Rome this week and, never having lived there and had the chance to “do” the city properly, on every short visit I make, I try to see something new.
This trip I decided to visit the famous Church of the Gesù. This was not my first visit to this extremely significant monument of Christian art and architecture. But before my visit I saw online that last month, on Sunday, June 12 last, the Jesuit Order rededicated its Mother Church, the a church of the Gesù. The renovation of the sanctuary was made possible thanks to the support of the Fondazione Roma, with the approval of the Vicariate of Rome, the Soprintendenza Beni Culturali and the Fondo Edifici Culto del Ministero degli Interni.
Pope Francis has commented many times recently that Vatican II will take one hundred years to fully implement and that we have another forty years of work ahead of us. So it is nice to see that some people are still working at renovating their churches to make them suitable for today’s liturgy.
Obviously Gesù is a treasure house of significant Christian art (as well as having I been hugely influential as a model of a post-conciliar church in the wake of the Council of Trent). But Rome is full of churches that have not been properly renovated since Vatican II and many appear more as a settings for art, rather than a true domus ecclesiae.
But I think that most of us would be against gutting those old churches and throwing out or selling the artistic treasures of earlier generations. Therefore it is not an easy task to renovate a church like this. The heritage must be preserved, but the spiritual needs of today’s worshipping community must also be provided for. So knowing that Jesuits rarely do anything by half, I dedided to go and see what it was like. I arrived shortly before their evening Mass and after looking at the new sanctuary, I decide to stay for the celebration, as seeing a church in action is the best way to judge if a renovations actually works.
The sacristan assured me that they were preparing some material on the renovation that would be available soon and I am sure that some of our Jesuit readers might want to add comments below (or even follow up articles correcting whatever mistakes I make). I did not take any photographs during the Mass itself, but I am sure that better photographs will soon be available elsewhere.
The renovation consisted in removing the post Vatican II altar that used to be placed behind the altar rail and bringing the sanctuary forward into the middle of the dome. What I am assuming is a reliquary occupies the place where the original post-Vatican II altar once stood. The project architect, Francesco Schiavone accomplished his commission by adding three circular platforms for the ambo, the altar and the presidential seat. These there pieces of liturgical furniture are new. I think they are made of bronze, but I didn’t go beyond the barrier and touch them to find out. The other main new piece of liturgical art is a cross and baldacchino or crown over the altar. This crown is made from metal sheets; that are inscribed with an original Greek text taken from the last page of the Bible:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
Revelation 22:17.20 – NRSV.
Staying for the Mass allowed me to experience that the overall renovation works well. In particular the church has an excellent sound system and the lighting is perfect. These are a particular obsession of mine and I was delighted to see that they were very well taken care of here.
The other elements of the sanctuary also worked well and everything allowed for a dignified liturgy. The platforms may look a little strange I the photographs, but they work very well. They don’t call attention to themselves, while at the same time they facilitate a clear line of sight to the liturgical action from the whole church.
If I may be allowed a few words of criticism, I would suggest that the altar is a little too small. It looked fine before Mass, but I thought it was too small and crowded once the Liturgy of the Eucharist started. Personally, I have a thing for big altars, but I doubt that this altar would have gracefully held enough pattens and chalices to administer Communion to a full church, if they decided not to use the tabernacle and also allow everyone to receive under both Species.
Additionally, I found the ambo to be a little insubstantial. It was slightly disconcerting to see that it only covered part of the lower half of the lector’s body. This could be simply a personal preference of mine, but I like a big church to have a substantial ambo that matches the altar (see SC 51 And GIRM 28). Then on the other side a less substantial lectern (perhaps from plexiglass), might be provided for the celebrant, so that the impression of two pulpits can be avoided.
Finally, and this is not really a reflection of the renovation, but the sanctuary is usually cordoned off by posts with retractable cordons (like in an airport line). These are perfect to protect the sanctuary from inquisitive liturgists during the day, but during Mass it would be much better to move the pillars to the side and not simply roll the material into them, leaving them in place during the liturgy.
In conclusion, I was very happy with the renovation. The positive elements far outweigh my criticisms. I look forward to more complete expositions and better photos and I hope it will provide a great example to others who are responsible for properly renovating churches sixty years out from Vatican II.