Enhancing the liturgical environment simply, steadily and naturally
While my job as a liturgist includes multiple aspects, it is the environment for worship that grows more important to me as time goes by. Liturgical renewal following Vatican referred to many aspects of church art, architecture and environment. Although it may still be referred to as “Environment and Art” in church documents, in my pastoral ministry work the environment is the important part.
The word, environment, means an all-encompassing situation. There’s the natural environment: one that connects all life on our planet. Of utmost importance is the principle that all creation is sacred.
There’s built environment: architectural configurations of buildings, which impact communities—something considered in historic preservation, for example. A quote attributed to Winston Churchill says “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
In the liturgical environment, we not only include artistic principles in how we decorate the church to enhance our prayer. We also take into account other environments.
The environment for worship can easily reflect natural seasons. When we attempt to use real materials (not artificial) as much as possible it reminds us that everything comes from God. Even though that’s sometimes not feasible, the goal is always to reflect the sacred nature of creation in our worship endeavors.
When I moved to the Midwest United States years ago, I was delighted by the celebration of fall and harvest seasons. My family loved how people used the natural bounty to decorate homes and businesses with cornstalks, bittersweet and brightly colored leaves and gourds. By using these things in our churches we carry natural surroundings into liturgical space and imagination.
When possible we also use the environment for worship to show the passage of time through a season. In fall, we begin with a few plants in September and build to exuberance with gourds, pumpkins, leaves—even a cornucopia! —in the week before Thanksgiving, leading up to the feast of Christ the King at the end of the liturgical year.
In Advent/Christmas our outdoor world changes, so our liturgical environment might include bare branches and evergreens, reflecting the bare branches and evergreens we might see as we travel down the street. We begin simply with greenery and branches around a large Advent candle display for the First Sunday in Advent—often the same weekend as Thanksgiving, which makes things interesting!
For the Second Sunday in Advent, we bring an empty ‘stable’ built by a parishioner into our gathering space, and surround it with a ‘landscape’ of painted foam slabs and pieces assembled to look like a hillside. We add plants and animals that week.
Although we use greenery, it comes from our parish collection of Norfolk pines and various house plants which fill every window of the church. We minimize the need to continually purchase live plants, while striving to avoid the artificial.
Talented parishioners see to the plants’ health, and the plants give back year round providing oxygen and cleaning the air for us. This can be a great way for people to share their gifts and talent in stewardship to the parish, as we use the plants in several ways throughout different liturgical seasons. Our nativity ‘hillside’ was achieved because an artistic member of our environment team showed the group how to paint the packing pieces, reusing something that would otherwise have gone to a landfill.
As people arrive for the Third Sunday in Advent, human figures appear in our nativity scene. On the Fourth Sunday, the Holy Family arrives. Before and after masses throughout the season, parishioners stop at the ‘creche’ to see what has changed.
Liturgical environment should take its cue from, and reflect the sacredness of all created things, as well as care for the natural environment. It should inform the way we use materials. I think of Pope Francis’ words in Laudato Si: “The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life. Through our worship of God, we are invited to embrace the world on a different plane…Beauty…appears everywhere: in the shape of a church …in the colours, in the lights, in the scents…” .
“Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.” 
Before they even hear a note of music or read a line of text, the people of God encounter liturgical environment as they assemble. Our parish environment team strives in its ministry to use real materials, avoid waste (and landfills) by creative reuse, and reflect the passage of time by taking a cue from the natural world—God’s world.
Celebration Publication December 2016