At some time in our lives, we all must make a hard decision. Sometimes the choice is obvious, but change can still be difficult. Family problems, work dilemmas, home selling and remodeling, and many others require introspection and careful thought, and it can be fraught with doubts.
Churches also face such dilemmas. Times change, and we must all adapt. Prior to the early 1960s, all Catholic Masses throughout the world were celebrated in one language, Latin. At St. Patrick’s, as in other parishes, the altar was at the far end of the church and the priest said Mass with his back to the congregation. The sanctuary was separated from the rest of the church by a railing. Sacred scripture was read twice, first in Latin while the priest faced the altar, then in English from the pulpit. Many parishioners followed the liturgy by reading a book called a missal, or missalette, a shortened version of the book from which the priest read but written in the local language. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was reverent, devotional, and historical, but in some ways remote and detached from the congregation.
The Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s pointedly addressed this. It was declared that the priest should face the congregation, and the Mass should be celebrated in the local language. In response to this, St. Patrick’s erected an altar in the sanctuary just in front of the traditional altar, but it was still rather far removed from the congregation. It was something of a halfway measure.
Father Robert Gavotto, a graduate of St. Augustine high school, became pastor in 1981. He had been vice-chancellor of the diocese of San Diego and was well acquainted with the liturgical and architectural changes recommended by the Church. In May of 1982, a meeting was held for parishioners to discuss proposed changes for St. Patrick’s church. About 150 attended and the discussion was lively, at times heated. The reasons for the change were thoughtfully presented and made sense, but intentionally destroying parts of a beautiful church that had meant so much to so many for many years was for some extremely difficult, for others unacceptable.
In the end, the plan went ahead. At first, a few rather simple changes were undertaken, like removing the communion rail and changing the arrangement of the chairs and pulpit. But major changes were imminent: the sanctuary was entirely redone, and the altar moved to near its present prominent position. The original altar against the east wall was removed, original statues were replaced by modern ones, and floor tiles were removed and replaced. While the work was being done daily Mass was held in the first-grade classroom, and the hall was set up for Sunday Masses. In addition to professional contractors, 170 parishioners gave their time and expertise. The work was completed in two months at a cost of $50,000.
The main framework of the church, of course, wasn’t affected by the changes of 1984. The church has retained its historic dignity and majestic appeal. Only the altar and confessionals were changed. Parishioners now are but a few feet away from the altar, much like the apostles at the Last Supper, and the priest makes eye contact with the faithful while the words he utters are easily heard and reflected upon. It could be argued that a young Catholic today would be greatly perplexed by the old ways. Still, tradition is important, sometimes vital. The original church contained some magnificent sculptures and ornamentation. Having it removed was painful to see. But change, while often arduous, can lead to much, much more in terms of intimacy and understanding.
As Father Vincent McGarvey of St. Patrick’s once remarked, “to try to re-live the past is impossible; to ignore it is foolish.” The current sanctuary contains a portion of the original altar, a sculptural depiction of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper. It’s mounted in the sanctuary on the south wall. Beautifully done, it is not only a reminder of Jesus’ great gift to us but a reflection on our church’s past. If you’ve not seen it, go up after Mass and see it for yourself.