Once upon a time in the US, post-Vatican II Catholics weren’t really sure what the rules were. Everything seemed to have changed, and there was no easy way to get definite information about what was okay and what wasn’t. Like mushrooms, we lived in dark places and were fed off scraps and dead leaves and stuff that just had collected.

So back in the Eighties, I would have expected people not to have known better. But back then, my home parish didn’t have theatrical Way of the Cross performances up next to the altar on Good Friday.

Instead, they had one this Holy Week, and they even invited the local newspaper photographer to document what they were doing wrong. (Which at least shows that they were ignorant.)

Nowadays, we live in the light. The Church provides us with plenty of websites full of educational resources. For most matters, there are definite rules for us to follow. One of those sets of rules deals with what kind of performances are allowed in our churches. People who put on performances in church but ignore the existence of guidelines are either not looking, or purposely closing their eyes against the light. If the performance is supposed to be educational or devotional, they are “blind guides.” (Mt. 15:14) If adults are running minors around in these things, they are particularly blind.

So let’s take a look at the church furniture GIRM over on the USCCB website, since that’s the easiest thing to find.

First off, the ambo is a “blessed” object, specially dedicated to a few sacred purposes. “From the ambo, only the readings, the Responsorial Psalm, and the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) are to be proclaimed; likewise it may be used for giving the Homily and for announcing the intentions of the Universal Prayer. The dignity of the ambo requires that only a minister of the word should stand at it.” (The prescribed Liturgy of the Hours readings are okay, the same as Mass readings.)

(But yes, that means that using the ambo for announcements, hymns, the Gloria, and even devotional stuff like the Way of the Cross is not allowed. And yes, practically every parish getting it wrong doesn’t make it right.)

But the main thing is that you’re not supposed to be in the sanctuary area directly around the altar unless you’re there for a sacred purpose. A devotional drama can be performed in church, but doing it in the sanctuary is forbidden.

(Given that women are only allowed in the sanctuary area at all by kindly and recent permission, it takes a lot of chutzpah to put on an all-female play where nobody’s play is supposed to be. It’s like your parents giving you a convertible for your sixteenth birthday, and you deciding this means you should invite all your friends to run a stock car race on your parents’ flowerbeds.)

I admit that it’s a bit more difficult to find the Vatican instruction on “Concerts in Churches” from back in 1987, at least in English. The relevant provisions are common sense, however.

“The regulation of the use of churches is stipulated by canon 1210 of the Code of Canon Law: “In a sacred place only those things are to be permitted which serve to exercise or promote worship, piety and religion. Anything out of harmony with the holiness the place is forbidden. The Ordinary may, however, for individual cases, permit other uses, provided they are not contrary to the sacred character of the place.”

“The principle that the use of the church must not offend the sacredness of the place determines the criteria by which the doors of a church may be opened….

“e. The [performers] should not be placed in the sanctuary. The greatest respect is to be shown to the altar, the president’s chair and the ambo.”

(But if you don’t like the lack of “performance space” in a church with the sanctuary excluded, there’s nothing stopping you from having your theatrical Way of the Cross in the parochial school gym or another suitable space. For example, in this particular parish, the presumably deconsecrated chair storage spaces which have taken up most of the nave of the old St. Luke’s.)

Finally, as the caption for Picture 21 notes, this was the final performance ever of the Catholic group putting on this Way of the Cross, after years of putting on similar devotional performances. So obviously they put a lot of time and effort into this, and yet nobody had told them the rules in all that time.

This is the tragedy of bad education/formation and bad Church governance. We can do better. We don’t have to choke off creativity; the the 17th century Jesuits and Oratorians were great pioneers of religious theater. We just have to present these things reverently and legitimately, with the mind of the Church.

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