Every church or chapel has an ambiance - an environment or distinct atmosphere that is there even before the liturgy begins. This particular environment or atmosphere can be a powerful force in allowing the ritual of the liturgy to unfold in the proper way. In their guidelines for the building and renovation of churches, the United States bishops have acknowledged the vital connection between the liturgy itself and the physical setting, including the building itself, in which the liturgy is celebrated. They write, “The church building fosters participation in the liturgy. Because liturgical actions by their nature are communal celebrations, they are celebrated with the presence and active participation of the Christian faithful whenever possible. Such participation, both internal and external, is the faithful’s right and duty by reason of their baptism. The building itself can promote or hinder the full, conscious, and active participation of the faithful.”
Many components come together to create ambiance. There is the external appearance of the building, including the cleanliness and landscaping of the yards. There is the appearance of the interior, including the design of the space and its art, furnishings and decorations. There are also the important issues of light and sound. Lighting can help create all kinds of moods, but insufficient lighting must be avoided at all cost. Good ambiance is ruined as well if worshipers must strain to hear the spoken word.
Another component of ambiance, often overlooked, is the experience of being greeted and welcomed when entering into the church. Many parishes have greeters - people who simply say hello and extend welcome to those who enter. People, particularly visitors, may never notice that there were no greeters, but they always seem to remember if there were. Greeters need little training and have no impact on the community’s budget, but their impact on the community’s prayer may prove to be priceless.
Upon entering the church it is also nice to be greeted by an obvious sense of silence and prayerfulness. When worshipers begin to arrive, everything should be prepared for the liturgy, so that people are finished arranging objects and shuffling papers. Musicians should be finished with their rehearsals and warmups, unless they are doing these preparations in another room. Vatican norms for the celebration of the liturgy say that “Even before the celebration itself, it is commendable that silence be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred action in a devout and fitting manner.”
Prior to the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, talking or even whispering in church was considered improper, perhaps even something to be acknowledged in confession. When Vatican II recovered the definition of the Church as the People of God with Christ as their head, and the liturgy as the communal prayer of all members of the assembly, there followed in the next decades an emphasis on making people feel welcome before the liturgy, on inviting people to gather before the liturgy in order to exchange greetings and briefly visit. Thus the cramped vestibules of older churches have rightfully given way to spacious “gathering spaces” separating the outdoors from the main body of the church. But visiting and chatting before the liturgy is best confined to these rooms. It is here, as well, that people might turn off their cellphones, which often seem to be the weapon of mass destruction for any kind of pleasant ambiance.