Today I am feeling my age. I was perusing one of my favorite Facebook sites, Catholic Directors of Faith Formation / Religious Education, when I came across a discussion between several catechists speculating about the origin of banners. Specifically, someone proposed the idea of each First Communicant making a little banner to hang on the end of his or her family’s pew for the big day. Several participants in that discussion observed that they had not been able to trace the origins of the modern liturgical use of banners, even with thorough Google searches. And I thought to myself, maybe even Google has seen fit to obscure a true icon of the early post-Vatican II liturgical renewal era. Depending upon your pragmatic or educational tastes, banners were either the Swiss Army Knife or the Hamburger Helper of parish life.
The official Vatican declaration on the Church’s worship, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was promulgated on December 4, 1963. SC and its supporting directives were fairly clear that the reforms were to be undertaken with a measure of artistic excellence, while at the same time calling for all the faithful to be fully involved in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments. In the United States and Western Europe there was a pent-up energy to get on with this renewal, probably ahead of the due diligence that such a change should have evoked. Consider that such things as vital as an official Roman Missal, English translations, music standards, and church architecture would take some years to produce—the official Novus Ordo or rite of the Mass in the Roman Rite which we use today did not appear until 1970, and some complained that this rite was composed with too much haste. [The Vatican did provide a linguistic overhaul of the Mass in 2011.]
But because of the grass roots enthusiasm for change among many Catholics, the era of the 1960’s can be remembered as a true age of “liturgical improv.” For the record, I graduated from high school seminary in 1966 and Catholic University in 1971, so I had a front row seat, to be sure, and I will admit at the onset that I was also a supporter and occasional perpetrator of some liturgical innovations better retired today, being armed with my 12-string Martin guitar. Some day I may write a book about those years, but for the moment I will stick with my recollections of banners.
With a guiding principle of the liturgical reform being “participation,” the term was interpreted as involving as many people as possible in the preparation and execution of the rites. Thus, a proliferation of ministries appeared, such as baking breads, writing songs…and creating banners. Banners served a multitude of needs. Remember that in 1963 most churches and schools looked pretty much like churches of 1900, old and cluttered. There was a perceived need—visceral, in fact—to roll out symbols of change which emphasized, well, change. It would take time and money to remodel church worship space along the lines of Vatican II’s theology of worship. The large banner or banners in the sanctuary had a colorful immediacy and flexibility. They could be rotated with the seasons and the feasts as well as obscuring that 1895 plaster statue of St. Leo the Great. The first banners were relatively cheap and were usually a local product of church members and volunteers. It would be a while before the large liturgical production companies were turning them out en masse. Later, the commercial liturgical banners would be a godsend to communities celebrating Masses in social halls and other neutral sites. I bought a 16’ banner for our social hall in 1980 for about $800-$1000. Not Michelangelo, but not a third grade felt and glue creation, either.
In the atmosphere of the 1960’s, though, it is easy to see how catechists might be eager to incorporate banners into the curriculum of initiation. This was a hands-on project that incorporated arts and crafts into classroom instruction and, in the case of pew identifiers, family interaction. It was of a piece with making the first communion bread in class, a practice employed in several parishes until nervous canonists pointed out that the addition of honey and baking powder and whatever else goes into edible bread was not permitted by liturgical law—wheat and water are the only permissible ingredients in Eucharistic breads. In the 1980’s the liturgical diocesan director of a major city told a workshop I was attending that all those thousands of children who baked their communion breads had received invalid communions. “You take yourself too seriously,” I told him. But today that wheat and water rule is strictly observed, so do not get any ideas.
Banners in the 1960’s and beyond did have catechetical value, though in retrospect that is debated. Banners promulgated catechetical content by illustrating the sacramental signs [bread and wine, for example] and/or communicating a pithy instructional message, i.e., Bread of Life, for example. They could be made in all sizes: wall size, picture size, identification size. The practice of children and teens making banners for initiation sacraments and other purposes developed at this time.
In haste, though, the goal of participation should never have trumped artistic quality. The Church has a long tradition of patronizing and protecting the ageless wonders of the masters—the power of the Sistine Chapel is its seamless artistry and theology which has inspired the secular and religious soul for half a millennium. Having built a post Sacrosanctum Concilium church myself, I can tell you that the formative process of bringing a congregation from the mediocrity of plaster statues to exquisite wood, stone, wrought iron, and design is a struggle. In other words, a major ministry of any parish is education toward the fine arts over weddedness to the economical and the familiar, and it is Catholicism’s gift to its secular culture, too, in our case the utilitarianism of the United States. The nobility of sacred art is a stated liturgical goal of Vatican II. A leather-bound book of readings and hymns is an artistic sacramental in itself when held in the hands; even today, however, we remain bound to throwaway missalettes in many places, characteristic of our throwaway culture.
The religious nature of artistry is a principle that our post-Vatican II haste forgot to accommodate. A typical early renewal Mass could be a configuration of homemade banners in glaring disharmony with the older churches in which they were placed. Music—often played by musicians like me who knew three chords--was sung from mimeographed sheets, not bound hymnals. In the early 1970’s the reproduction of song sheets resulted in lawsuits by the rightful owners of the lyrics; art has its costs, too, another lesson that needs constant reminding where worship is concerned. More astute liturgists of that era criticized the chintz of these early experimentations, and conservatives rightly complained that poor artistic quality was a serious distraction from the power of the sacramental celebration.
Another issue with banners was their content and message. In the interest of space and good feeling, banner messaging could also be insipid. In college we would refer to some over-the-top creations as “kicky relevant,” in a derisive tone. For example, in 1968 I spent a year in a classroom facing a decorative banner made up of little gingerbread people holding hands over the message “Oh the more we get together the happier we’ll be.” Banners could also mangle theology. A story from the 1960’s era recalls how a famous theologian stopped to look at a home-made banner that hung from his podium. It read, “God is other people.” He thought for a moment, and then turned to the audience. “There is a grammatical error in your banner. It needs a comma,” he announced. “It should read, “God is other, people.”
As more churches were constructed or refurbished under the guidelines of the Council, there was less need for banners as the years went on, though I do see quite a few companies advertising them on-line. The banner-on-the-end-of-a pew is a popular item today, either as a finished product or as a do-it-yourself-kit. If they are well done and do not distract from more important elements of sacramental formation, I guess there is no harm. But if banners are a major part of your liturgical presentations of any kind, remember that all of us of Social Security age remember the old “kicky-relevant” days, so forgive us a discrete smile down our sleeves.