‘God dwells here’: Experts cite three keys to keep churches holy during secular use

By Gina Christian | OSV News

Canon law, communication and a “new mindfulness” of God’s presence can safeguard the sanctity of Catholic churches during occasional secular use, diocesan experts told OSV News.

The exterior of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., is pictured April 5, 2022. Brooklyn Bishop Robert J. Brennan resided over a Mass of Reparation at the church Nov. 4 to restore the sanctity of the church after it was desecrated from use in a sexually provocative music video released Oct. 31. After the controversy, experts shared with OSV News what canon law and pastoral practice say about the proper occasional use of Catholic churches for secular events. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Ed Wilkinson, The Tablet)

Recently, controversy has swirled around the use of a Brooklyn, New York, Catholic church for the filming of a violent, sexually provocative popular music video that went viral online. Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn celebrated a Mass of Reparation Nov. 4 at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church after singer Sabrina Carpenter was filmed performing inside and outside the Brooklyn church, including in the sanctuary — an activity the diocese called a “desecration.”

Father Gerald Dennis Gill, director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Divine Worship and rector of that city’s Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, commended Bishop Brennan for his “swift response” to the incident.

“He had an immediate recognition both of the horror of what happened in that church and the need to reclaim it for sacred use,” Father Gill said.

Amid a culture that has a “reduced understanding” of sacred spaces, Father Gill stressed the need to recall that “when we’re talking about a cathedral, a church, a chapel or an oratory, everything about the room has been set aside for the worship of almighty God.

“So the guiding principle for the use of any of these buildings is that they need to be used primarily for the worship of God,” he said. “And that happens for us Catholics most fully with the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass and the other sacraments. … (These spaces) are made holy by their use for the worship of God, and especially by the most holy Eucharist.”

He added that “we do not allow our cathedral in Philadelphia to be used for secular purposes as a rule.”

While not all dioceses have actual written protocols for the use of churches in film shoots, canon law provides important guidance, said Patrick Krisak, director of faith formation and missionary discipleship at the Archdiocese of Boston’s Office of Divine Worship.

“The relevant section of canon law is (found at) numbers 1205 to 1243 on sacred places,” Krisak said.

Canon law states that sacred places “are those which are designated for divine worship or for the burial of the faithful by a dedication or a blessing which the liturgical books prescribe for this purpose.”

Churches, oratories, private chapels and shrines are among the church’s sacred places, along with altars and Catholic cemeteries and Catholic sections within civil graveyards.

Canon 1210 states that “only those things which serve the exercise or promotion of worship, piety, or religion are permitted in a sacred place; anything not consonant with the holiness of the place is forbidden.”

However in an individual case, the bishop “can permit other uses which are not contrary to the holiness of the place.”

According to Canon 1211, sacred places “are violated by gravely injurious actions done in them with scandal to the faithful, actions which, in the judgment of the local ordinary (typically a bishop), are so grave and contrary to the holiness of the place that it is not permitted to carry on worship in them until the damage is repaired by a penitential rite according to the norm of the liturgical books.”

When film production companies or other outside organizations request to use a Catholic church in the Boston Archdiocese, “while there is some discretion given to the pastor, we would refer them to canon law,” said Krisak. “And then there would be, depending on the organization and the circumstances, some conversation with our real estate and building services folks, and with our legal department.”

The goal is “to make sure that whatever is happening is … in accord with our beliefs and appropriate,” he said.

For Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, that task requires reading quite a few movie scripts.

When film production companies approach the archdiocese to use one of its Catholic churches as a location, “my office has to review the entire script — not just the scene in which a church building might be used. We have to see the entire script.”

After Zwilling reads through a given script (which first entails signing a nondisclosure agreement), the request “has to go to our legal department and our insurance department, to make sure any agreements that are entered into are proper — that they have proper insurance and (that we) make sure that the church and the parish (are) indemnified,” he said.

Reading through the whole script before granting permission has prevented mishaps, Zwilling said.

One television production request, which sought to depict the front exterior of a church in a quick action sequence, initially seemed “fairly benign,” Zwilling said — until the script revealed otherwise.

“They wanted to use the exterior of a church for a (scene in which) a nun helps a young girl who was a victim of abuse. The nun uses a parish van to take the girl and get her away from harm,” he said. “It turns out that (in the script) the abuser was a priest, and … just before the police could arrest him, the Vatican spirited him away to Rome to protect him because there’s no extradition treaty with the Holy See.”

The request was denied, said Zwilling, unlike a famous one that was approved years before his tenure at the archdiocese.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film “The Godfather,” a New York Catholic church was used to film what became known as “the baptism scene,” during which actor Al Pacino — portraying the fictional character Michael Corleone — stands as godfather to an infant receiving the sacrament. As Pacino’s character recites the baptismal promises (including that to reject Satan), the film intersperses cutaways to the violent murders of his rivals that the mafia don has orchestrated.

The baptism segment, “intercut with all these people being murdered in … graphic ways (is) obviously inappropriate,” said Zwilling.

Yet avoiding such missteps is usually just a matter of keeping archdiocesan officials and pastoral staff in the loop with requests for film shoots and other secular events, said Krisak.

“I think that when we run into issues, it’s usually because there’s been some sort of communication breakdown along the way,” he said. “Either someone presumes that they had some permission or something that they didn’t have or neglects to remember to make a call or bring somebody into the loop. And that’s sort of where things tend to get tricky.”

“There needs to be a new mindfulness that God dwells here in these churches,” said Father Gill.

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Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @GinaJesseReina.


Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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