Parish churches: Bring back our ‘Snoezelen Rooms’

Father John A. Kiley

Once a month I bring Holy Communion to the Alzheimer unit of a swanky assisted living facility located in the parish.

The building’s whole character is reminiscent of the old Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel in Atlantic City. Paneled walls, white tablecloths, real china, uniformed help — the old folks should feel comfortable indeed. Adding to their contentment is a cozy alcove with the Dutch (or is it Danish?) designation of Snoezelen Room. This room is dimly lit by a string of small blue lights that flicker on the far wall. Soft sounds reach the ear. A trace of air-freshener is sensed. The ceiling reflects a tranquil blue sky with only a cloud or two on the horizon. Soothing playthings — a doll, a teddy bear, a stuffed animal, a football — are propped here and there on the upholstered chairs. A book or two with endearing pictures of animals or flowers are placed on an end table. Photographs of grand, natural vistas are framed on the walls. A plant fills one corner. No symbol or device that might invoke calm and serenity has been omitted. Agitated or bewildered residents should find the room’s ambiance most effective.

On first encountering this cozy niche, I generously thought how clever the psychiatrist or psychologist was who gathered all these reassuring items into one spot hoping to calm a troubled soul. But then, with more characteristic cynicism, I thought of how much our Catholic people have lost by having our churches locked up tight all week. Our parish churches were indeed the original Snoezelen Rooms. The door to the street could shut out the workaday world; inside an otherworldly, even supernatural, ambiance took over. Stained glass windows softened the harsh light of the outside world. The small glow of candles flickered in front of the side altars. A lingering hint of incense and an indication of polish from the pews were just perceptible. Consoling figures of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph offered their reassuring gaze. The sanctuary lamp heralded the Divine Presence. Fresh flowers flanked the tabernacle. Perhaps a plant highlighted the pulpit. The baptismal font recalled days when new life was welcomed into a family and into the Church. The Stations of the Cross evoked Lents gone by when piety and fervor energized the believer. A favorite pew gave a firm sense of tradition and continuity. Parish churches were indeed havens of rest for the agitated, the bewildered and the devout.

On this Sunday’s feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, the Catholic faithful should ponder the spiritual fortification offered by church buildings, chapels and shrines throughout the world. The possibility of vandalism has sadly occasioned the closing of many parish churches, but some churches, chapels and shrines are certainly accessible. None-theless, the loss of availability of the comforts of our parish churches, especially those parish churches that have witnessed our progress in the Christian life, is regrettable.

The late Father Edward Flannery, notable for his intense involvement in the Jewish/Catholic dialogue, lamented once how the demise of access to parish churches in the present day contrasted so greatly with the accessibility of parish churches in former days. He observed that once people leave Mass on Sunday morning they cannot get back into church until the following Saturday afternoon. While there is an early morning Mass during the week, the other 23 hours during the day allow no entry. Father Flannery offered that his generation would go Mass on Sunday morning, be back for vespers Sunday night, attend a novena during the week, confess on Saturday afternoon, and stop into church anytime they wanted on their way to work or to school. And this opportunity was available in every neighborhood — not just the odd chapel or shrine. Church truly was a home away from home for Father Flannery’s generation. “Now, locked doors,” he woefully observed.

Sacred space has been part of man’s spiritual and religious fabric since Eden. Every system of belief, Christian or pagan or otherwise, knows land or buildings or monuments where the presence of God is more effectively and more assuredly and more comfortably experienced. The consoling beauty of our parish churches (as well as the Divine Presence) should be generously available to our people.