Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
August 17, 2012
Last week I relaunched this column by focusing on the future Pope Benedict’s comment, “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”
For us to put out into the deep and faithfully carry out the Lord’s command for a New Evangelization today, we need to focus not so much on rational arguments per se — as important as these are — but on the “argument” of irresistible attraction: the beauty of faith in response to the beauty of God.
For the most part, this column will focus on the light of God radiantly shining in those saintly men and women, boys and girls, who put out into the deep in a communion of life and love with God. As we prepare, however, for the beginning of the Year of Faith during the Synod on the New Evangelization in two months, I didn’t want to let the other part of Cardinal Ratzinger’s great insight escape, because it partially explains why we’re in need for a year of faith and a New Evangelization in the first place — as well as indicates the path forward.
In his famous 1985 book length interview with journalist Vittorio Messori, “The Ratzinger Report,” the then head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith spoke about the importance of beauty within the Church.
“If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her Liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty — and hence truth — is at home.”
He added, provocatively, that without this beauty, “the world will become the first circle of hell,” merely a vestibule for final alienation from God.
Cardinal Ratzinger went on to describe a theologian he knew who bragged that he was a “barbarian,” someone who gave no importance whatsoever to beauty. He reacted by saying, “A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental: they necessarily are reflected in his theology.”
We could say the same thing about a “barbarian” pastor, whose aesthetic blindness will necessarily be reflected in his preaching, and about “barbarian” lay people, whose impairment will influence the way they speak, live, dress and witness to God and the faith.
This truth about beauty is key to the New Evangelization because one of the reasons why we need a New Evangelization is because, since the time of the Second Vatican Council — in the context of a movement in art that has downplayed beauty in favor of the “interesting” and “creative” — there has been a widespread obscuring of the beauty of our faith in favor of banality and ugliness.
Many venerable churches were iconoclastically stripped of so many of their beautiful treasures — paintings, statues, pulpits, exquisite altars and communion rails — in favor of whitewashed walls or third-rate replacements in a process that earned the pejorative title of “wreckovation.”
Many new churches more readily called to mind spaceships, restaurants or motor lodges than the cross or anything evocative of the faith.
Masterpieces in the treasury of sacred music were supplanted by trite melodies (Mass parts, for example, done to the tune of “Take me out to the ball game”) or with lyrics that were either patently heretical (“Look beyond the bread you eat”) or painfully narcissistic (“Give us the courage to enter the song”).
Tabernacles began to look more like plain “bread boxes” than the residence of the Eternal Son of God.
Crucifixes began to make Jesus look like an antiseptic extra-terrestrial stick-figure than the fully human, strong carpenter about whom St. Claire of Assisi said, even “bathed in blood, was more fair than the fairest of men.”
Church banners and altar frontispieces began to look like they were subcontracted to a first-grade art class at the beginning of the school year.
Stained-glass windows, rather than portraying in alluring ways the mysteries of our faith, started to become unintelligible kaleidoscopic hodge-podges.
And perhaps most conspicuously uninspiring of all have been Missalette covers, which have consistently portrayed the Lord, great figures and mysteries of faith in unappealing art unrecognizable to human life.
The New Evangelization requires a new appreciation for beauty over banality.
That’s already started, thanks be to God, with the elevated, often poetic language of the new translation of the Roman Missal. We see it in the stunning monthly “Magnificat” prayer books featuring the best of Christian art. It’s evidenced in the beautiful new hymnals like the Vatican II Hymnal pointing to a quantum leap in the quality of vernacular sacred music. And it’s witnessed in the rediscovery of beauty in Church art and architecture as liturgical buried treasures are being taken from church basements or acquired through Ebay.
These are all parts, important parts, in the “arguments” of the New Evangelization.
Reintroducing people to the beauty of the faith is an urgent pastoral need to help people to perceive the truth, Cardinal Ratzinger emphasized in a speech to lay people in 2002. “The pastoral life has to foster the human person’s encounter with the beauty of faith. To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth.”
The pope built on this connection between beauty and truth in a 2008 question-and-answer session with priests. “The beauties created by faith,” he said, “are simply the living proof of faith.” They are a “luminous sign of God.” And they communicate an objective truth. “Christian art is a rational art. … It is the artistic expression of a greatly expanded reason, in which heart and reason encounter each other.”
That’s why in trying to introduce others to God, truth and beauty should always be conveyed together. “This is proof of the truth of Christianity: Heart and reason encounter one another, beauty and truth converge.”
And the beauty of the saints — in whose hearts beauty and truth have converged — and the beauty of art likewise go together. “The more that we ourselves succeed in living in the beauty of truth, the more that faith will be able to return to being creative in our time too, and to express itself in a convincing form of art.”
This is what the New Evangelization is about.