Living and working for a time in Krakow -- the city that John Paul the Second loved -- I have been struck with numerous lessons regarding music, the arts, aesthetics, and the American Catholic Church. Poland gave the Church one of her greatest Popes, a man fiercely attuned to the merits, failings, and needs of the world and its Church. It comes as no surprise to me that aesthetics figured centrally in his thoughts. "Does the Church need art?" he asked. Indeed "does art need the Church?"
It was a particularly vivid recent service at the Franciscan Basilica in Krakow that led me to begin writing this article. I stood near the back of an ancient chapel bearing a faithful reproduction of the Turin Shroud. This chapel -- along with the great Cathedral that lay beyond it -- was filled with people of all ages, gathered together to celebrate an ancient Lenten rite. For a time, images of a Church in crisis were driven far from my mind by the sight of throngs of faithful Catholics, all rapt in their participation with grand tradition. This Church, across the street from the window at which John Paul II would great the faithful on his trips home, still resonated powerfully with his aesthetic lessons.
We were participating in the "gorzke zale" -- the ancient practice of singing sorrowful songs and seeking repentance during the time of Lent. After an initial hymn, the "Brotherhood of Our Lady of Sorrows" processed into the Chapel in black robes and hoods that also covered their faces. Each bore a staff bearing a symbol relating to the individual Stations of the Cross. The procession first went before the Eucharist, where the monks dropped loudly to the stone floor, prostrating themselves before Christ while the first sorrowful songs were sung. In the front of the procession was an ancient square box, bearing dark yet vibrant paintings on all sides, each image commemorating a scene from Christ's Passion. There were Gospel readings, hymns from the congregation, and a stark and harsh chant repeated by the monks. As the readings and prayers changed their subject, the box was rotated to show the faithful a corresponding image from the Passion. I was not only witnessing an ancient ceremony, but also likely one of the first multimedia presentations in the history of the Western world.
The procession later passed into the main Church, where people kneeled as songs commemorating the pain of the Mother of God were sung. This was followed by a spoken Lenten recollection. The procession then passed into the normally private side areas of the Church.
As we entered these generally restricted darker back areas, the flickering candlelight revealed a glorious collection of art lining the walls and ceilings. Numerous tapestries, icons, paintings, and murals covered most of the available space. Here we were, on a Friday night, nearly three hours into a slow and solemn procession, and yet nobody looked tired, nobody was yawning (like so many of the American midnight Masses I have attended), and nobody was complaining. In the midst of this, one American was rapt by the priceless aesthetic expressions of faith being slowly revealed before his eyes.
It was then that I noticed, along with the friend who was with me, that the Church was still in the process of uncovering many of these glorious murals. It is amazing to consider, but at some point in history, a Church leader had decided to cover these priceless works of art with a fresh coat of white paint. Somehow, he had preferred white, sterile walls to the dazzling visual gospel that the Franciscans were now recovering. Somehow, he had preferred sterility over a living catechesis.
Here I arrive at my first epiphany. The Church is a many-splendored thing. Some things in the Church, like the ancient procession, remained mercifully unchanged. Others, like the white-washed murals, were profound mistakes. It takes a courageous faith to admit our aesthetic mistakes, and to work to restore our true aesthetic heritage. In the case of these Franciscans, they obviously felt this heritage to be important enough to spend considerable precious resources on. Some might claim the use of money on such pursuits to be frivolous, yet such claims wither in the sight of the fruits of such action: in this case, thousands of faithful following the Eucharist for hours on a Friday night. I thought then of the harlot who anointed Christ's tired feet with precious oil, or the men who dismantled a roof to lower their sick friend into the presence of Christ. Both were impractical acts, both used valuable resources, yet both greatly pleased our Lord. Great Churches, soaring architecture, well-rehearsed music programs, and many Catholic traditions such as public processions have largely disappeared from the American Catholic tradition due to their difficulty and impracticality. Yet what in the Scriptures, or what in the great history of the Church, leads us to believe that God wants for us to structure our faith and our churches around practicality? Where is this practical God? In the words of Pope John Paul the Great: "The Church needs art."
On Sunday I attended the local college Mass at the Dominican Basilica. My first experience with this Mass was astounding, as I had never seen so many students and young adults in such rapt attention with the Mass. The Dominicans here give a Mass worthy of their name, with a short but penetrating homily and a heartfelt Eucharistic celebration. Yet as a composer, it was the music that left me stunned -- an amateur choir of college students sang almost entirely in Latin, adding a small selection of ancient Polish devotionals. There were no drums or guitars, no synthesizers, no kitschy campfire-esque sing-alongs, and no quasi-pop posturing. Here, in seeming defiance of all popular wisdom, over a thousand youth sang the Agnus Dei and the Miserere, reverently reciting and singing in both Latin and their vernacular. Speaking to students afterwards, many of them told me that they picked this particular Mass not only because of the heartfelt and brave Dominican homilies, but also because the music was beautiful.
While they may not have known to express it this way, what they really meant was that the Mass -- and its music -- was beautiful in a way utterly unlike what the world had to offer them. Following the urging of the 20th-century Popes, this was a rapturous new music growing out of the sacred tradition of Gregorian Chant.
And so came the second epiphany, though it was really just a reminder of what we have always known: the Mass is meant to be sacred, that is, otherworldly, holy, and set apart. The very notion of holiness, in fact, implies an accessible but "apart" state of being. This can be seen when the priest incenses the altar, marking off the space as both holy and "between the worlds."
On numerous occasions I have noticed that the music in this Mass seems to interact with the heavy clouds of incense in the Church, surrounding the altar, bathing the congregation in holy sounds, and rising as a fitting offering to the Lord. Here the ingredients of Catholic tradition and the power of a Mass to attract people are seen: a dedicated liturgy, a fearless and educated homily, a heartfelt Eucharist, all bathed in incense and candlelight and suffused with music growing reverently out of Catholic tradition. This must have been what the authors of Vatican II intended when they opened the liturgy to greater congregational participation.
A few weeks later, in the cathedral in Szczecin -- a sizable Polish city about two hours roughly northeast of Berlin -- I attended a Palm Sunday evening performance of Pawel Lukaszewski's recent composition Via Crucis (literally, the "Way of the Cross.") It was performed by the award-winning CHAPS choir, under the direction of the young and dynamic Szymon Wyrzykowski, as well as the Baltic Neopolis Orchestra. The Latin text and prayers were displayed on a large screen to the side of the choir, along with a vernacular translation. Along with Lukaszewski's stunning musical expressions, the densely packed congregation also was presented with an elaborately staged Stations of the Cross. Before the "mysterium" concert began, the vocal soloist who portrayed Jesus Christ invited us to "not only a shared musical experience, but also the shared act of prayer." The concert was a stunning success: the Passion was stark and deeply affecting, while the final chords of the Resurrection sequence triumphantly shook the Cathedral to its foundation. The new Archbishop, visibly moved, asked for an encore of the Resurrection sequence before giving the audience his concluding blessing. Here was an audience of mostly non-sophisticates, thoroughly enjoying a piece of new music that might have otherwise remained beyond their intellectual reach. Ultimately, it was the story of Christ's passion that made this complex new art so accessible. Clearly, as John Paul the Second has claimed, "Art needs the Church."
The land that gave us John Paul the Great -- the Pope who loved the arts -- continues to proclaim his aesthetic lessons. Not surprisingly, his German successor is echoing these lessons in his homilies and writings. Whether difficult or even impractical, our aesthetic tradition is of prime importance in Catholicism. The Church needs art, and art needs the Church.
In America -- a land full of great resources and possibilities -- are we listening? Are we rising to the occasion that has been thrust upon us?
This resource is provided in collaboration with The Foundation for Sacred Arts.