It is a fascinating realization that our ancient Catholic Mass, when applied within the totality of our faith, just happens to correspond to what science has taught us about human learning patterns.
All of our modern research on education informs us that people all learn in different ways. There are visual learners. There are those that learn from doing and repetition. There are those that learn by hearing, while others learn by repeating. Others require a combination of methods to learn most effectively. It just happens that our Mass is capable of addressing all of these methods simultaneously.
A fundamentalist Church with blank white walls, uninspired architecture, and scarce visual portrayals is guilty of denying a crucial aspect of formation to the person who learns visually. A Church with badly-performed music -- or no music at all -- is denying the faithful who just happen to have an aural sweet-tooth. The Church fearful of repetitive prayers denies full formation to those who just happen to learn well through repetition.
In short, it is no coincidence that our Mass is a complete learning experience, a veritable ancient version of term “multimedia.” Our great Church tradition, steeped in beautiful art and iconography, accompanied by the most inspired music in human history, beholden to the work of the greatest architects, is capable of surrounding and nurturing us with these valid and necessary expressions of the faith.
To see the power of such expressions, we have only to look towards the majority of Christian history, during which a majority of believers were largely illiterate. Long before the Protestant manifesto that “each man read his Bible,” a full Catholic education and catechesis was possible through the poly-artistic approach of the Catholic liturgy. The cynic can claim that widespread literacy and education have “inevitably” led to a decline in faith and Church attendance. The artist, however, will tell you that a one-dimensional approach is bound to alienate many people.
It is precisely the sounds, smells, and images of a Catholic Church that stay with people well into adulthood, even remaining with those who chose to leave the Faith. When I wandered away from the Church in young adulthood, it was the mystical experience of her aesthetic expressions that stayed with me as my faith sputtered and fizzled. When after many years I once again stepped into a Church, I was not drawn by the words of scripture, nor did I necessarily want to see or speak with a Priest. I simply wanted to sit in a place that was holy. Though I couldn't articulate it at the time, I had grown weary of the noise and din of the secular world; I was desperate for the sacred. Finding my comfort in sacred music, in the glow of candles, the beauty of an intricately carved crucifix, and the special luminosity of an icon, I was soon ready to take the next steps towards once again being a fully-practicing Catholic. Before my ears could hear or my mind open to reformation, my soul had to find peace in the deeper and more luminous aspects of the deposit of the faith.
Little wonder, then, that many Evangelical congregations are assimilating various “Orthodox” and “Romanesque” practices into their services. Little wonder that recordings of chant music have topped record sales. Little wonder that even the most hardened heart can be brought to pause and reflect beneath the soaring spires of a great Cathedral. There is real power here, a power reflective of divine truth, and a power which is our birthright as Catholics.
We are constantly being barraged with the sounds and images of secular society. As Catholics, we should have a stronger alternative in the sounds and images we present in our Churches. To not provide children -- let alone adults -- with quality holy music and imagery is to leave a blank space which will certainly be filled by the wrong sounds and images.
An additional concern with popular art and music in our culture relates to quality. It must first be stated that popular art and music is created, produced, and packaged by very talented people backed by major business interests. It presents a “glitz” and “sheen” which the budget of a Catholic church cannot compete with. Any popular expression within the Church is bound to be received as a second-rate alternative by those who are pop aficionados (or even casual imbibers.)
Finally there is the issue of intent as it relates to aesthetic language. Pop art and music use an aesthetic vehicle which is designed to sell a product. It baits, it hooks, and it largely is concerned with quick thrills. Certainly there are some quality Christian expressions within the popular realm. Yet one cannot escape the fact that such artists are using a banal aesthetic formula to express what is most Holy and sacred. Consider the following thought experiment: as a practicing Catholic, how would you feel about the musical content of Britney Spear's “Slave for You” being written as a Eucharistic processional? Even were the words a deep liturgical meditation, the absurdity of such a situation could not be denied. In such a case, the musical vehicle is not designed to carry the words or weight of the sacred.
In short, we should avoid competition with the secular message on its own ground. Nor should we desire to compete, as it makes no sense to state sacred things -- during the mystical sacrifice of the Mass, no less -- in a language which is designed to carry the messages of secular culture.
A further problem concerning aesthetic divisions in the Church manifests itself on a local level. Oftentimes even small parishes find themselves offering a “teen mass” and a “Contemporary Mass” along with (if we are fortunate) a “traditional music” Mass. In doing so, we are dividing our congregations into taste demographics, much as the secular world does in its marketing schemes. Liturgical considerations aside, it makes no sense to further divide the already dwindling numbers in our congregations along the lines of “taste.” By doing otherwise, we cheapen the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by implying it remain beholden to popular taste.
I remember my first steps into St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Dusk was near, Vespers were beginning. As luminous sounds echoed from near the main altar, I found myself a solitary pilgrim overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of this famous Church. Every angle, every color, every proportion had clearly been agonized over. Combined with sacred music and well-structured worship, the experience quickly entered the realm of transcendence. It was the single-most Catholic experience I had ever had.
St. Peter's Basilica is not a singular work of genius, but rather the end-point of a spiritual maturity and aesthetic development passed through the hands of talented artisans. While your local parish clearly cannot muster the resources of a Roman Basilica, it is beholden to the very same tradition which spawned the great cathedrals of the world. We must strive to have our Churches reflect the true aesthetic tradition of Catholicism.
Let the spaces be sacred once again. Let the music be sacred. Let the art be sacred. Let every thing within a Church be a worthy motion towards glorifying the awesome mystery of the sacrifice of the Mass. This is not beauty for its own sake, but beauty which points to the eternal truths we espouse. As such, it is a beauty which can increase the strength of worship, embolden believers, and help bring lost sheep home. It is a living beauty, and one which we cannot afford to relegate to the rummage pile of history.
This resource is provided in collaboration with The Foundation for Sacred Arts.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.