Beauty is a door that leads to God. Cardinal Danneels, the archbishop emeritus of Brussels, writes: "God is Truth, Holiness and Moral Perfection, but God is also Beauty. One can find God through the door of truth, for truth attracts us. But many of our contemporaries are little Pilates who ask: 'What is truth?" and remain outside the door without entering. God as Moral Perfection and Holiness also attracts us. But many will say: 'Moral perfection attracts me, but I'm incapable of it,' and they remain outside that door marked by their moral weaknesses. But beauty disarms: it is irresistible for contemporary men and women… The Church has so many beautiful things to say and to show to the world, not only in its artistic heritage, but also in so many saints who shone with beauty."
As we praise God for the beauty of the saints, especially of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we do well to recall the great fountain of God's beauty on earth: the Sacred Liturgy. It is especially good to do this as the Church prepares to receive and to pray with the new English translation of the Roman Missal.
God's Majesty and Mercy made present
The place and the time on earth that we most truly encounter Beauty, indeed when we participate in Beauty, is the Sacred Liturgy. For the fullness of Beauty is the Lord Jesus Himself, in whom "the fullness of deity resides in bodily form" (Col 2:9). The mystical life of heaven inaugurated by Christ — which we cannot see — is made visible in the beauty of the Eucharistic celebration.
Everything related to the Sacred Liturgy, then, is used to reveal this divine Beauty to us here and now. We give great attention and make true sacrifices in order to have beautiful churches that radiate the worship of the Blessed Trinity. Similarly, so that the sacred texts would assist us in giving fitting worship to the living God, many years of scholarly work and in-depth consultations with eleven conferences of bishops on five continents went into the new English translation of the Roman Missal. In this new translation, special attention has been given to Beauty.
Why seek to intensify the beauty of our Mass texts? Speaking to some American bishops visiting Rome in December 1993, Pope John Paul II laid the foundation when he said: "When so many people are thirsting for the living God (Ps 42:2) — whose majesty and mercy are at the heart of liturgical prayer — the Church must respond with a language of praise and worship which fosters respect and gratitude for God's greatness, compassion and power. When the faithful gather to celebrate the work of our redemption, the language of their prayer — free from doctrinal ambiguity and ideological influence — should foster the dignity and beauty of the celebration itself, while faithfully expressing the Church's faith and unity."
In other words, the more the Church's living faith shines forth from the beauty of the words used at Mass, the more our hearts' thirst for Christ is quenched.
The difficult work of translating liturgical texts into the vernacular, and of producing texts of accuracy as well as grandeur and majesty, requires helpful guidance from the Church's Magisterium. A key signpost is Liturgiam Authenticam, an "Instruction" on vernacular translation of the Roman Missal issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, March 28, 2001.
At the heart of this Instruction for translation is the centrality of divine beauty — as well as clarity — in the texts. It says (#25), "So that the content of the original texts may be evident and comprehensible even to the faithful who lack any specialized intellectual formation, the translations should be characterized by a kind of language which is easily understandable, yet which at the same time preserves these texts' dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision. By means of words of praise and adoration that foster reverence and gratitude in the face of God's majesty, His power, His mercy and His transcendent nature, the translations will respond to the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people of our own time, while contributing also to the dignity and beauty of the liturgical celebration itself."
Notice that the accent is on how the words of the Liturgy embody God's majesty, namely His goodness ("dignity"), His truth ("doctrinal precision"), and His captivating glory ("beauty"). Often our own spoken words correspond to our private inner dispositions and experiences. Of course, our individual sentiments are not unimportant, but the words used in the sacred liturgy are meant to express God's inner reality so as to transform us. This is what lifts us up, inspires and ultimately redeems us: God's glorious and loving intervention in history and in our lives. This is what takes place most powerfully and majestically in the Sacred Liturgy.
Beauty reveals the wonderful truth of what or who something is, and thereby exudes a delightful power to attract. More than just "frosting on the cake" or ostentatious embellishment that can be done without, Beauty in the Liturgy must be present because Christ is present. This constitutive element of the Sacred Liturgy explains its transforming power. Christ reveals that the deepest truth of God is Love, the Blessed Trinity, and this is the Beauty we encounter in the Liturgy.
The Weight of Glory
The perception of beauty is more than an acquired taste for connoisseurs. It is the central task of our everyday spiritual life, as we seek to know the attractive power of Christ so that we may follow Him. This requires hard work of both mind and heart. Consider, for example, the fact that most of the contemporaries of the Lord Jesus did not recognize Him; they even rejected Him and put Him to death on a cross. Nonetheless, He — broken and disfigured on the Cross — remains the fullness of Truth and Goodness and Beauty. How can Beauty Himself go unrecognized? Beauty is not a question of merely stimulating the senses but of speaking truth to the heart. Frequently, our private tastes or perceptions are mistaken or simply uninformed. Even the Apostles required three years of intense training by Jesus Himself to gradually see and hear the deepest truth of His person and mission. Because we encounter the same Lord Jesus in the Sacred Liturgy, a similar process of training our hearts to see and to hear Him is necessary.
We should expect, then, that some work will be required of us to appreciate the new English translations of the Roman Missal. It will be more than worth the effort, more than worth the work of mind and heart to understand the new liturgical texts and through them to celebrate the sacred mysteries in a renewed way. Many will notice that the language of these texts is more exalted and majestic than we have become used to over the past forty-plus years. Why? Because the Sacred Liturgy gives us a foretaste of heavenly glory, like what the three Apostles experienced at the Transfiguration of Christ (Cf. Mt 17:1-3). There, we see that nothing is "safe" from being touched by Christ's glory. Even His clothes radiate divine light. The Latin texts of the Roman missal possess this quality of heavenly beauty in human words; the English translation aims to capture a share in this splendor.
Beauty has within it "the weight of glory." The Cross of Christ is often called the Tree of Life; for the sacrifice that Jesus offered there conquered death and opened the door to eternal life. We are one in the mystery of the Cross at every Eucharistic Sacrifice. The language we use at Mass helps us to appreciate this wondrous privilege and to celebrate the infinite love of God with hearts full of gratitude and awe. As we go through the work of catechesis to prepare for the new translation, and as we eventually adjust to the new texts of the Mass, let us keep in mind the final goal of the Liturgy and in fact life itself: to worship God in spirit and in truth. When this task is the center of our worship, our lives are re-directed by Christ Himself to the praise of the Lord. This is Beauty working in our lives, as it did in the Saints. As St. Paul writes (1 Cor 10:31), "…whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God."
Printed with permission from the Catholic Sun, newspaper for the Diocese of Phoenix, Ariz.