The Way of Beauty Our children, our treasure, our future

During annual Catholic Youth Days, the faith bursts forth in word and sacrament, in gesture, song and symbol. This beauty, writes Benedict XVI, “penetrates the hearts of our youth, touches them, and summons all to conversion.”

Last year in Madrid, he singled out the Stations of the Cross to make this point: “Beauty places itself at the service of faith; it is able to depict the mysteries of our salvation in such a way as to move us profoundly and transform our hearts.”

For years, papal documents have exhorted Catholics to live the mystery of Christ through the liturgy, for it is the best way of forming affective and effective disciples. Heeding their pleas, the editors of Children of the Church (1960, The Liturgical Press) planned lessons for grade-school children using sacred art, music, poetry, symbol, dance, and special foods, to awaken in the children the beauty of the Church’s year. Their goal: forming “children of the Church,”—forming young disciples of the Lord.

Liturgical Life in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, the Church’s liturgical year guided the lives of the faithful. From Baptism to the Eucharist to the Last Anointing, from the Hours to processions and pious devotions, to blessings of crops, animals, and boats, the Church provided a liturgical and devotional framework that sacralized their lives. The liturgical year “shaped their perception of the world and their place in it,” and these “central moments gave Catholics the key to the meaning and purpose of their lives.” (Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, 11-16)

The Parish Church in Nineteenth-Century America

With the arrival of European Catholics to the United States in the nineteenth century, new Americans found refuge in their parish churches which became part of family life. Parish activities lightened the immigrants’ encounters with anti-Catholicism and cultural bias, comforted the faithful living and working in subhuman conditions, and served as a magnet drawing families together for liturgical feasts. The beauty of these feasts lifted their spirits, otherwise marked by misery. Families, anticipating one feast after the other, lived within a liturgical frame of reference. Receiving the sacraments was a joyful occasion for the entire neighborhood, as were feast days of the Mother of God, St. Joseph, and the saints. In living the year of grace, the faith was handed down to the next generation as a living tradition.

The Parish Church Today

Today, the parish promotes not just a program of catechesis. The negative tones of our culture have triggered the transformation of the parish into the nerve center for the religious education of the entire family. The year of grace is not separated from civil time but affects it and gives it meaning. To live the year of grace is to sacralize time. Catechesis then is closely bound up with the whole of life—from sports to politics to social justice, from science to the arts and social media to care of the environment—and with the course of the entire year—from Advent to the feast of Christ the King.

1. The Advent-Christmas-Epiphany Cycle offers many customs for children to enjoy: the Advent wreath, evergreens, purple and rose-colored candles, the Jesse Tree (Is 11:1), the custom of Kris Kringle, the cult and meaning of the feast of St. Nicholas, the “O” antiphons, the Christmas crib and pageant, mistletoe, holly, Christmas tree, poinsettias, laurel wreaths, and Christ the light of the world.

2. St. Valentine's Day expresses in human sentiment the ultimate and preeminent sign of God’s love for all men and women:

“You are the apple of my eye.” (Ps. 17:8)

“I knit you in your mother's womb.” (Ps. 139:13)

“I have called you by your name; you are mine.” (Is. 43:1)

“I have loved you with an everlasting love.” (Jer. 31:3)

“You were exceedingly beautiful with the dignity of a ‘queen.’ You were renowned among the nations for your beauty, perfect as it was because of my splendor, which I had bestowed on you.” (Ez. 16:14)

“You are my work of art” (Eph. 2:10)

More in The Way of Beauty

3. The Lenten-Easter Cycle In the Lenten readings, children can learn about God’s plan for the redemption of the human race by bringing to life Old Testament types of Christ: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, David, Elias, and Jonah. Participating in daily Mass, making the Stations of the Cross, and doing good works give them the experience of imitating Jesus with a full understanding of Lent. All of which culminate in the Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! Indeed, he is risen!” Christ’s Resurrection triumphs over suffering and death.

4. The Time after Pentecost The autumnal season features Hallowe’en, once celebrated as All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints’- and All Souls’ Day. Sadly, in 1955, the celebration of All Hallows Eve was stricken from the Church calendar. To counter pagan spectacles on October 31st, young people bring together a celebration of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. They find “success stories” from the Judeo-Christian heritage which include: kings and queens, biblical heroes, Indian and American saints, teen-age saints, founders of religious orders, and modern-day martyrs who have suffered for their faith. Children dress up like the saint of their choice which may include their own sainted grandparents. Instead of trick or treating, they, with adult guidance, process near the parish to sacralize the meaning of October 31st. November closes in the spirit of thanksgiving, and the end of the liturgical year is fittingly celebrated with the feast of Christ the King.

5. Early Christian and Liturgical Art contains a treasure chest of beautiful symbols used during the church year. Early Christian art forms fascinate our young people. The vine and the branches, the lamb, images of a man, lion, ox, eagle, the fish, the chi-rho, and the Jerusalem Cross—all these are shortcuts for teaching the various aspects of the paschal mystery. The cross assumes special importance. Children sign themselves to praise the Holy Trinity, to reverence the cross, and to sign their bodies as sacred temples of God.

6. The Holy Trinity When words pale in the face of a mystery of faith, when boundaries of reason strain credulity, we turn to the sacred arts. We do this not to explain the faith but to proclaim its truth in affective and non-verbal ways. The Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18), painted by the Russian monk, Andrei Rublev (d1430), depicts a visual representation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity through the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah. The icon offers deep satisfaction because, through its vibrant colors, form, and symbol, the truth of the central mystery of the faith is etched in our corporate memory. This work of art places itself at the service of faith and depicts the mystery of the Holy Trinity in a profound, beautiful, and convincing way.

Forming Young Disciples of the Lord

Secular time fails to offer what the year of grace gives abundantly, if liturgical celebration is done with care, attention and devotion, with love, beauty, truth, and goodness. Living the Church’s year of grace forms our young people into joyful disciples of the Lord. They “come and follow,” and they “go and announce the good news.”  The Church speaks through these words of Gertrude von Le Fort (d 1971):

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Come, my children in the world, come and be my witnesses:

I need every mouth that still prays,

I need every hand that still traces the sign of the holy Cross!

For the day is heavy with storms of temptation—

There are many along the word who no more find their way home:

You must be light to light their way,

You must be watchers to lead them by night—

I will give priestly words into your keeping.

Come, my children in the world, come, and by my witnesses:

I have blessed you and you must be a blessing!

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