The Way of BeautyThe Church as a Symphony Orchestra

Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium describes the mystery of the Church in images such as a sheepfold, the kingdom, the People of God, and Christ’s own body. All images, including that of a symphony orchestra, merely point to the ineffable.

The Symphony as an Analogy for God’s Revelation in Christ

The Classical symphony is a large-scale, four-movement orchestral piece with a conductor. Franz Joseph Haydn (d 1809) is “the father of the symphony.”

The Church’s symphony is Jesus Christ, the full, complete revelation and gift of God as taught by the Church. In Christ, God has said everything.

Overview of the Symphony Orchestra Proper

A symphony orchestra is composed of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, played by virtuosi. They must be faithful to the entire musical score, neither adding nor deleting any part of it lest it be deformed or disfigured. All assembled in the concert hall, instrumentalists, conductor, and audience have come to enjoy music, beautiful and ennobling.

Each instrument of the orchestra has its own voice but plays in harmony with the whole. Despite the size or power of an instrumental section, no one group lords it over the others. Each needs the other because no one group incarnates the full meaning of the composition.

Overview of the Church as a Symphony Orchestra

The Church is the assembly of the Christian community, the Body of Christ and the People of God of the New Testament. The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, who is the Church’s soul and animating principle.

The Church calls all nations and races, to become the assembly of the baptized, united in a common faith, a common worship, and a common tradition of apostolic succession. The Church lives and acts in the present but with a view to the eschaton.

The law of love is the Church’s bond of unity in its diversity. Every member either builds up the Body or tears it down. Despite the distinctions of ministry, no one group lords it over the others. Each needs the other because no one group incarnates the full meaning of the mystery of the Church.

The diversity of the Body is shaped by every nation’s historical and cultural conditioning. Consider the rich diversity of the Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches. Or, the Underground Church of Poland and Hungary in World War II and today, the Underground Catholic Church in Asian countries.

The Orchestral Conductor

A symphony orchestra is made distinctive by its conductor, who, though part of the orchestra, acts primarily as its public face and official spokesperson. As the symbol of the orchestra’s structure and stability, conductors lead, direct, govern, and coordinate the orchestra. Yet, their role is not absolute.

Conductors are masters of the repertory. Whereas the instrumentalists master their parts, the conductor functions like a director of traffic not only learning the entire map of the musical highway but also dealing with the interrelationships of sections to whole. The orchestra looks to the maestro for direction to make beautiful music.

Conductors interpret the score according to the composer’s intent. Wise and strong conductors consult with their instrumentalists. Here, consulting means not soliciting an opinion but a fact, as one consults another for the time of day. In the final analysis, all breathe together as one with the maestro's interpretation as the final word.

Conflicts must be resolved with due respect for each instrumentalist. Still, orchestral unity rests not with the individual sections but with the maestro. The conductor leaves his imprint on the orchestra’s reputation thus separating his orchestra from all others. Arturo Toscanini and George Szell come to mind.

More in The Way of Beauty

The maestro is to the orchestra what the Pope is to the Universal Church.

The Office of the Pope

The Pope is the successor of St. Peter and the perpetual visible source and foundation of unity in the Church. He is the visible head of the Body of Christ. The Pope, in the Office of Peter and in union with the bishops, leads, and directs the Church. With his bishops, he governs. This governance is not a monarchical reign. The Pope presides over the Church in charity. He proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine of faith or morals, and only at this time does he speak infallibly, ex cathedra, from the Chair of Peter. Having consulted with the bishops and laity before pronouncing on these matters, he exercises the supreme Magisterium (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 891). The faithful must be prepared to receive this teaching.

Like the conductor, who has mastered the entire musical score, the Pope’s vision extends across the universal Church, the Eastern and Western, but not the autocephalous Orthodox Churches. In exercising vigilance over the faith, the Pope hands down the living Tradition for the sake of the universal good.

When the Church is confronted with heterodoxy or conflict that threatens to sever unity, the canonical and hierarchical Church must preserve or restore that unity.

Individual Sections of the Orchestra

Composers use the individual instruments for an array of colors to bring out the fullness of the piece. The string section, of itself a hierarchical unity, forms the backbone of the orchestra. It is the most homogeneous group of the entire orchestra having the same family identity. From small to large, they share in the same sonority. Still, they need other instrumental families for contrast, variety, and depth.

(Column continues below)

Each of the woodwinds offers contrasting colors; the brass, strength brilliance, and intensity, and finally, the percussion section, drama and surprise.

Individual Sections of the Church

The Body of Christ is composed of two groups: the Ordained (Orders) and the Non-Ordained of laity and consecrated religious.

Within universal communion, the Body of Christ functions in smaller ecclesial bodies: unity among the ordained persons, bishops, priests, and deacons, and unity among the bishops themselves. The non-ordained ecclesial groups are represented by the laity, Christian families, as well as consecrated religious men and women (Ladislas Orsy, Receiving the Council, 2009, p 7-8, 11-13).

St. Peter symbolizes the Church’s structure of Orders, permanence, stability and law, while St. Paul represents the paradigm of the non-ordained in which leadership is creative, dynamic, and idiosyncratic.

The Ordained, the bishop with his presbyters and deacons, resemble the orchestra’s string section. Like the violins, violas, cellos, and basses, they too are hierarchically constituted. They speak and act in unison.

The Non-Ordained, like the individual and colorful sounds of woodwind, brass, and percussion, correspond to the various charisms in the Church. Such charisms function within the spontaneous promptings of the Spirit, and every age has raised up men and women with graces given for the apostolic unity and holiness of the entire Body of Christ, and even beyond. In our own day, the Church is blessed with new life and vision such as the Focolare and Sant’ Egidio Movements, the Sisters of Life, the Daughters of St. Paul, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and the Missionary Institute of the Eternal Word not to mention those institutes who have rediscovered their original spirit.


The mission of the symphony orchestra is to attract and persuade the audience by the beauty of its musical expression. The flaccid orchestra that ceases to attract audiences dies.

The mission of the Church, like the symphony orchestra, is primarily one of service to and for others. The Church offers the world Gospel faith, so beautiful in its truth and goodness. Mahatma Gandhi greatly admired the Sermon on the Mount and always carried a copy of it on his person.

Can the Church die of itself or be destroyed from without? Jesus assured Peter, the rock on which he built the Church, that the powers of death would not prevail against it (Mt 16:18). Still, the human element, of itself, can become deformed and disfigured. Flaccid Catholicism provides fertile ground for its adversaries. Fidelity to Jesus Christ -- here is the Church’s symphony.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.