This past Sunday, my wife and I had to attend Mass out of town at a different church that was outside of our diocese. That always pains me a bit because our pastor at our home parish is pretty cool and knowledgeable, not to mention there are other nearby parishes which are solid in their own right.
Now I've been to some ugly Catholic churches before, but this one stood out in its preeminent blandness. After I walked in, I remembered being there for a great uncle's funeral before. But this time, I was able to see how this church was basically a hold over from the proponents of iconoclasm, which had been condemned as heretical over a millennium ago. Why was I seeing such a naked church in the 21st century?
Of course, the church was built 30 years ago, so the somewhat clandestine revival of iconoclasm was obviously a thing in the years and decades following the Second Vatican Council. But let's not forget that the Council never called for such ugly and white washed houses of worship to be made.
|Altar of St. Joseph at Basilique Notre-Dame de Bonne Nouvelle de Rennes|
Worst of all, there was not a single image to be found of our Lord's Passion in either the nave or the sanctuary. In addition, there were no visible Stations of the Cross in the nave. Oftentimes, I'll at least see a little crucifix sitting on the altar. Not at this parish. There was a giant cross, hanging suspended from the ceiling, about five rows into where the congregation was seated. As you can see in the picture of the parish below, the crucifix that was used to process into the church wasn't even a crucifix at all, but one of those ridiculous "resurrfixes", where our resurrected Lord has His hands outstretched with the cross behind Him. I was appalled, and at no time during the Sacrifice of the Mass could I even focus on an image of Jesus' Passion, the singular most important moment in human history. Now at this point, it is only fair to note that there was one thing that I really liked about this parish. At the consecration, the lights in the entire church dimmed, and instead of the bells being rung at the consecration, the entire church was dark except for the light that was above the altar. It was truly wonderful seeing such focus on our Lord. It was basically the lone bright spot on an otherwise dreary visit to this parish.
Now, through the progression of this Mass, I soon realized a couple things. First, as a parent, I in good conscience, could never submit to willingly bringing my children to this parish for regular worship. If I was a three or four year old, and had walked into this building, I would have no way to differentiate it between a lodge or hall. If a church is supposed to house the Holy of Holies, should we not give our best for Christ instead of some banal brick wall and no references to the rich traditions, or holy men and women, which came before us in our Catholic faith? It would be hard for anyone who had not yet embraced Catholic Christianity, walking into a church such as this, to declare what St. Vladimir of Kiev's men said after entering a church in Greece: "...they took us where they worship their God, and we do not know whether we were in heaven or upon earth, for there is not upon earth such sight or beauty. We were perplexed, but this much we know that there God lives among men..." Sacred art is a fundamental factor in instructing the faithful in the content of divine revelation, revitalizing and cultivating our faith. Pope St. John Paul II, quoting another pope, St. Gregory the Great agrees advocates this notion wholeheartedly, in his 1999 letter to artists, emphasis mine:
"Believers above all have gained from [the occasions the biblical word has become image] in their experience of prayer and Christian living. Indeed for many of them, in times when few could read or write, representations of the Bible were a concrete mode of catechesis. [Footnote 7:] This pedagogical principle was given authoritative formulation by Saint Gregory the Great in a letter of 599 to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles: 'Painting is employed in churches so that those who cannot read or write may at least read on the walls what they cannot decipher on the page'."
|Pope St. Gregory the Great- Antonello da Messina|
Second, I soon realized while trying to focus on the Mass, that iconoclasm is indeed a heresy. It was denounced at the Second Council of Nicaea, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in 787. Among the canons that were issued during this council, emphases mine:
"We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration (dulia). Certainly this is not the full adoration [or real worship] (latria) in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honor these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honor paid to the image is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.
"Therefore all those who dare to think or teach anything different, or who follow the accursed heretics in rejecting ecclesiastical traditions, or who devise innovations, or who spurn anything entrusted to the church (whether it be the gospel or the figure of the cross or any example of representational art or any martyr's holy relic), or who fabricate perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing any of the lawful traditions of the Catholic Church, or who secularize the sacred objects and saintly monasteries, we order that they be suspended if they are bishops or clerics, and excommunicated if they are monks or lay people."
|Interior of St. Caterina Church|
"What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place."Pope Benedict also comments more directly on the great effect sacred imagery has on the soul, in his presentation of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2005, emphases mine:
"Works of art always 'speak', at least implicitly, of the divine, of the infinite beauty of God, reflected in the Icon par excellence: Christ the Lord, the Image of the invisible God.
"Sacred images, with their beauty, are also a Gospel proclamation and express the splendor of the Catholic truth, illustrating the supreme harmony between the good and the beautiful... While they witness to the age-old and fruitful tradition of Christian art, they urge one and all, believers and non-believers alike, to discover and contemplate the inexhaustible fascination of the mystery of Redemption, giving an ever new impulse to the lively process of its inculturation in time."
|Altar Piece of the Crucifixion- Cornelis Engebrechtsz|
That being said, I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall when they were building this parish a few decades ago. Who decided to leave the church barren and construct something that looked like a strange concert hall? Who decided that there should be no illustration presenting the harmony between the ultimate Good and the beautiful? Have some of us forgotten that humans are a visual people? I bet that there was not one single person in that council that did not have pictures in their home of their loved ones. Pictures hung up throughout the house of relatives and friends, both alive and dead. When looking at those pictures in their home, I'm sure specific emotions are evoked; I know that's what happens to me when I look at certain pictures of my family in my home.
This is the same reason why we have so many images and statues in our churches. We want to be connected to those that have passed on from this world, but are alive in Christ. We want to be connected to our Lord in a way that any human can understand. Life events such as graduations, baptisms and birthdays are peppered throughout our homes, reminding us of those momentous occasions and of those people we love. How much more so should we commemorate the singularly most important moment in all of our lives; Christ's death on the Cross? We love our Lady, and we love St. Joseph and the other members of the Church Triumphant, and that's because we're all family. We all are united in the Communion of Saints and we all make up the Body of Christ. Why should their images be absent from our churches? Can there possibly be a good reason?
As I mentioned, human beings are a visual people. In an essay entitled The Beauty of Holiness:
Sacred Art and the New Evangelization, written by author Dr. Jem Sullivan (an art historian with a Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America), we can see just exactly what that means, especially in the 21st century world we live in today:
"The diminishing role and place of Christian art in liturgy, catechesis and evangelization has occurred precisely at the moment when popular media culture, in content and medium, has become increasingly sensory and visual. Everyday life is infused with images, words and sounds aimed at engaging the mind, will, senses and emotions, while the daily or weekly experience of liturgy, catechesis and evangelization is often bereft of beauty. While the surrounding culture appeals constantly to visual and sensory experiences, the place and role of sensory expressions of faith within the Christian community have decreased significantly.
"This sensory dissonance offers one among many challenges for the new evangelization. For clearly the sensory dissonance between the immersive experience of a visual culture on the one hand, and the Church’s life of faith on the other, touches the very heart of the Church’s mission to evangelize the culture."
|Main Altar of Jesuit Church in Bratislava|
As can plainly be seen, the tradition of beautiful art in the Church, whether it's imagery, architecture, or even music, is an important way that we can not only give glory to God, but bring others to Him by evangelizing and nourishing the souls of others through that very same art. In closing, let's reflect on the valuable insight given by Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger) on two separate occasions in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, and in his Introduction to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, emphases mine:
"The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God. God has acted in history and entered into our sensible world, so that it may become transparent to him. Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, becomes are an essential part of Christian worship."
"The centuries-old conciliar tradition teaches us that images are also a preaching of the Gospel. Artists in every age have offered the principal facts of the mystery of salvation to the contemplation and wonder of believers by presenting them in the splendor of color and in the perfection of beauty. It is an indication of how today more than ever, in a culture of images, a sacred image can express much more than what can be said in words, and be an extremely effective and dynamic way of communicating the Gospel message."