The Church’s Apparent Problem with Beauty

This weekend I attended Mass at a beautiful cathedral. My family and I were out of town and we acted on a suggestion from a friend. The architecture, murals, and statues all worked to fix our gaze upward to heaven, helping achieve the proper disposition for Mass. Sure, they removed nearly all of the gorgeous communion rails (there were tiny four-foot segments left on each end) and the wall altar was replaced with a very bland backdrop to the Tabernacle, but it seemed like most of the church weathered the 60’s and 70’s pretty well.

The problem isn’t that the church lacked beauty, the problem is that the liturgy simply didn’t match. It begs the question, why do so many in the Catholic Church seemingly have a problem with beauty–sometimes it’s a bland and ugly modern church that lacks beauty, sometime’s it’s the prayers (or lack-thereof) used by a priest, sometimes it’s vestments, sometimes it’s art, and sometimes it’s music. Beauty, historically, was something the Church embraced. The architecture of old churches reflects not only the beauty we revered but showcases the talent and sacrifice of the faithful. The Church gave birth to some of the most beautiful music (beyond liturgical) the world has seen. Catholic art through the centuries has always been cherished by Catholics and secularists alike who respect the qualitative ways the human mind is able to capture its relationship to both the natural and supernatural worlds. For most of the Church’s existence, the liturgy was seen as the centerpiece of the Kingdom on Earth, handled with the respect it rightfully is due. What changed? There’s truth to the joke among Anglicans (who, as a group, still take the liturgy seriously) that when someone gets the “Roman itch”, the cure is attending Mass. Ouch.

The very non-beautiful modern interior (and against the Vatican’s request) of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee.

Of course there’s pockets within the American Church that are an exception to this rule, but this is not common for a typical American Catholic. The typical American Catholic encounters a Church on Sunday that oozes with cheesiness and a lost sense of purpose. The typical American Catholic cringes at most “church music” either because of the musicians’ musical shortcomings or because of the Here I am Lord hymns. The typical American Catholic is used to frumpy and purposeless altar servers (in contrast to altar boys). And sometimes this frumpiness is matched only by the celebrant of the Mass, the priest. Avoiding any sort of traditional cassocks or vestments, the typical American Catholic assumes the garments have always been akin to a ghost costume from 1979’s Halloween. The typical American Catholic thinks all priests give homilies that lack any sort of mental or spiritual stimulation, secretly pondering if the priest is even all that intelligent–it’s no wonder many are quick to deem the Church being anti-intellectual. The typical American Catholic sees being Catholic as just a part of their life rather than their life being part of being Catholic.

Believe it or not, you still can find parishes with very serious and well-trained altar boys who take pride in what they do.

This brings be back to Mass at this beautiful cathedral with the liturgy that didn’t match its surroundings. It was jarring to see altar girls waltz up to the altar in ill-fitting white robes followed by a priest in a purple sheet (that very well could have been from Bed, Bath, and Beyond) and an infomercial-style mic wrapped around his cheekbone. It was also jarring when the church is long and narrow but they still feel the need for seven “Eucharistic ministers” beyond the priest, especially when the “mini Communion” on the altar for the “ministers” lasts nearly as long as Communion to the other parishioners.

Catholicism that doesn’t stimulate our minds, bodies, or souls will work against the Faith. Many cradle Catholics will inevitably waver in their faith and the liturgy must exist to bear witness to the unworldly mystery that takes place at Mass rather than something that so reeks of a man-made event. If the Church fails to prove itself unique to the wavering, the wavering will begin to wonder why they take an hour out of the week to attend such a schlocky event. And, certainly, protestants or non-religious who find themselves in a typical American Catholic church see nothing special going on. These people we want to bring into the Faith see no reason to. Honestly, think for a moment about the most standard, milquetoast, cheesy Catholic parish you have been to recently. Then think about witnessing that as an outsider. What would be going through your head?

The Church has a very serious problem right now. Luckily, millions of young Catholics are working now to bring beauty back to the Faith either by fixing the issues handed to us with the Ordinary Form liturgy or embracing and spreading the Extraordinary Form.

The focal point of our Faith, our Church, and our lives is Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is like a diamond. Would the typical American put a diamond in a cheap wooden band? Would we put a diamond in a lanyard necklace? Of course not. We put diamonds in beautiful, rich settings to highlight and showcase its value and meaning to us. The liturgy (and architecture, art, music) that surrounds our diamond, the Eucharist, should be the beautiful, serious, and intellectual setting such a treasure deserves.