SAN DIEGO — Beauty must play a central role in efforts for evangelization and cultural renewal, because beauty is a gift from God to lead men and women to him, Bishop James Conley said in an address at a recent apologetics conference.
“Our New Evangelization must work to make truth beautiful. By means both ancient and new, we must make use of beauty to infuse Western culture, once more, with the spirit of the Gospel,” the bishop of Lincoln said in his Sept. 28 keynote address at the Catholic Answers National Apologetics Conference in San Diego.
“By means of earthly beauty, we can help our contemporaries discover the truth of the Gospel, he said. “Then, they may come to know the eternal beauty of God.”
Bishop Conley told CNA afterward that his decision to focus on beauty and culture at the apologetics conference was well-received. He said that Catholic Answersʼ development director, Christopher Check, “thought it was a real sort of game changer,” because apologetics efforts can often be rejected by those with a relativistic mindset, who are not even open to entering into a standard apologetics discussion.
But to lead with beauty “opens [others] up to consider the argument” in a way they might not otherwise, the bishop said.
Bishop Conley opened the address by sharing a story of his first session of spiritual direction when he entered seminary. Spiritual direction typically involves a detailed discussion with a priest.
When he arrived for his first meeting, the priest, Father Anton Morganroth, who had fled Nazi Germany, was playing a Mozart sonata and proceeded to finish it.
“After a few moments of silence, eager to get started,” Bishop Conley shared, “I broke the silence and said: ʻSo are we going to have spiritual direction, Father?ʼ Father Morganroth turned and stared right through me and said: ʻSon, zat was your spiritual direction; you can go now.ʼ”
This example of being caught up in beauty is a demonstration of how it can open minds and hearts to “the realities of the spiritual life,” the bishop said.
Bishop Conley said that evangelization is concerned not only with individuals, but with transforming the culture as well.
“We’re starting to get a sense of our cultural mission,” he said. “Catholics are working to recover our traditions and to build community … to foster a way of life that is true, good and beautiful.”
Bishop Conleyʼs Conversion Through Beauty
Bishop Conley added that faith “is meant to be the basis of culture,” and he explained how he was converted to the Catholic Church through the Integrated Humanities Program run by professor John Senior at the University of Kansas, which exposed students to the beauty of Christian culture.
This experience of beauty, he said, allowed him to be open to the great philosophers and theologians of the past, rather than assuming “that truth was found in the dictates of popular culture.”
“Senior was not an evangelist, in the traditional sense of the word: He did not preach from a pulpit or write works of apologetics,” he said. “His goal in the classroom was not to convert us, but to open our minds to truth wherever it might be found. And he did that primarily through the imagination.”
Despite not being a traditional evangelist, the bishop said, Senior “was a remarkably gifted evangelist,” and through his sharing of the beauty of historic Catholic culture, hundreds of University of Kansas students became Catholic in the 1970s.
Their conversion “was not the result of proselytism in the classroom, nor was it engaging in apologetics,” Bishop Conley said. “It occurred because we became lovers of beauty — and thus seekers of truth. Beauty gave us ʻeyes to seeʼ and ʻears to hear,ʼ when we encountered the Gospel and the Christian tradition.”
Senior and his colleagues “knew that students had to encounter beauty — and have their hearts and imaginations captured first by beauty — before they could pursue truth and goodness in a serious and worthy manner,” the bishop said.
He said that in the midst of intellectual and moral confusion, beauty can break through to hardened hearts and that “every instance of real beauty points beyond itself” to God, who “invested this world with many forms of captivating beauty, so that created things would lead us to contemplate the transcendent glory of the Creator.”
While God “speaks to our souls through intellectual truth and moral goodness” in addition to beauty, “these forms of communication have become problematic. Many people, especially in modern Western culture, are too intellectually and morally confused to receive such a message.”
Because of this confusion, beauty may be the transcendental which “can get through, where other forms of Divine communication may not,” the bishop said.
“When we begin with beauty, this can then lead to a desire to want to know the truth of the thing that is drawing us, a desire to participate in it. And then the truth can inspire us to do the good, to strive after virtue,” he added.
Beauty and the New Evangelization
Bishop Conley said that, “clearly, beauty has a major role to play in the New Evangelization,” and he listed three ways in which this can be done: through liturgy; appreciation of historic Christian culture; and openness to beauty in all its forms.
He called beauty in liturgy the “most essential” point, noting that “worship … is the basis of Christian culture,” and he pointed to examples of great converts who were struck by the solemn rites and extraordinary chants of the Catholic Church.
The bishop’s second recommendation was to become familiar with the beauty of historic Christian culture, such as Gregorian chant, in order to help others who appreciate it to understand the Christian beauty that inspired it.
Finally, he invited Catholics to “open our own minds to beauty in all its manifestations” in both nature and culture, which will help them to understand beauty as “an earthly reflection of Godʼs glory.”
Concluding, Bishop Conley quoted famous Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who wrote in his novel The Idiot that “beauty will save the world.”
“It will,” the bishop added, “when it points to God’s enduring love.”
“There are many souls to rescue and a vast cultural wasteland to restore. Both tasks will require fluency in God’s language of beauty,” he said.
“To speak this language, we must first begin to listen. And to listen, we must have silence in our lives,” Bishop Conley stated. “I pray that God will open our eyes and ears to beauty and help us use it in the service of the Truth.”