What is beauty? What is art?

Though this column is no place for a treatise on aesthetics, it’s an important question for the Church.

Because God is the author of all that is beautiful, man’s search for God gives him an innate sense of beauty. He responds naturally to great art because it is a natural path to his Creator-Father.

So art is naturally an ally of the Church: Both pursue the true, the good and the beautiful.

Pope Benedict XVI met with artists — those whose vocation is the pursuit of beauty — in the Sistine Chapel Nov. 21. The event, promoted by the Pontifical Council for Culture, was to mark the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s letter to artists and the 45th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s meeting with artists. In his address, Pope Benedict said the encounter was “my invitation to friendship, dialogue and cooperation.”

The 262 artists participating were sculptors, painters, architects, writers, poets, composers, singers, cinematographers, actors, dancers and photographers.

Every now and then, the Church wants to remind artists that we are friends who both want to embrace what Pope Benedict calls “infinite Beauty” — and to tell them that the Church needs them to help spread the good news of God’s plan for man.

In that spirit, we offer excerpts from the Pope’s speech:

“At this gathering I wish to express and renew the Church’s friendship with the world of art, a friendship that has been strengthened over time; indeed, Christianity from its earliest days has recognized the value of the arts and has made wise use of their varied language to express her unvarying message of salvation. This friendship must be continually promoted and supported so that it may be authentic and fruitful, adapted to different historical periods and attentive to social and cultural variations. Indeed, this is the reason for our meeting here today.

“Today’s event is focused on you, dear and illustrious artists, from different countries, cultures and religions, some of you perhaps remote from the practice of religion, but interested nevertheless in maintaining communication with the Catholic Church, in not reducing the horizons of existence to mere material realities, to a reductive and trivializing vision.

“What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation — if not beauty? Dear friends, as artists you know well that the experience of beauty, beauty that is authentic, not merely transient or artificial, is by no means a supplementary or secondary factor in our search for meaning and happiness; the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality; on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.

“Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy. ...

“Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day. …

“These ideas impel us to take a further step in our reflection. Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God. Art, in all its forms, at the point where it encounters the great questions of our existence, the fundamental themes that give life its meaning, can take on a religious quality, thereby turning into a path of profound inner reflection and spirituality. …

“You are the custodians of beauty: Thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement. Be grateful, then, for the gifts you have received, and be fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty! … And do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite Beauty!

“Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art: On the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.”