Beauty, the Major Evangelizer: How Signs of the Sacred Point to the Ultimate Good
The Church also realizes that, as an evangelizing force, ‘Beauty can save the soul.’
“The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide,” said Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI while he was a cardinal, writing in The Spirit of the Liturgy.
In a sense, Benedict’s insight lays the groundwork for beauty being a great evangelizer, whether in the past or in our time. In fact, today’s Church recognizes the same power of beauty, and Catholics are mobilizing, in dioceses, schools and private organizations, as well as through the work of Catholic artists and other efforts, to bring the truth of beauty home to those outside the fold.
The Blessing of Beauty
Pope Benedict said in the cathedral of Bressanone in 2008, “I did once say that, to me, art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith. … If we look at the saints, this great luminous trail on which God passed through history, we see that there truly is a force of good which resists the millennia. … Likewise, if we contemplate the beauties created by faith, they are simply, I would say, the living proof of faith. If I look at this beautiful cathedral — it is a living proclamation! It speaks to us itself, and on the basis of the cathedral’s beauty, we succeed in visibly proclaiming God, Christ and all his mysteries. … All the great works of art, cathedrals — the Gothic cathedrals and the splendid Baroque churches — they are all a luminous sign of God and therefore truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God.”
Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries proclaims the same truth.
In a past column for Catholic News Agency, the bishop emphasized, “[T]here is something unthreatening about the beautiful,” from details in the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Chartres Cathedral to reading The Divine Comedy or Hamlet and watching St. Teresa of Calcutta’s sisters working in the slums or the gracefulness of a ballet dancer. “All of these work a sort of alchemy in the soul,” Bishop Barron wrote, “and they awaken a desire to participate, to imitate, and, finally, to share.”
To bring such truth to light through various artistic forms and the liturgy itself, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone began the Benedict XVI Institute (BenedictInstitute.org). Reflecting on why beauty is a major evangelistic tool, he told the Register, “We’ve forgotten in our utilitarian, results-oriented, busy society that beauty is not a mere decoration or a luxury item. Beauty, along with Truth and Goodness, is one of the faces of God. Sacred beauty can bring us into the Presence of God in an intense, unique way.”
Archbishop Cordileone added, “Pope Benedict said, ‘The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.’ Sacred beauty has a power to persuade many people that arguments leave cold. ‘Taste and see the Lord is good!’ as the Psalm says. And what are Psalms but songs to the Lord?”
David Clayton, founder of The Way of Beauty program and website (TheWayofBeauty.org) and provost of Pontifex University, explained to the Register that beauty strikes the heart and points to God himself. “All beauty participates in the beauty of God. The creation bears the thumbprint of the Creator. It draws us to itself, speaks of the creature and then leads us beyond itself to God.”
He continued, “Beauty can open our hearts and make us more inclined to love God if we encounter him in these other ways: in Scripture, the Mass or in the person of a Christian who tells them about Christ.”
Of course there is also great art. As Benedict XVI, at the time Cardinal Ratzinger, observed in the introduction in the moto proprio for the approval of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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.”
Archbishop Cordileone shared examples of how the Church can use beauty to evangelize.
“A liturgy that really lifts up our souls to God and sets our heart on fire for the Lord is the key,” he said. “Beautiful, noble paintings and especially the music of the Mass are important.”
The archbishop noted that Frank La Rocca, the Benedict XVI Institute’s composer-in-residence, “created a superb new Mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception called ‘The Mass of the Americas.’” Its premiere was broadcast on EWTN and was so well received that, after being performed at San Francisco’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, La Rocca’s composition went to Tijuana and will be heading in the future to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C., the Houston Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, and then on to Mexico City, Rome and beyond, “because it is both beautiful and original, and yet clearly part of the great sacred music tradition of the Church.”
Archbishop Cordileone added, “Like all those Masses of Palestrina and Byrd now heard in secular concert halls, this new ‘Mass of the Americas’ is spreading through the bosom of the Church, through people hungry for the presence of God” and “will inspire cradle Catholics and create converts for years to come.”
But evangelization through beauty doesn’t happen by accident — except when it does. Nonetheless, a focused effort on beauty is, according to Bishop Barron, a good plan of action for the Church today. “The best evangelical strategy is one that moves from the beautiful to the good, and, finally, to the true,” noted Bishop Barron in his CNA column.
The pattern to follow, he explained, is “first the beautiful (how wonderful!), then the good (I want to participate!), and, finally, the true (now I understand!).”
The traditional order for learning the faith is the triumvirate of goodness, truth and beauty, agrees Denis McNamara, associate professor of sacramental aesthetics and academic director of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois.
“If something lovely captivates you, that’s the invitation to know more. Beauty invites you to ask the question — what’s true?” McNamara said. “Then once you know, you adapt it as your own. And live it. When you find the truth compelling you to do that, you live the truth.”
“Beauty moves to the good,” he emphasized.
Clayton also urges a beauty-forward evangelization, noting that the more people see a beautiful Christian culture that manifests the beauty for God in everyday life, “the more they will be inclined to be receptive later to direct ways of communication of the Word.”
In addressing the Pontifical Council for Culture in 2010, Benedict XVI made this point precisely. “The beauty of Christian life is even more effective than art and imagery in the communication of the Gospel message,” he said. “The lives of the saints and martyrs demonstrate a singular beauty which fascinates and attracts, because a Christian life lived in fullness speaks without words. We need men and women whose lives are eloquent, and who know how to proclaim the Gospel with clarity and courage, with transparency of action, and with the joyful passion of charity.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously observed, “Beauty will save the world.” The Church also realizes that, as an evangelizing force, “Beauty can save the soul.”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.