Summary: We need to understand both meanings of church, and how the beauty found in a church can attract unbelievers to Christ.

Monday of 14th Week in Course

Sacrosanctum Concilium

Jacob, following in the steps of his grandfather Abraham, was careful as he moved through the land of Canaan to identify special places of the divine presence. One of these is Bethel, which means “house of God.” There Jacob had a vision, a dream of angels moving up and down between heaven and earth. There Jacob also renewed the covenant of his grandfather and father with the Lord, and made it tangible by promising a tenth of all his produce to God.

We distinguish between two meanings of the word “church.” The first and most important is the ekklesia, or the assembly of believers. Church is people, the people of God. And Jesus promised that wherever two or more are gathered in His name, He is there, and there is church.

But the word also refers to those sacred places, those buildings, set aside for the church to gather. It has been an important part of Christian tradition to establish places of worship where the local community, the local church could gather safely to pray, to listen to God’s word, and to share the bread of life and the chalice of salvation. In Europe, many towns were named after the church, like the Norman village of St. Marie Eglise. Moreover, those sacred places were made places of beauty, because the Church has always taught the unity of truth, goodness and beauty, and the beautiful works of art commissioned by the Church are designed to attract mankind to the truth of the Gospel and the goodness of Jesus.

The Council had much to say about beauty–more general than specific. “Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man's genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God's praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men's minds devoutly toward God.

“Holy Mother Church has therefore always been the friend of the fine arts and has ever sought their noble help, with the special aim that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world, and for this purpose she has trained artists. In fact, the Church has, with good reason, always reserved to herself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby fitted for sacred use.

“The Church has been particularly careful to see that sacred furnishings should worthily and beautifully serve the dignity of worship, and has admitted changes in materials, style, or ornamentation prompted by the progress of the technical arts with the passage of time.

“The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved. The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor; thereby it is enabled to contribute its own voice to that wonderful chorus of praise in honor of the Catholic faith sung by great men in times gone by.

The words “due reverence and honor” have to do with the intention of the artist and the effect produced in the worshiper. Art must draw men and women and children to a contemplation of the True and the Good. As an example of the opposite, consider that in one modern Catholic church, there is a stained glass window celebrating Martin Luther. Now there was much to be reformed in the sixteenth century Church. Reformers had been raised up by the Holy Spirit in times before that century, and they had worked within the Church to make Her goodness, beauty and truth cleaner and more visible. Luther, however, destroyed the unity of the Church, as did many of his contemporaries. That is not worth celebrating, and is not suitable for a Catholic church window, because it identifies error as truth.

By way of contrast, consider the rose windows in the Cathedral of Chartres, dating from the great thirteenth century. “The western rose, made c.1215 and 12 m in diameter shows the Last Judgement – a traditional theme for west fa├žades. A central oculus showing Christ as the Judge is surrounded by an inner ring of 12 paired roundels containing angels and the Elders of the Apocalypse and an outer ring of 12 roundels showing the dead emerging from their tombs and the angels blowing trumpets to summon them to judgement.” The beauty of the window proclaims the truth of Christ’s second coming and the call to all Christians to goodness.

In our day, many of the excesses of the sixties and seventies in sacred art have been identified and new church designs are returning to the idea that true beauty is a means of evangelization. We should pray and work so that when our young finally realize that they need Christ, they will find Him in our churches, and turn to Him with their whole hearts, minds and bodies.