As a new Catholic I arrived at the Church’s doors with not a few years of Protestant baggage, and not a few assumptions about Catholics. Consequently I am quite curious about what I am observing now from within Catholicism. I love the fundamental unity of the Church (they don’t really split apart, though they sometimes seem close), but there are many minor divisions within that unity. Although opinions have been slowly forming, I tend to refrain from expressing them. I’m too new and, frankly, the debates raging within the Catholic Church are many and deep. Some of those debates and divisions circle around such topics as proper liturgy, proper reverence, and proper worship. And not a few voices are calling the Church to go back to a more traditional time. Who am I to voice my opinion? Still, some of those voices resonate with me, but I am not convinced of going back. I want there to be more emphasis on beauty in Catholic liturgies and culture, but I don’t see the Holy Spirit as one who go backwards. Instead, the wind blows forward, and the movement of the Church moves forward as well, but not as Catholics often want it to.
Still I wonder. I came into the Catholic Church, in part, because of its rich artistic history and it beautiful liturgy. However, it’s one thing to be amazed at works of art that are 500 or more years old, and to be amazed at beautiful liturgies seen online or in videos, and to read profound theology and philosophy. It’s another thing to see the current landscape of Catholic art or to experience the typical liturgy at one’s local suburban parish church, to hear the music and see the way many churchgoers dress.
As I said, I am new to Catholicism. I have been studying it for a few years. I came into the Church last year. I love it. BUT… I look around me at the current popular art in the Church, and I witness firsthand the typical liturgy of my parish, and I feel that so much potential for excellence and beauty is missing. This is not about abuse. Intentions are genuine. The sacraments are taken seriously. There is love for God. And the people are good people, probably better than I. But I wonder. Have we lost our common sense of how to behave before royalty (the Blessed Sacrament, our Lord truly present)? Have we lost our common sense of the glory of man and thus dress overly casual, even as slobs? Do we no longer have ears to appreciate finer music?
I am not pointing fingers at anyone in particular (for I would have to point at myself first) or judging anyone in particular (for I would be the first condemned). And I believe we can make too much of this at a personal, in-the-pews level. Though we all have personal choices to make, we should be very cautious in judging how another dresses at Mass, or what songs the music director chooses. In part because what “has happened” is bigger than my (or your) local parish. It seems clear to me that “forces” have shaped the world culture (perhaps especially in the West) over the past 200 years or more, and accelerated rapidly in the past 50 years, to gradually degrade the culture in ways that also degrade our humaness (perhaps it is the other way around – degrade Man and the degradation of all else will follow). In other words, something has happened whereby the three transcendentals of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth have been challenged and made matters of mere personal preference. And I think we have inherited that way of thinking so deep in our bones that we can’t see it clearly. It’s a vague unease, but hard to pin down. What really is wrong in our local parishes? What really is wrong with most of modern Catholic art? We have to think about this. In other words, we HAVE to THINK about it. And that’s really hard to do.
I wonder if the universal Christian call to holiness requires us to think about these things. Is it not true that the call to be in the world, but not of the world, requires us to see the world clearly and to make proper judgments about it. And I wonder, if in our local parishes, we can find ways to encourage each other in the most serious and joyful ways to meditate on, orient ourselves to, and live out in the fullest way possible Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.
Finally, a word that frequently goes through my mind at Mass lately is the word “fittingness.” I first came across this word years ago from the philosophy professor Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Art in Action (1980). To keep it simple, fittingness basically means matching the artistic style to the subject. This is an oversimplification, but it gets at the heart of what I am saying. It does not make sense to portray the Passion of the Christ as a comedy. The story of the Passion and the genre comedy don’t “fit” together. Neither does singing the Gloria to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island television theme song go together. The Gloria and that particular tune don’t fit together. There is nothing wrong with that tune, it just doesn’t fit with either the content of the Gloria, or the typical setting (the Mass) in which it is sung. [Lest I confuse anyone, we don’t sing the Gloria to Gilligan’s Island in my parish, but I will say the current tune we employ is too “sing-songy” for my taste and I usually cringe when we sing it. Of course, it could be worse.] Perhaps I will contemplate this idea of fittingness more in a future post, but for now it is worth wondering about as we go through our lives as Christians, including when we come together to worship. Could the various parts of our liturgies fit better if some basic changes were made? Could we behave, dress, and sing in a more fitting way? Could our music be better, fit better within the overall context and purpose of the Mass? I wonder.