Beauty should be elevated more broadly in our churches more than it is. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to equate Beauty with mere prettiness. We tend to think of Beauty being about the mere surface of things (as though the surface of something is inferior to its interior – but that’s another discussion). We are often fearful of Beauty, fearing it is a enticer that lures one to nefarious things. Too often we think loving Beauty means being ostentatious and given over to frippery. Along with such feelings we live in a world that has embraced ugliness, and makes ugly things, even though there is also much Beauty as well. Perhaps embracing ugliness (and it’s sibling, darkness) is a relatively new phenomenon in world history, maybe a symptom of the “death of God” syndrome.
Also, American utilitarianism has had a profound effect on our way of thinking, here an around the world, such that we can tend to think of Beauty as superfluous and exhibitionistic, even when it comes to designing and decorating churches. However, Beauty is one of the three Trascendentals, a characteristic of God (God is Beauty itself, and the source of all Beauty), along with Truth and Goodness. When it comes to celebrating the Mass (including the churches in which it is celebrated) Beauty should be a pronounced element – more than an element, it should be inherent in the very fabric of the Mass – as though Beauty, Goodness, and Truth are threads of a tapestry, where any one taken away (or under represented) greatly diminishes the whole.
Perhaps there are times when celebrating a Mass that Beauty might be more subtlety expressed, or perhaps seemingly overwhelmed by ugliness – on the battlefield for example, or in other forbidding circumstances – but those should be understood as extraordinary circumstances (and I’m not entirely convinced this is true). Yet even in those circumstances a small portion of Beauty may appear to overwhelm the ugliness, just as darkness has no strength again even the smallest light. In general, however, the normative Mass is one of Beauty, even a surplus of Beauty. The Church should never shy away from Beauty. It did not in much of its past, and it should not today.
There is much to be said, but it might be good to first consider some basic rules about conducting Mass. In The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we find several references to Beauty:
(¶ 22) The Bishop should therefore be determined that the Priests, the Deacons, and the lay Christian faithful grasp ever more deeply the genuine significance of the rites of liturgical texts, and thereby be led to the active and fruitful celebration of the Eucharist. To that end, he should also be vigilant in ensuring that the dignity of these celebrations be enhanced and, in promoting such dignity, the beauty of the sacred place, of the music, and of art should contribute as greatly as possible.
(¶ 42) The gestures and bodily posture of both the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers, and also of the people. must be conducive to make the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, to make clear the true and full meaning of its different parts, and to fostering the participation of all.
(¶ 294) All these elements, even though they must express the hierarchical structure and the diversity of functions, should nevertheless bring about a close and coherent unity that is clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people. Indeed, the nature and the beauty of the place and all its furnishing should foster devotion and express visually the holiness of the mysteries celebrated there.
(¶ 318) Generally speaking, in the ornamentation and arrangement of a church, as far as images are concerned, provision should be made for the devotion of the entire community as well as for the beauty and dignity of the images.
We may not all agree on what is beautiful. We may not all agree on how far to emphasize Beauty. But it is clear from the words above that Beauty should be a part of every Mass. And notice that these rules are not particularly prescriptive. There is a great deal of room in which to roam in terms of Beauty. Each parish can be quite different in how Beauty is expressed, yet all be equally beautiful.
But what is one to do? When at Mass we should not be critical, or be thinking too much of these things. That is not the time for that. Our focus at Mass should be on Christ, and not on judging those around us, or the church staff, ministers, or priest. But it may be a good exercise to consider, after the fact, whether or not Mass seemed appropriately beautiful. Every parish is different, with different “personalities” and characteristics, as well as capabilities, including finances, but it may be a good thing for more Catholics to gently push for more Beauty at Mass. The Bishops would seem to support that.
Keep in mind, however, that a person who advocates change in their parish, but who is unwilling to support the effort it takes to make that change, including with their wallet and their time & energy, becomes a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.