American Catholicism does not much care for artists. They tend to be a little odd and not to understand the need to indoctrinate the Catholic laity by art that drives home important doctrinal points. They also want to be paid for their work, sometimes demanding exorbitant prices. It is much easier to work with "artists" who do what they are told and do it cheaply. Is their work beautiful? Who cares!
What can be done to introduce beauty into the life of American Catholicism? Into its education? Into its schools? Into its religious instruction? Into the administration of the Sacraments? Into its liturgy?
The perspective that sees no need for Beauty has been around a long time. It will not die gracefully. I cannot outline a program for the restoration of beauty that one could take home and implement. There are, however, some suggestions that might help, over the long term, to promote the apologetics of beauty:
1. Be quiet and listen. This is a hard saying for our clergy and quasi-clergy. Having all the answers and being compelled to impose these answers, the clergy sees no need and certainly has no time for listening. No one is listening to the laypeople on the subject, because everyone knows what the laypeople should hear. If we did stop to listen to the laity, really listen, we would find how deeply (albeit not perfectly) spiritual they really are. It would have been wise to have dedicated the Great Jubilee Year to asking the laity to evangelize us. That will be the year, won't it, when we are willing to risk the possibility that the laity are better Catholics than we are!
A pastor I know has the practice of asking his eighth graders to write him a brief letter in which they tell him why they want to receive confirmation. It is not a condition for the Sacrament but an attempt to discover what goes on in the spiritual lives of these early teens. Each year he is astonished by the religious depth these young people reveal in their letters and their subsequent tenminute discussions with him.
Only if we really listen to the laity and resist the impulse to impose our corrections and clarifications on what they say will we begin to realize that we do them an enormous injustice. They are far better Catholics than we are willing to admit and far better Catholics than many of us are-even if they don't always use "correct" language in talking about their graces and their spiritual needs.
2. Abandon compulsion. Urge the laity to attend classes as preparation for the Sacraments, but do not force them to do so. The advantage of this strategy is that it compels us to make these classes truly excellent, the sort of experience of which people will say afterward, "That was really great! It was a wonderful experience! Am I glad I did it." Only when that sort of image of our sacramental classes seeps into the parish will people come willingly and eagerly. Such classes should celebrate the joy and the beauty of the Sacrament. As Bishop John McCarthy has said, when you open the door of the rectory to someone seeking a Sacrament, ask yourself how the Good Shepherd would greet them. Or, I add, Mary the Mother of Jesus and Our Mother. Neither one, incidentally, would revel in the power of being able to deny a Sacrament.
I know of a priest who, when someone calls about a baptism, asks the parents to bring the kid over to the rectory because he'd like to meet him. What a wonderful child, he says excitedly. How God must love this perfect little being. He asks them some questions about how their family life is going and praises their generosity and subtly offers help if they are having troubles. If it is the first child, he asks how they met and when they first knew they were in love. Ten, fifteen minutes at the most.
Obviously the minister of the Sacrament must truly enjoy what he is doing, he must love the babies he is baptizing, the couples at whose marriage he is presiding, the kids receiving their First Communion or confirmation. He should dote over each wondrous baby and celebrate his or her arrival. The babies are, after all, our future, indeed our future parishioners- Thank God they're here! At last! What wonderful little tykes! Baptism should be a high for the minister (even if he misses a quarter of a football game!), one of the high points of his week. (If there are siblings present, they might be brought into the act-asked whether they think we ought to baptize the baby, invited to touch the baby's forehead as we welcome this new Catholic into the Church, quizzed about whether they think the baby will cry. You can't go wrong if you're nice to the little ones, even if they are sometimes inclined to run around the Church while you're continuing with the Sacrament!)
How can the presiding priest not be filled with awe at the mystery of human passion that brings a young woman and a young man together to join body and soul in marriage. Even if they seem to be nerds, more interested in getting a hall than in the marriage ceremony, they still are brave and courageous young people, taking a huge risk with their lives. The presider should admire them and make patent his admiration and his pleasure in sharing their joy. Should he not in his own way love them as much as, if not more than, their families, because they too are the future of our heritage?
The pope ended his address to artists with a quote from Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot": "Beauty will save the world!" Many American Catholics would ask, How is beauty going to raise concern for the environment, for the poor, for racial justice, for the right to life, for gender equality? How indeed.
In his 1970 Nobel Prize speech, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reflected on Prince Myshkin's idiocy:
"There is something so peculiar at the core of beauty, a peculiarity in the position of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolute and conquers even a resisting heart. A work of art contains its verification in itself. Artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; both concepts and images fall to pieces, they show themselves to be sickly and pale, they convince no one. But works which draw on truth and present it to us concentrated and alive seize us, powerfully join us to themselves and no one ever, even centuries from now, will come forth to refute them.
Then perhaps the old tri-unity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is not simply a showy, worn-out formula as we thought in the time of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees meet, as scholars have declared, but the too obvious, too straight sprouts of Truth and Goodness have been knocked down, cut off, and do not grow-then perhaps the capricious, unpredictable, unexpected sprouts of Beauty will force their way through and rise to that very same place, and thus carry out the work for all three?
And then it is not a mistake, but a prophecy that we find written in Dostoyevsky: "Beauty will save the world." So says Dostoyevsky, so says Solzhenitsyn, so says John Paul II. And what then do we say?