The Church needs art

In today’s chapter from his Letter to Artists, Pope St. John Paul II makes a very humble statement – The Church needs art. Not to survive, of course, but as he says, to spread her message. As I write these words, Great Britain (where I live) has become very divided after the EU referendum. It is good to be reminded, therefore, of the interconnected nature of things.

If you would like to read the whole of the pope’s letter, you can do so at the Vatican website here.

The Church needs art

12. In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.

The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ himself made extensive use of images in his preaching, fully in keeping with his willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God.

The Church also needs musicians. How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of the mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love, and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God.

The Church needs architects, because she needs spaces to bring the Christian people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation. After the terrible destruction of the last World War and the growth of great cities, a new generation of architects showed themselves adept at responding to the exigencies of Christian worship, confirming that the religious theme can still inspire architectural design in our own day. Not infrequently these architects have constructed churches which are both places of prayer and true works of art.

Some Thoughts
(of the present writer, not nec. LCWC opinions)

  • Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God…” I’m not going to lie, Chapter 12’s title made me feel rather proud. The Church needs art! Great! We’re important! This quotation takes us to the reason why that it so, and it is a reality check because it isn’t always easy to do what the Church asks of us. And that’s when we are dealing with effable things. How can we satisfactorily show that which is ineffable? Actually, we can’t, and we should not think in terms of ‘satisfactorily’ but simply ‘to the best of our ability’. I think the former leads to a storm. The latter, however, ends in a safe harbour.
  • … the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ himself made extensive use of images in his preaching…” I really appreciated this connecting of images that the artist may use and Jesus using them in His preaching. It reinforces the message that our work is not separate to Him but a continuation of what He started.
  • In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love, and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God.” This paragraph reminds me that we need not – should not – only look for inspiration in Catholic sources. Great art is to be found on other shores, as well. For proof of this – Johann Sebastian Bach. He was a Lutheran but who would ever mark down his music because of it? We live in an ecumenical age, so this shouldn’t be an issue, but it is still possible to be snobby about Christian denominations or ecclesial communities. Without doing violence to the idea that the Catholic Church is the One, True Church, however, we can still recognise – I think we must recognise – that the Holy Spirit moves beyond her boundaries.
  • … architects have constructed churches which are both places of prayer and true works of art.” This paragraph is one of the most challenging that I have read in recent days. I have a very dim view of post-war architecture. When I look around, all I see is offices made of plain concrete and glass (today, new buildings seem to be simply glass) and churches that, quite frankly, look like anything but. Which buildings is John Paul thinking of? I wish I knew.
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