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Beauty in art, music leads us to the Creator

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

This past Friday on the feast of St. Cecilia, the patroness of music, I celebrated a Mass at the invitation of the St. Cecilia Guild of the Catholic Fine Arts Council, for pastoral musicians, cantors and choir members. 

I shared with the congregation that my being the celebrant of the Mass is another confirmation that God has a sense of humor. 

The music professor during my college seminary years began the semester by declaring that he could teach anyone to sing. 

By the end of the semester, he called a few of us aside and asked: “Do you know what happens to seminarians who cannot sing?” With much apprehension, we replied: “No!” Our music professor reassured us by responding: “As far as I can tell, we ordain many of them!”

Recently, at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore, Bishop Robert Barron, the chairman of our Evangelization and Catechesis Committee, gave a presentation in which he proposed five pathways by which we can evangelize young adults. 

First, he encouraged us to engage young people in the church’s social justice apostolate, providing them with opportunities to serve at crisis pregnancy centers, soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters, prison ministry, the care of creation, etc. 

Bishop Barron suggested that we use these ministries, toward which many young adults already have a natural passion, to engage them with the church and to combine their desire to serve with some catechesis about the church’s rich social justice theology. 

Bishop Barron suggested another pathway is not to “dumb down” the faith for young adults but, instead, to share with young adults the rich intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church. 

A third pathway, Bishop Barron proposed, was vibrant, attractive parishes that are mission-oriented. 

A fourth pathway, Bishop Barron suggested, is to use wisely social media and other modern means of communication to evangelize young adults.

A fifth recommended pathway for our evangelization of young adults is beauty. The five proposed pathways include the transcendentals — truth, goodness and beauty. 

Bishop Barron recommended: “The best evangelical strategy is one that moves from the beautiful to the good and, finally, the true. Especially with our cultural matrix, so dominated by relativism and the valorization of the right to create one’s own system of meaning, commencing with either moral demand or the claim to truth will likely raise insuperable blocks in the person one wishes to evangelize.” 

Similarly, Pope Emeritus Benedict suggested some years ago that many are weary of intellectual arguments but are open to beauty. Bishop Barron echoed Pope Benedict’s insight: “There is something unthreatening about the beautiful.” 

Recently, I participated in a Donnelly College board meeting where we had a lively discussion about displaying art in the new academic building that is under construction. 

Though there were many points of view about the selection of the particular art for display, there was unanimity about the importance of exposing college students to excellent art.

This past September, Bill Donaghy from the Theology of the Body Institute was the principal presenter at the continuing education workshop for our priests. He illustrated his presentations by sharing clips from films. One such clip was taken from the movie, “The Mission.” 

This 1986 award- winning film with a cast that included Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro was based on the evangelization in the 1700s of the Guarini tribe in Paraguay and contiguous countries. Several Jesuit missionaries had failed and some were martyred in their evangelization efforts of the Guarini people. 

Despite these past failures, the film depicts Father Gabriel (played by Irons) attempting a new evangelization initiative with a very different approach. 

Upon his arrival in Guarini territory, he is surrounded by a menacing group of warriors. It appears that he is about to meet the same fate as his predecessors, when he begins to play a beautiful and haunting melody on his oboe.

The majority of these fierce warriors are disarmed and enchanted by the beauty of the music. The Guarinis welcome Father Gabriel and his teaching about the source of all beauty. 

A key element of the successful evangelization of this indigenous people was the formation of incredibly talented musicians and choirs.

Beauty has the ability to create in us a yearning for its source — the Creator whose imprint is on the spectacular beauty of the natural world. 

Every true artist, whether of the visual or the performing arts, derives his or her inspiration from the divine artist. Beauty moves the heart of the viewer or listener. It inspires a celebration of joy. 

In my visits to parish communities, I never cease to be amazed by the beauty of the liturgy when it is properly celebrated. I am grateful for all those who contribute to the beauty of the liturgical music in our parishes.

In the Office of Readings for the feast of St. Cecilia, there is a beautiful reflection on Psalm 33 by St. Augustine. I conclude by sharing a portion of St. Augustine’s discourse:

“Praise the Lord with lyre, make melody to him with the harp of ten strings! Sing to him a new song. Rid yourself of what is old and worn out, for you know a new song. A new man, a new covenant — a new song. This new song does not belong to the old man. Only the new man learns it: the man restored from his fallen condition through the grace of God, and now sharing in the new covenant, that is, the kingdom of heaven. To it, all our love now aspires and sings a new song. Let us sing a new song not with our lips but with our lives.

“Sing to him a new song, sing to him with joyful melody. Every one of us tries to discover how to sing to God. You must sing to him, but you must sing well. He does not want your voice to come harshly to his ears, so sing well, brothers!

“If you were asked, ‘Sing to please this musician,’ you would not like to do so without having taken some instruction in music, because you would not like to offend an expert in the art. An untrained listener does not notice the faults a musician would point out to you. Who, then, will offer to sing well for God, the great artist whose discrimination is faultless, whose attention is on the minutest detail, whose ear nothing escapes? When will you be able to offer him a perfect performance that you will in no way displease such a supremely discerning listener? “See how he himself provides you with a way of singing. Do not search for words, as if you could find a lyric which would give God pleasure. Sing to him ‘with songs of joy.’ This is singing well to God, just singing songs of joy.”

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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