Via Pulchritudinis: Sacred Art, Instrument of Evangelization and Catechesis, Part 1

How can we describe art as an instrument of evangelization and catechesis? The modern view is twofold. Art is entertainment, a diversion of the serious or stressful aspects of life. Art is also decoration: we use it to put color on plainness, busy sound into silence. Decoration sometimes works against the intent of sacred art which often invites a deeper look into a person’s surroundings–not just the image or song. Running away from the call of God: a diversion even believers and the occasional Biblical figure do.

That brings us to section C) Sacred Art, Instrument of Evangelization and Catechesis.

Eight years before his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II linked art, catechesis, and new evangelization:

The Servant of God John Paul II qualified the artistic patrimony inspired by the Christian faith as a “formidable instrument of catechesis,” fundamental to “re-launch the universal message of beauty and good.” (Address to the Bishops of Tuscany,11 March 1991)

His successor also:

In similar tones, Cardinal Ratzinger, as President of the Special Preparatory Commission for the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church justified its use of images: “The image is also a Gospel preaching. In all ages, artists have offered the events marking the mystery of salvation with the splendor of colors and in the perfection of beauty for the contemplation and admiration of the faithful. This is an indication of how, today more than ever with our civilization of the image, a holy image can express much more than words themselves, for its dynamism of communication and transmission of the gospel message is more efficacious.” [Compendium of the Catechism of Catholic Church, Introduction. Official English translation forthcoming]

It’s an overused meme, the one that ends “if necessary use words.” But sometimes the deeper communication of images, themes, and the blending of artistic technique in many media communicate a good bit more than numbered sections in a catechism or pages off an apologetics manual.

The group responsible for this document was formed in 1993. The first document they produced is referenced here:

The Pontifical Council for Culture’s document Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, augurs that “in our culture, where a deluge of often banal and brutal images are churned out daily by the television, the cinema and videos, a fruitful union between the Gospel and art will bring about new manifestations of beauty, born from the contemplation of Christ, God made (flesh), from the meditation of His mysteries, from their shining forth in the Virgin Mary and in the saints.” (n.36)

This is true. Yet I remain somewhat skeptical of the Church criticizing of modern culture. First, many aspects are problematic, but I have doubts this is really any different from other eras in human history. Sin is a human constant. When we see it, bad. When we don’t, it may well be hidden. Second, the art/Gospel combination has always been fruitful in every age. If we perceive we experience a current impoverishment in that regard, it would seem those who perceive a loss will take the initiative.

I think the Church sometimes feels an entitlement. That can manifest in an attitude that people should come to us. Do some artists feel this? Forty years in and on the fringes of parish staffs, and a few church builds and renovations, and what I’ve seen in my own subjective experience:

  • pastors and business managers favor shopping from church catalogues; very few commissions
  • traditional education stuff is prioritized in the academic qualifications of staff and in the quality of catechetical programs
  • in one main aspect of evangelization, RCIA, we usually wait for people to come to our meetings. Or get engaged to a Catholic.

There are others, but my point is simply that the onus is on us. Our bishops, pastors, and lay groups.

This full 2006 document is here.

Image: the rose window at Notre Dame in Paris, By Zachi Evenor based on File:North rose window of Notre-Dame de Paris, Aug 2010.jpg by Julie Anne Workman – CC BY-SA 2.0,

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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