Shooting Craps: Church Aesthetics and Spiritual Formation

Earlier this week, Tim opined on his experience of “rolling the dice” with regard to attending Mass.  Bridget responded.   I figured I’d take swing at giving my own thoughts,  though it’s more aimed at Bridget’s response than Tim’s original post.  Before I jump into this, I would like to refer you to a piece by The American Catholic regarding Canon 518, which essentially says you need to have a good reason for not going to the parish within your geographical bounds.  My good reason is the spiritual formation of my kids.

So much for parish hopping for petty things (like disliking the pastor or the music or the missalettes  or the over-use of the quiet room or the ugly architecture or a million other non-Mass related things).  What about issues with the Mass itself though?  Here is where I believe we need to draw the proverbial line in the sand.

I think Bridget too quickly dismisses these things as minor, I would like to take the opportunity to make my case as to why I disagree.  Those things are not just aesthetics, but play a major role in how Catholics, including myself, understand the liturgy, the importance of the sacrifice, and the role of Christ in our Church.  If something is important to you, you treat it with care and respect.  Lack of importance, disdain or carelessness.

First, one may dislike the pastor for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to his age, thick accent, lack of energy when preaching, or something truly serious like skipping parts of the Mass, preaching heresy, wearing a Santa hat during Mass, or mocking the Latin Mass by doing the hokey-pokey during the consecration.  The first group of complaints I would consider minor, especially if the balding Indian priest delivers a rich nugget of truth in his homily each Sunday.  The latter group is intolerable.  I know a few families with school-age children, children who know better.  How does that serve their faith in the Church to see a priest acting a fool at Mass?

Second, prettiness or beauty of the church is not minor either.  I can take my two young kids to the church which contains the indecipherable stained glass windows, the statue of “beach blanket Jesus”, and other secular/formless/ProtestantWould beach blanket Jesus count as a graven image?art, or I can take them to a church where the life of Christ is depicted in beautifully crafted stained glass, where a crucifix is the image at the center of worship reminding us of the entire purpose of the Mass.  My children can learn about Christ, his church, and the saints through those images regardless of their ability to understand the homily.  That was the whole point of art in Churches in the first place, so people who were illiterate could learn about Jesus while the priest prayed silently.

Third, the music is also an issue.  Many of the parishes have music selections which are often not liturgical, sometimes heretical, and almost always touchy-feely “social justice” songs which are more about a Marxist Jesus helping the poor and bringing down the rich as though Christ came only to help the former with the destruction of the latter.  Some songs used at Mass are written by Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On), U2 (Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For), and George Harrison (My Sweet Lord).  I know this because I’ve seen it, and I am guilty of the last two offenses some 12 years ago.  (Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.)  Much of the music we hear at Mass today has no place as the Church (especially in Vatican II) has laid out specific scriptural texts to be used at Mass.  We use some of them at daily Mass, but they’re thrown out on Sundays (entrance and communion antiphons replaced on Sundays by hymns which may or may not have anything to do with the liturgy).

Speaking as a father of two young and impressionable children, the bottom line is this, do I want my children to attend Mass in a Church with a true Catholic identity, where the Eucharist is the center, and where all of the senses are engaged to immerse my child in a sacred Catholic worship experience, or do I want them to go to Mass in a church where the drive home is devoted to debunking every myth and correcting every errant action and word and creating an environment of doubt for my children where the Church is concerned?  I want my children to worship in a Catholic way, with Catholic music, Catholic art, their senses captivated with beautiful and meaningful images, with structures and architecture built with the express purpose of declaring that Christ is King and this house is built to bravely proclaim that message.  Kingship does not reside in mediocrity but in glory and splendor.  These things matter, they are significant, and they can make or break a person’s faith.

I loved the church. I loved the idea of it. I loved the smell of the incense. I loved the feeling you get when you left church… I tried to go back. When I was out in L.A. and I was kind of struggling for a bit. I went to church for a while, but it’s kind of, it’s gotten gigantic now for me. It’s like too… There’s a band.  There’s a band there now, and you got to, you have to hold hands with people through the whole Mass now, and I don’t like doing that.  You know, I mean, it used to be the shaking hands piece was the only time you touched each other.

~Jimmy Fallon

1 Comment

  1. Matt, I actually agree with you in large parts of what you say. I apparently was not clear enough in what I said. I assumed (silly, I know) that one would start from a basic understanding that all of the “minor” things would be technically correct, just not to one’s personal taste. Does that make sense? As you say, disliking a pastor because of an accent would be petty, but disliking the way he throws out parts of the Mass willy-nilly would fit into the major category.
    As for architecture, the same standards apply. So long as the building is in accordance with the norms and rules which govern such things, then I strongly believe that it is simply a matter of taste. Disliking the colors on the wall or the style of the windows is not, in my opinion, enough of a reason to leave one’s territorial parish. I would as soon move or choose not to live in a specific parish confines before doing that.
    I have six young children, and I too understand the importance of the full immersion in Mass for them especially, as they can see and feel far more than they can understand by being told. This is part of why I’m so thankful that we happen to live in a decent parish.
    Thanks for reading and responding! Love having a good conversation.