Beautiful Catalysts Series: Sacred Art & the Series Conclusion

Clicking on one of the sections of this outline will take you to that particular part of BEAUTIFUL CATALYSTS series: 

  1. Beautiful Catalysts Series: An Introduction
  2. Beautiful Catalysts:  The Sacred Liturgy
  3. Beautiful Catalysts:  Reverence 
  4. Beautiful Catalysts:  Sacred Art & the Series Conclusion


When I was a boy, I was an evangelical Christian and attended a Bible Church. I lived on Long Island, about seventy miles from New York City. During one of the first trips in my life to New York City, my parents took me into St. Patrick’s Cathedral. To this day, I remember that first time experience walking into my first Catholic Church. It was so overwhelmingly beautiful. During Christmastime, when we would take one of our seasonal trips back to the city, I often was drawn to return to St. Patrick’s. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been in my life.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral. New York, NY

I remember what a contrast it was to all the festive decorations put up outside during the Christmas season. While there was a measure of beauty to those decorations, I knew that they were temporary and would be taken down in a few weeks. St. Patrick’s on the other hand, I got this deep sense of wonder and understood instinctively that this was a beauty that lasts. It was something solid and beyond the temporary decorations. Even the mighty Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree that seemed to scrape the sky and was adorned with so many lights, would come down shortly after New Years. But, the beauty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral would not, at least not any time soon. I didn’t become Catholic for another sixteen years after this encounter with beauty, but to this day, I recognize it as one of the early expressions of invitation to the Catholic faith that I experienced.

Interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. New York, NY

I believe we could draw many Catholics back who have strayed from the practice of their faith by taking greater care in the designing and building of Catholic Churches. Here are a few aspects of this catalyst to consider:

1. Sacred (or Holy) Places

St. Stephen’s Basilica. Budapest, Hungary

For a place to be Holy, it means it is set apart. It should be above and beyond any common thing we associate with in our everyday lives. In the seventies and eighties there was a movement to create worship spaces that were inviting and welcoming. The intent was to make Church worship places like our everyday family gathering spaces, such as a living room. Carpet began to cover all the floors, the Altar was moved out into the midst of the assembly and was often referred to as the “table” (think family dinner table). Statues were taken away, communion rails were taken down, stained glass was removed and replaced by plain windows or simple single color-stained window panes.

St. John the Evangelist.  West Chester, OH
Our Lady Star of the Sea. Solomons, MD

Along with this, you had the building of new churches that placed a large stress on functionality and simplicity. In addition, the classic layout of the Church being in the shape of the Cross, was replaced by circular or semi-circular designs. Church designs that had been used for the past eight hundred years were abandoned and church architects began adopting and mimicking the modern styles of buildings. Churches now looked less like what Churches had looked liked for centuries and more like community centers such as evangelical worship buildings, a performance hall or a YMCA.

St. Joseph the Worker. Salt Lake City, UT

Many would often want to place blame on the Second Vatican Council for this drastic shift in Church architectural approach. But, that is not a fair assessment. In the documents of the Council, there is no mention of rejecting established forms of architecture. There is some deeper reflection being done about what the causes of these changes were. One example you can read here: The Institute for Sacred Architecture- “Don’t Blame Vatican II”.

You can also read a shorter paper written by one of the professors that teaches at the seminary I am attending. He writes about what the Second Vatican Council actually said about Sacred Art and Architecture: Sacrosanctum Concilium on Sacred Art A Second Look

In the previous post on the Sacred Liturgy, I featured a short video by Brian Holdsworth on the topic of Church Music.  He made another video which reflects on our need to renew a focus on building Churches infused with beauty while also communicating the depths of our faith:

The good news is that there are new movements taking root in the Church that are seeking to restore classical architectural design in upcoming Catholic Churches. These designs are intended to connect us back to our heritage while also communicating the theological richness of our faith. Greater care is also being taken in the materials used on both the interior and the exterior. While some of these materials would require a larger building budget, since they are of higher quality, they likely will last two, three or four times as long.  More can be read here about this movement:  A New Direction in Church Design.

St. Mary Help of Christians. Aiken, SC

Even better news, these are not only just longings and aspirations. Catholic priests and laity are building beautiful, theologically rich Churches and hiring architects to design Churches that communicate the depths of our faith.

St. John Neumann Catholic Church.  Knoxville, TN

Not only are new Churches being built, older Churches that had been stripped of their beauty and theology, are being restored. [See: Restoring Beauty in Church Buildings]



2. Communicating the Mysteries of the Faith

St. Mary’s Basilica. Krakow, Poland.

We have come to see so far that there is a renewal to a more classical form of architecture. But, you may be asking why this is even a good thing that is happening? Is the attempt to recover a classic style of architecture just going back to the old traditions because they are old? Or is there something more going on here?

Enter Dr. Dennis McNamara. He teaches at both the Liturgical Institute and at Mundelein Seminary. (which are both on the campus of University of St. Mary of the Lake). He has created a series of videos explaining “architectural theology”. It is a ten part series of videos about six minutes long each. I will only provide two of the ten:

On whether there is something called “architectural theology”:

On true beauty and Catholic Church architecture:

An amazing example of a Church being built that represents the communicating of the mysteries of our faith is Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. This is a Church that upon completion will have taken 130 years to construct. One of the powerful messages of the building of this Church is the time it is taking to accomplish, but also the details put into its design that communicate the faith. Here are two amazing videos, one a 60 minutes special on it, the second a time-lapse video that shows what is yet to be completed in the construction in the years ahead:

3. An Eschatological Message


The second to last video in the architectural theology series speaks about the relationship between architecture and heavenly realities. Eschatology is the study of ‘last things’. It is when Jesus returns to bring all peoples that His Father has drawn to Him into the eternal life, which is depicted in the book of Revelation as the marriage of heaven and earth. Dr. McNamara points out that our Churches should communicate through its use of images and symbols these future heavenly realities:

If you would like to find helpful resources for restoring beauty to your Catholic parish, one website I have found helpful is: New Liturgical Movement. At this website there are links to Catholic architects that can build new Churches faithful to our faith tradition and can restore and renew older Churches (as some images above have shown). There are also links along the side of the website for Stained Glass Window companies that offer higher quality windows that communicate aspects of our faith while not being extremely expensive.

The Series Conclusion:  A Call to be Catalysts of Beauty

Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima

Three catalysts for Catholic conversion and reversion have been presented. Many may wonder, what now? What can be done to possibly bring any of this about?

For fellow Catholics reading this who are regularly involved in your parishes, this could mean utilizing your gifts in music and architecture to restore beauty in your local parishes. It could look like offering to lead a parish conference on the renewal of beauty to the liturgy and the worship space. It could mean volunteering to be on the parish council and bringing some of these ideas to parish. It could start by asking to sit down with the Pastor of your parish and asking if we could explore ways to implement a restoration of beauty to the parish. It could begin by inviting a guest speaker from the Liturgical Institute to come and give a presentation. It could mean offering to send the parish music director to the Liturgical Institute to learn about proper use and forms of music during the Liturgy. It could happen by presenting recommendations for hymals or yearly Missals (see resources below) to your parish council. I am convinced that one of the biggest issues is that people in the parish have not been catechized well in the history of the Liturgy and the beauty that is meant to be communicated through it. Simply raising awareness and exposing people to authentic beauty can go a long way. Any person reading this post can be a catalyst for the good of our parishes.

There will be a need for catechesis, patience, and compassion. But, this has been true in every generation. I hope that what I have shared in this post provides good examples and witnesses of what really is possible in bringing about a ‘reform of the reform.’ Attempting to make these restorations in our parishes is not impossible. On the contrary, I believe they would be extremely beneficial for the formation of the people of God in their faith and worship of Him.

My aim was to present some ways that I believe we can not only draw Catholics back to greater participation in the Sacramental life of the Church, but also draw all Christians into the fullness of the Catholic faith. This can happen when we renew our commitment to bring beauty to our liturgies, our reverence, and our churches.  It has had this effect on my life and I know of many others who have been drawn to the Catholic faith by the beauty of the Sacred Liturgy.

I will conclude not with my words but with the words of Cardinal Robert Sarah. He is the Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship, appointed by Pope Francis.  These are some remarks he gave about the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy:


“We must remember that we are not the authors of the liturgy, we are its humble ministers, subject to its discipline and laws. We are also responsible to form those who assist us in liturgical ministries in both the spirit and power of the liturgy and indeed its regulations. Sometimes I have seen priests step aside to allow extraordinary ministers distribute Holy Communion: this is wrong, it is a denial of the priestly ministry as well as a clericalisation of the laity. When this happens it is a sign that formation has gone very wrong, and that it needs to be corrected.

“We may have built a very new, modern liturgy in the vernacular, but if we have not laid the correct foundations—if our seminarians and clergy are not “thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy” as the Council required—then they themselves cannot form the people entrusted to their care. We need to take the words of the Council itself very seriously: it would be “futile” to hope for a liturgical renewal without a thorough liturgical formation. Without this essential formation clergy could even damage peoples’ faith in the Eucharistic mystery…

…That is why those “in formation” for pastoral ministry should live the liturgy as fully as is possible in their seminaries or houses of formation. Candidates for the permanent diaconate should have an immersion in an intense liturgical life over a prolonged period also. And, I would add, that the full and rich celebration of the more ancient use of the Roman rite, the usus antiquior, should be an important part of liturgical formation for clergy, for how can we begin to comprehend or celebrate the reformed rites with a hermeneutic of continuity if we have never experienced the beauty of the liturgical tradition which the Fathers of the Council themselves knew?

If we attend to this, if our new priests and deacons truly thirst for the liturgy, they will themselves be able to form those entrusted to their care—even if the liturgical circumstances and possibilities of their ecclesial mission are more modest than those of the seminary or of a cathedral. I am aware of many priests in such circumstances who form their people in the spirit and power of the liturgy, and whose parishes are examples of great liturgical beauty. We should remember that dignified simplicity is not the same as reductive minimalism or a negligent and vulgar style.

As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, teaches in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: “The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.” (n. 24)”  (For Cardinal Sarah’s full address, click here:  Cardinal Sarah Full Address on the Sacred Liturgy

Note:  Cardinal Sarah has since followed up these remarks by suggesting a need to bring a reconciliation between the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms of the Latin Rite of the Sacred Liturgy.  He is the article:  “Could Cardinal Sarah Bring an End to the Liturgy Wars?”

Helpful Resources for further study and to bring a renewed focus to Beauty in our parishes:


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