EVANGELIZATION AND TRANSCEDENTAL BEAUTY
This weekend in Rome, Pope Francis is canonizing Cardinal John Henry Newman as a saint. While much has changed between Newman’s lifetime in the nineteenth century and our current day, much remains the same. People today, as in the 19th century, are thirsting to know Our Lord in a more intimate way. Even people who are indifferent about (or hostile toward) Christianity or organized religion altogether have deep-seated yearnings—yearnings which only Christ can satisfy. The human race was created in the image of God, and in Him is our ultimate end. In paragraph 27, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.”
In a certain sense, God has created us in such a way that we are hard-wired to seek and know him. This tendency to reach and seek is in our spiritual DNA. If we fail to understand God as our final end, our very sense of purpose in life becomes frustrated and we are easily defeated. On that note, I very much doubt that anyone who truly loves their friends and neighbors wishes them a life of perpetual defeat and frustration! Therefore, it is not only our duty, but our joy as Catholics to spare our friends this defeat and frustration, and to bring to them the message of joy, victory, and fulfillment that can be found only in the person of Christ. This, my friends, is the work of evangelization.
I don’t know about you, but for me—as a lifelong Catholic and even as a former seminarian—I can shrink up when I hear the word “evangelization.” I might readily imagine someone standing on a street corner, shouting out a message of gloom and doom. Or, I might imagine being approached by a total stranger who asks if I’ve been saved. Rest assured, these tactics are not what I propose when mentioning evangelization. Despite some of the negative associations we might have with the word “evangelization,” it is a basic Christian duty. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ gives one of his most succinct orders: “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” This command of Christ is directly related to another one from the Gospel of Mark that is short and to the point: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we wouldn’t hesitate to provide food or water to them if they were withering of hunger and thirst. Similarly, if we love them and we acknowledge that only God can satisfy the longing of the human heart, then we must help them to know God.
Having mentioned a few options of evangelization that might not be fruitful, I would like to propose a solution that might be more fruitful. Please note that I propose this as one option among many, not as an indispensable magic bullet. The means that I am proposing bears the Latin title Via Pulchitudinis, which translates into English as “The Way of Beauty.” Upon first hearing, this might sound like nothing more than “trying to find God in pretty things.” But there’s more to it than that. To understand this concept, we must remember that God created us with body and soul, with senses and spirit. We must further recall that, while God could have chosen any number of ways to save fallen humanity, he chose to do so by taking on human flesh Himself. God was not required to do this, and it was certainly not a painless or convenient option. Nevertheless, He sought to take on human flesh to conquer the sins of the flesh.
In the same way that God chose to save us through Christ’s suffering in bodily form, it has been a long-held belief of Catholics that he can sanctify us and reveal himself to us through our bodily senses. In fact, this belief was outlined in great detail at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. While a group known as the iconoclasts condemned religious images as idols, the Church defended the use of religious images on the grounds that they oriented our senses toward God. This is why buildings like Notre Dame de Paris (as well as the many beautiful churches here in Northeast) were built at great expense and sacrifice. They were built as a means to show forth God’s glory in a concrete way.
I was once at the Cathedral of Saint Paul, practicing for an organ recital I was to play there. I saw tourists walking about in the daytime hours, and I witnessed their initial awe and amazement at the building, and I sincerely prayed that this might somehow translate to awe and amazement at the far surpassing greatness of God himself. At the very least, I hope they knew that this building was not built out of servile fear, or some dry sense of obligation, but it was built out of love!
Now, to discuss the via pulchritudinis in more practical, everyday terms, I am not suggesting that one must start building a Gothic cathedral in order to pull this off. While beauty is a tangible or physical manifestation of God’s goodness, this can be communicated in far smaller gestures. One might state that Mother Theresa embodied this wonderfully, not by constructing a cathedral or composing a symphony, but through corporal works of mercy to the poorest of the poor. On an even more basic and simple level, she smiled—this is clear from every extent photo or portrait of her. The radiant charity of her heart always came out in the physical expression of her smile. The beauty of the via pulchritudinis is that it can be manifested in the most ornate and gigantic, or the most modest and simple forms.
- Sam Backman, Director of Sacred Music and Liturgical Life