We have all heard the sad reports. Catholics in the U.S. are on a great exodus. Not from slavery in Egypt or from the bondage of sin. No, Catholics are leaving the practice of the faith in alarming numbers. Today, less than 20% of persons who were baptized a Catholic attend Mass on a weekly basis. Even worse, less than 7% of Catholics under the age of 25 continue to practice their faith once they have left for college or begin their professions and trades. This does not even take into account the 40% of all young Christians who no longer identify with any faith community and have become a part of that large groups known as the “nones” or “unaffiliated” (see pew survey data for all these sad stats: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/ and this article: https://brandonvogt.com/new-stats-young-people-leave-church/
What if I told you that there was a way to change the exodus into a reditus (a return)? Not only that, what if it was possible to draw in young people who became uninspired by their experience within protestant evangelical Christianity (another shrinking, disunified group that seems primarily concerned about being relevant and mimicking the trends of culture)? Let’s not stop there. What if all those persons who make up about 35% of the U.S. population and come from different faith backgrounds were drawn to and entered the Catholic Church?
So, what is the answer? Beauty. Transcendent beauty. Beautiful Churches built or renovated. Beautiful liturgies that emphasize the transcendent and ancient forms that point to the eternal realities beyond the here and now. Between the 70’s and the 90’s, Catholics tried to make Churches and liturgies look and sound like common, comfortable and normal gatherings, using folksy guitar tunes and designing churches that don’t look like churches but more like all-purpose structures, libraries, bomb shelters, and other government buildings. The deep irony is by the abandonment of the ancient practices in the Mass and the classical structures of architecture, the Mass became bound to the sensibilities of that particular time (the 70s-90’s) and as young people grew up in this experience, they were not “wowed” but instead let out a great yawn. For, all the stuff the Church tried to do in mimicking the cultural tastes and styles, the culture did those things better. Their latest and greatest music was better and their latest and greatest gathering spaces were better. The Church was no longer seen as a place where you are transported to encounter heavenly realities and our future eternal destiny after the resurrection.
Here is a sampling of churches built in my Diocese between the 70’s and 90’s:
In contrast, these are the churches that were built before that time frame:
There is a great insight that Ray Kroc had that comes from the film “The Founder”. Ray Kroc was inspired by the Golden Arches concept design created by one of the McDonald’s brothers for their restaurants and envisioned that this would be an iconic design that would draw people. He had the insight that if there was to be a universal draw to their hamburger stand, it had to be a striking design that people would be drawn to. Here is how it is depicted the first time Kroc encounters the design:
Stephen Spielberg Gets It. Why Can’t We?
Now lets consider Stephen Spielberg, one of the greatest American filmmakers in the last fifty years. He also knows how to lead a heart to awe and wonder in the way he constructed his movie shots and framed his scenes. What if our parishes and the priests who shepherd them, took the same amount of care in constructing and adorning a Church as to lead those to awe and wonder? What if when the people drove down the road they were drawn to “come and see” the transcendent beauty of our parishes built with this very intention in mind? We had a little fun using a clip from his film Jurassic Park to communicate how we react in awe and wonder when we encounter transcendent beauty:
It’s kind of like the journey that the evangelical Christian, Austin Suggs, has been on when he first stumbled upon St. John Cantius Church in Chicago:
Peter Kreeft and I Share the Same Childhood Encounter with a Beautiful Catholic Church
At Christmastime, on our first trip into New York City when I was around 8 or 9 years old, my parents decided to take me into St. Patrick’s Cathedral. After seeing the enormous Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the lights of Times Square, and the decorated storefronts, we walked through this Catholic Church. And I immediately knew (though I couldn’t articulate it at the time) that while the things I saw outside would be gone with the passing Christmas season, this Church was solid and firm. It would remain. More importantly, it was staggeringly beautiful and its beauty eclipsed the beauty of the tree, the Christmas lights, and the storefronts I had witnessed outside.
30 years later, I am joined to the Church that built the beauty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. That Church was built to celebrate the Mass; the moment where Jesus becomes present; the moment where heaven and earth meet. The wedding feast of the Lamb of the book of Revelation is experienced as a foretaste! I did not realize until now that Dr. Peter Kreeft had the same experience in the same place and at the same age. He graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, which just so happens to be right down the road from the Catholic parish I am serving at as a one year old priest and ten year old Catholic.
My passion for Catholic Church beauty is built on this experience. I thank my parents for indirectly helping me become Catholic. For they brought me to the beauty of St. Patrick’s and I then experienced all the rest of the beauty found in this wonder-filled Catholic faith!!! “Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College and prolific author, has spoken and written on the topic of beauty for decades. He is personally aware of the evangelizing power of beauty; the beauty of Catholic art and architecture played an important role in his conversion to Catholicism. As a child, growing up in a Calvinist home, he was taught that Catholics were wrong. One of the earliest seeds of doubt was planted when his family went sight-seeing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. He was stunned; he had never seen anything like it before. He asked his father, “If the Catholics are so dreadfully wrong, how can their churches be so beautiful?” He connected beauty with truth.” https://www.catholicworldreport.com/…/dr-peter-kreeft…/
I realize that beauty is not the silver bullet that will solve all the Church’s problems, but I believe it to be one of the most sure and reliable ways out of a lot of them. We of course need an authentic and vibrant witness of life among both the Catholic faithful and the clergy. We also need to help people encounter the depth and beauty of our faith’s teachings. But, I believe there is an innate sense in all of us to connect beauty with Truth and goodness. Just as Kreeft did in the question he asked above: “If Catholics are so dreadfully wrong, how can their churches be so beautiful?”
Pioneers of the Reditus
We have some people out there that have already set forth on this path of renewing the Church’s emphasis on liturgical and architectural beauty. I wanted to share with you a ‘Top Ten’ of resources that can get us moving together on this path on the return to wonder:
- The Catholic Art Institute: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiWrcNki7k_Yno6I0pA70dw/videos
- Dr. Denis McNamara/Liturgical Institute: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLmb-kTzyYnt5i14gShUc1ZYNPGTqG7P6p
- Extraordinary Faith: Church Restoration and New Church Architecture: https://youtu.be/W9SKc4vKviY / https://youtu.be/QrK84xVgvN8
- Mass of the Ages: A 3-Part Liturgy Documentary (releasing soon): https://theliturgy.org/
- New Liturgical Movement: https://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/
- Books: “How Catholic Art Saved the West” by Elizabeth Lev. “Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness” by Peter Kwasniewski, “Catholic Church Architecture and The Spirit of the Liturgy” by Denis McNamara, “The Church Building as a Sacred Place” by Duncan Stroik
- The Institute for Sacred Architecture: https://www.sacredarchitecture.org/
- Canons Regular of St. John Cantius- Restoring the Sacred: https://www.cantius.org/
- The Liturgical Arts Journal: https://www.liturgicalartsjournal.com/
- Catholic Culture Website: https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/beauty/
If you’d like to engage with a longer reflection, you can spend some time with a blog series I wrote, titled: