When I first contemplated becoming Catholic, I was super pumped to finally experience the fullness of the True Presence with a good, old-school reverent Mass, with plainchant and incense and 200 year old neo-gothic churches. After all, the Catholics have literally all the artistic and liturgical greatness banked away in their spiritual treasure-house, and their priests consecrate and immolate Our Lord in the fullness of his essence upon the altar at each and every Mass. I had seen papal Masses on television. I had seen the Catholics Come Home commercials. I’d read Aquinas and Vatican 2 complete with encouragements to use latin and chant and the organ. Then I converted…and everything was different.
The Church advertises a certain aesthetic, but consistently fails to deliver. Your average parish Church isn’t a wonderland of Gregorian chant and organ music. Some are, for sure, but most are far more likely to include warehouse-style architecture or whitewashed walls, rock bands leading worship, and priests wearing a far different garb than one might expect (read: polyester). Notable for their absence are altar candles, incense, organ music, altar rails, cassock and surplice, and a high altar. I know what I prefer and what helps me reverence God and actively participate, but for the purposes of this article I’ll ponder my aesthetic preferences in the silence of my heart. What I do find curious, though, is the bait-and-switch we so often encounter. It’s a question of truth in advertising. Why does the Church seems to portray one reality, when in fact an entirely different one is true?
I started thinking about this because Bishop Robert Barron is currently working on the second installment of his popular Catholicism video series. Here’s the teaser for the first one.
Sunlight softly filtering through stained glass, chant wafting past chiseled marble statuary, beauty until you can hardly stand it. And it’s not just Catholicism that advertises the Church this way. Check out Augustine Institute’s Symbolon, a video series specifically made to show to explain the Church to potential converts:
Same story. This is appealing. It is strongly, unashamedly Catholic. And here is the Catholics Come Home commercial for good measure:
Incense! Nuns in habits! Altars with lots of steps leading up to them!
Now, I don’t know all that much about the creators of any of these video productions. Perhaps they all worship in parishes that reflect what their work portrays, so I’m not questioning their integrity or accusing them of being less-than-honest in their presentations. I also understand that not every parish can afford to hire Palestrina to run the choir and Bach to jam on the organ. Many parishes are doing the best they can and there is nothing wrong with portraying the ideal in advertising/catechetical materials. If this is what Catholicism is at its best and we all strive to transform our parish into Chartres Cathedral someday but aren’t there yet, then fair enough if the advertising puts its best foot forward as showing the best of what we have to offer. But what stops me short is that I don’t think this is what’s happening at all.
In my experience (admittedly anecdotal), local parishes are intentionally organized around entirely different principles for how a Mass ought to proceed and in what sort of space it ought to take place in, and this isn’t because the ideal is out of reach but because a totally different ideal is sought – my best guess? Transcendence v. Immanence? But that’s a digression – For instance, this is a new, allegedly $12million parish currently being built in Las Vegas:
Be still my beating heart, for I am ravished by beauty. It seems to me that cash of that sort can purchase whatever building is desired. This, apparently, is what is desired. Beyond architecture, Catholic advertising often portrays priests in cassocks and nuns in habit but, at least in the US, that isn’t what we get. For instance, this is the LCWR, a conference of women religious, the largest gathering in the US.
I don’t think they’re even trying. Or, more accurately, they’re trying for something different. They aren’t not wearing habits because it’s laundry day or because they can’t afford them, they’re not wearing them because they don’t want to wear them.
Why is it that converts and the many, many people who love these videos are seemingly attracted to one portrayal of the Church, and yet the Church typically insists on another? Why not advertise what we really are and watch as billions are converted and saved? Why is it that when we put our best foot forward it is the very definition of the Traddie aesthetic and yet we steadfastly refuse to follow through on the image we present to the world?
Again, for the purposes of this article I’m not making any argument about which is better, but the bait and switch isn’t fair. I don’t know that I have anything truly profound to say about it, but it bothers me. Maybe I’m missing something, but if what is portrayed in Catholicism, etc is truly the aesthetic we believe in, we should do whatever it takes to make our parish liturgical life reflect that. And if it isn’t what we believe in, we should present a more honest picture.