Among the many materialist fallacies of our time, there is one that manages to be at the same time popular and elitist: the degrading idea that the poor have no use for things like beauty. You never see it so boldly stated, but you find it in an attitude that treats the poor as so many stomachs to be filled, as underutilized resources to be harnessed or tangles of social pathologies to be straightened out. It’s a view incapable of seeing the needy as real people—people like you—people who fall in love, who choose daily between good and evil, who make mistakes, and fix them, and feel shame or pride or boredom, who cry when they hear a song and look up with fear and wonder at the lightning.
When applied to religion, this is the attitude that looks at a glowing gilded altar and calls it hypocrisy—and then looks at a gilded shopping mall and calls it progress. That the Church’s artistic treasures, which are currently enjoyed freely by worshippers and visitors throughout the world, would end up, if sold, in private mansions, select museums, and fancy hotels for the enjoyment of rich patrons doesn’t seem to bother these would-be champions of the needy. And while the Church itself—seeing in each person an immortal mystery in whom dwells a reflection of the face of God—has ever been a bulwark against this error, you can still find this tendency among many of its members, including its clergy. It’s an un-Catholic disposition to see beauty as superfluous, as something that may be well and good in the pope’s Masses, but irrelevant to the life of parishes in the inner city or the developing world. As if bodily hunger somehow quenched the hunger of our spirit. As if a life starved of beauty wouldn’t smother our human dignity as surely as anything else. As if we could love a God who we didn’t first think beautiful.
I bring all of this up because during a recent trip to my native Colombia, I became convinced that the Church in Latin America is dying for lack of beauty. In fact, unless things change drastically in the near future, it’s no exaggeration to say that this part of the world, which is now rejoicing to see the first of its sons seated on the throne of Peter, will find itself by the end of the 21st century—if not much sooner—in the same sad state of dechristianization we now see in Europe. The problem is not a lack of solidarity in terms of what you would usually associate with service to the poor—indeed the Latin American Church has a proud social justice tradition, and in this sense Pope Francis is no exception. Neither is the famous Archbishop Romero alone among Latin American clergy in his example of extraordinary courage, a passion for social justice, and a willingness to serve even at the cost of his life; my own former archbishop, Monseñor Isaias Duarte Cancino, was gunned down at the door of a church for daring to speak against the drug cartels that used to run the city. Such heroic witness has not been without its fruit, and yet our people are starving—starving spiritually—because the primary point of contact between most believers and the Church—the Mass—has been so gutted of transcendence that it reminds the average person of Heaven about as much as reading through an accounting textbook. The chance someone who is not already devout will ever sense a hint of the sublime at one of our Masses is practically null. And sure, North Americans love to complain about the liturgy too, but the problem in Latin America is not so much poorly celebrated liturgies or liturgical abuses, as liturgies that are simply dead. So will be the Church be, unless it can rediscover the beauty of its worship.
Considered from this point of view, the struggles of the Church in Latin America during recent decades become not only understandable, but predictable. Optimistic commentators often talk about a Christian boom in the “Global South,” and for all I know their analysis may be true for places like Africa and parts of Asia. Latin America, though, is another matter. During my teenage years in Colombia, a rushing tide of evangelicalism seemed to be the biggest challenger to the Catholic faith. The sheer dullness—sometimes silliness—of the liturgy, coupled with a not-unrelated ignorance about Catholic teaching, caused millions to leave for new Protestant congregations whose services, however lacking in real beauty, at least made an effort to give people an emotional experience. Non-Catholic Christians may well consider that good news, but the underlying weaknesses that exposed the Catholic Church to evangelicalism have left these once solidly Catholic countries wide open to an even stronger onslaught of secularism. And unfortunately evangelicalism—or at least the brand of evangelicalism that exists in Latin America today—simply doesn’t have the cultural and intellectual wherewithal to stem the tide. Indeed, evangelicalism was not enough to tackle even a lukewarm attachment to Catholicism—in Colombia, for example, its rate of growth has subsided significantly. The fact is that, fairly or not, the average Colombian tended to see evangelicals as fanatical, and so for a while it was easier to stay with nominal Catholicism as a default position.
That has changed. With a rising tide of secularism and controversial moral issues dominating the headlines, nominal Catholicism for many is no longer the path of least resistance. Growing up, I was rare among my peers—with the exception of the few evangelicals there were—for wanting to go to Church, though most stuck around anyway. Now, however, I’m not rare just for wanting to go, but for going at all, and this among a population of Catholic children who all received First Communion and Confirmation. A main cause is ignorance of Catholic theology and philosophy, which has left even faithful Latin American Catholics intellectually unprepared for the challenges of secularism, but even here the liturgy is a major issue. One of my cousins recently returned to belief after decades of atheism, but he has given up trying to attend Mass with his young daughters, as he feels that the more he takes them, the more the banality of the worship alienates them from the Church. Unfortunately, like in many other parts of the world, many have tried to deal with this problem by making the Mass “fun,” playing songs that try to mimic what one hears on the radio—except with lyrics that are even more syrupy—with the predictable result of making the Mass ridiculous. What we fail to realize is that Mass shouldn’t be fun, it should be glorious.
Catholics in the United States have long been generous givers to the Church’s efforts in favor of the needy throughout the world, supporting organizations like Catholic Relief Services or religious orders like Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. The value of this work cannot be overstated—in Africa, for example, the Church reportedly cares for 50% of all AIDS/HIV patients, and as I learned while interning at the UNHCR during college, in the United States about 50% of refugee resettlement cases are handled by Catholic institutions. However, strange as it may sound to many who bewail the quality of the Mass in the typical American parish, the Church in the United States possesses a comparative wealth in its liturgy that it has not even realized, a wealth that ought to be shared.
What is to be done? It is hard to see where a turnaround for Latin America could even start, thought I am encouraged to see that Corpus Christi Watershed has begun work on producing a Spanish hymnal, which, if their work in English is anything to go by, should be a wonderful resource. I am also pleased to see that they are not merely adapting English hymns for export to Latin America, but working with Hispanic Catholics to produce something rich and authentic from within our own history. This is a great first step, but much more is needed. Imagine, for example, the positive impact that American liturgical choirs could have if they partnered with Latin American parishes for what one might call a Liturgical Mission Trip. As is typical with Catholic mission trips, groups could spend a couple of weeks abroad doing social service work, but then in addition to this, they would sing during Masses at their host parish. Listening to the foreign choir would no doubt serve as an opportunity for local parish priests to draw bigger crowds to church, while at the same time whetting the appetites of those who attend. The groups could then develop longer-term relationships, serving as a resource to clergy and lay ministers interested in creating or improving local choirs (and please let me place the emphasis on creating, as choirs are rare, the music usually being provided by one or two people singing, perhaps accompanied by a guitar or keyboard). If one picked the right parishes and cities, word of this work could easily spread, leading other parishes to follow suit, developing a sustainable culture of beauty in liturgical practice.
These are just a couple of examples or ideas off the top of my head. My point is simply to raise awareness about the need there is in this area, and hopefully to spark a conversation. Our failure to act is already having disastrous consequences on the Church’s health in this important region of the world. The liturgy, of course, is only one aspect among the many challenges the Church faces there, but it is a vital and sorely neglected aspect. We need to realize that beauty is essential to any true notion of progress and human development. Once we understand that it is not a luxury but a human need, we must conclude that beauty is a blessing the Church ought to make all the more available to its neediest members—to those who need not only “practical” support such as food or education or healthcare, but the hope that comes with being able to catch a glimpse beyond the mundane and feel the joy of awe before the presence of God.
 As an aside, my desire to attend Mass persisted very much despite the music (if there was any) and I always felt a deep sense of embarrassment about singing in public. I always thought the embarrassment came from my being ashamed to show I cared about my faith—until I came to the US and, for the first time, had the opportunity to sing a hymn that hadn’t been written for three year-olds. I suddenly found that every trace of embarrassment was gone.