I suppose there is a theme emerging here. Over the past few writings, I have called for the development of a Sacred Art Institute within the Catholic Church in the United States. Perhaps the foundation of this educational facility would be best placed here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is one of the four original dioceses (Boston, Philadelphia, New York & Bardstown), carved from the Primal See of Baltimore , two hundred years ago. Such a location would make a lot of sense. Not only is Philadelphia rich in its artistic heritage, it also offers quite a few artisans and artists that make the area their home.

Now I am not really talking about a new art school, but rather a unique collective space that could be devoted to the study and development of sacred and liturgical arts. One of the best places I could imagine would be to house such an institute in a former Catholic school with an adjacent church. I could think of half a dozen such examples of such sites within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that would make perfect spots for an arts campus. Quite a few urban parishes with changing population shifts come first to mind. The site could be leased to artists at a reasonable cost and developed into a studio complex where the sharing of artistic skills and intellectual curiosity could be freely exchanged. In the same manner, such a gathering of individuals might also stimulate new life into a parish community that is in a state of urban flux.

There are quite a few points that would justify such an institution. The first point should be a revitalization of good quality and artistic works for our sacred spaces. This community would be exclusively designated as a “Catholic” Sacred Art Institute, so there would be no confusion of artists, patrons and sponsors of its singular purpose.

Secondly, the endeavor would provide good reutilization of parish resources in a period when quite a bit of existing church real estate sits cavernously vacant. Old classrooms not only seem appropriate for the space required by artists, but I would think the quality of natural light would be excellent. If the Catholic parish needs to continue providing minimal heat and electricity to keep a vacant building in “dry-dock” state, then it should not be wasted.

Next the message would be abundantly clear that the Bishop, or in this case Cardinal Archbishop, takes the entire notion of quality art and architecture for Catholic worship seriously and is intent on the success of such a collective group within their jurisdiction. We commonly as a Church provide space to other groups, such as AAA, Knights of Columbus; Red Cross etc…why not provide a permanent and reasonably available place for artisans and artisans. Most importantly, the institute should be adjacent to a living and active parish community. This way the artisan community can truly begin to incorporate the axiom, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi into their sacred art and ministry.

Recently in the Catholic press there has been some interesting reflections on parishes of historical significance within the Philadelphia Archdiocese. When we think of parishes, one usually associates lots of activity within a parish community. However, this is not the case with some of the older and historic churches of Philadelphia. Most are closed on a regular basis and the Eucharistic Sacrifice is only offered on a monthly basis.

It is really unfortunate that historical sites such as Holy Trinity in Philadelphia are celebrated as “architectural jewels”, when in reality they are no longer the active expression of the Sacred Mysteries, but just dead buildings. Old churches especially those with American historical significance should be vibrant, living parish communities regardless of their neighborhoods or ethnic populations. Anything less than an active Catholic Church in the community frankly says to the local community…you are too poor for sacraments. Twenty-first century believers can coexist and even flourish in eighteenth century buildings. Such a disregard for the spiritual integrity of a local community is elitist and at times racist. Church buildings and sites exist for worship and praise of God, not the historical highlighting of antiquated historical accessories. Perhaps the area around this parish church would benefit from a living group of artisans and faithful Catholics. Think about the great influence an arts community would have on the spiritual life of a quasi-existent parish structure.

The catechetical importance of the establishment of such a site would be an invaluable resource to Catholics everywhere as well. Not only would the knowledge and expertise of Catholic artists be preserved and passed on to new generations, such a site would be a shining example of the importance Catholic art and architecture in every age. The availability and fluidity towards an appreciation and experience of “works in progress” would enable educators and faithful to experience “living” artists’ expressions of faith. Such a place could also serve as a showcase for priests and parishioners that are considering the acquisition of new liturgical accessories for their sacred spaces.

Priests could speak with artists and watch the entire process of artistic revelation as pieces are created. At the same time, the mistaken concept of mass produced religious articles would be discouraged, and execution of qualitative art would occur. Perhaps even this “studio” would serve as a catalyst for artists and artisans to consider religious art as a Catholic vocation, through which they might serve Christ’s Church. Regardless of the effect, such a place would enable the story of Catholic faith to be promoted and taught through sacred and liturgical art. That has to be a great catechetical effect.

Finally, consider the need for evangelization. Mgsr. Michael Carroll, an old seminary professor, used to say that…”catechesis and evangelization go hand in hand!” There is a lot of significance in this statement. Artistic expression in a parish community really teaches Catholics about their past, present and future as a worshiping community. The visual arts also communicate the pervasive power of God’s Word, as we try to understand and appreciate God in our artistic expressions and symbols. In turn, we try to share and communicate this faith to others in hopes that they might experience the Catholic faith. Such a vehicle for theological evangelization really does exist in the simple paintbrush of an artist. If that were not the case, why would anyone visit the Sistine Chapel?

Sacred and liturgical arts are perhaps a very broad phrase meant to describe those artisans and artisans that embrace their faith in their artistic works. For all of us a Catholics the phrase really should signify the need to teach and spread the Gospel message through the visual arts. Not all art is Catholic. Not all art is worth mentioning. However, sacred art is something, which has had little attention paid to it. It is long overdue. After all, it is only a human expression of our human condition that seeks to know God.

Saint Augustine is appropriate here,”…our hearts are restless until they rest in You. Fulfill this longing through Jesus the Bread of Life.” Confessions of Saint Augustine & partial prayer of the 41st International Congress, Philadelphia 1976

Hugh McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that writes on Catholic topics and issues. He writes daily at http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com & http://pewsitter.com“Nothing Left Unsaid!” is his daily column @ http://catholicnewsagency.comComments are always welcome @ hugh.mcnichol@trinettc.com

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