“Every piece of art, be it religious or secular, be it a painting, a sculpture, a poem or any
form of handicraft made by loving skill, is a sign and a symbol of the inscrutable secret
of human existence, of man’s origin and destiny, of the meaning of his life and work.”
Pope John Paul II, in his Address at Clonmacnoise, Ireland, September 1979
There is quite a bit to consider when reading this statement by the late Pope John-Paul II. Catholics in the design and implementation of Sacred Arts should especially understand there is a transcendence associated with the work of artisans and craftsmen that goes beyond the hands of the artist. The works executed by artists of all degrees offers particular insight into the human desire to worship and honor the Deity. Uniquely, the artist is vocationally called to provide a perspective of expression through the arts that incorporates both physical and metaphysical aspects of our human understandings of reality. The goal the artist expresses deals with the most intrinsic desire for humans to understand the mystery of their existence in relationship to the Creator and our constant need to explain our faith in a logical manner.
Fidens quarrens intellectum was the axiom advocated by Saint Anselm, faith seeks knowledge is critical to our appreciation of sacred art in our Catholic faith. The presence of sacred art in our Catholic Churches is an intellectual manifestation that intends to integrate our temporal and spiritual aspects that longs to understand God. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church and indeed all religions, the faithful have expressed their seminal beliefs of faith through artistic representation seeking clarification and understanding of human existence and the existence of God.
Perhaps that is the reason there is always such careful consideration of artistic representations that are designed into our Catholic Churches. Ideally, the design process surrounding a Catholic Church needs to focus on the aspects of Word and Sacrament, most especially the Holy Eucharist. The altar of the Catholic parish community should always be the focus of our attention. It signifies not only a physical point of concentration that draws the parish community to active worship of God, it marks the place when the Eucharistic Sacrifice takes place and Christ’s Real Presence comes among us in the Sacrament of Eucharist.
Over the course of the past 4 decades, there has been an explanation of Eucharist as a community meal in addition to being a sacrament. What is not as readily considered is the transcendence of the Eucharist as Christ’s sacrificial offering for the sanctification of the world. Often, Catholics forget the Eucharist transcends our understanding of space and time. It unites the contemporary Catholic with our theological and chronological past, our present and our eschatological future with God.
Catholic artists have a responsibility to understand the role Sacred Art has in joining these temporal and cosmological aspects of our Catholic faith. The underlying premise of artistic, architectural and structural designs of our Catholic Churches needs to always be mindful of all of these elements. Parish communities in planning Catholic churches need to understand the symbolic and ritual elements that are always present in our Catholic signs and symbols. The artist needs to incorporate signs and symbols as a manner of theological expressions of our Catholic beliefs. Representational art contains our Catholic heritage as a People of God, a community of faith and as a Church on an ongoing pilgrimage towards God.
Unfortunately, the designs of our sacred spaces are terribly horizontal and neglect the vertical aspects of prayerful transcendence that is part of all of our Catholic rituals. The trend to incorporate secular design, making them utilitarian spaces rather than Temples of God’s Presence should be a critical concern for Catholics. Catholic Churches in addition to providing a physical place for worship need to reflect the traditions that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the focal point of our sacred spaces. Far too often, design of the actual building has resulted in disregard of our Catholic sacred rituals. Modern design often neglects the requirements of the Sacred Liturgy and disregards the need of the worshiping Church in favor of considerations of HVAC and mechanical considerations.
The Catholic Church is constantly developing in our theological applications of form and function. The liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council are now considered part of the entire living liturgical development that joins the traditions of old rituals and devotions as part of our heritage of artistic expression and faith. Artists and craftsmen, architects and faithful need to appreciate not only the pragmatic functions of quality design, but most importantly design that is rooted in liturgical worship and not architectural utilitarianism.
Hopefully, all of the people involved in the artistic and architectural design of our Catholic Churches appreciate the rich heritage of our Catholic liturgy. Every effort really needs to be made to incorporate the great traditions of the past, along with the genre of the present as the artistic expression of our Catholic understanding of faith seeking knowledge.