For quite sometime now our parish churches have come to look more and more like meeting houses, protestant churches, and many of the new churches being built seem to have little resemblance to the churches built before the 50's and 60's, or even a resemblance to a house of worship.
In another post, I more or less lamented the fact that liturgical music has not made the grade of being spiritually uplifting. Through these new "songs of praise and worship" that have taken the commanding lead over traditional forms of chants and hymns, the secular world has invaded our 'spiritual' space in Mass. I meant that. What I didn't mention was that along with the changes of liturgical music in the past forty years or so, what we see, or don't see in our churches has also changed.
Many Catholic churches today have little to distinguish them from other, non-catholic churches except for that one, lone crucifix that stands behind the alter. At times, that cross is just that, a bare cross: no corpus. It seems to me that we are afraid of displaying our Catholicism to the world. Why? Are we afraid of being seen as different than other Christian denominations? Well...we are different.
Our churches, once filled with icons of the divine, statues of saints and biblical personages, have been all but stripped bare. Before a non-catholic accuses me of worshiping a graven image, I would ask them to show me a picture of their family, children, or spouse and ask them if they worship those pictures...no? Neither do I worship these statues and icons, nor did the ancient Hebrews, with the seraphs adorning the Ark of the Covenant, or the bronze serpent held aloft in the desert so that those who were bitten by serpents could look at the bronze serpent and be healed or the seraphs that also adorned the ancient Hebrew temples. All at the command of God. None of these images were worshiped. Obviously, the interpretation concerning graven images should have been left to the Church and the Holy Spirit, and not to an individual's interpretation, for that would have saved us a lot of grief over the last 500 years or so.
In my own parish, our church is quite new. It was built about eight years ago to accommodate the large influx of people attending Mass on the weekends after the closing of several parishes around our area. St. Charles was to be and is considered the 'central' parish for the area. It now holds about 700 people at one Mass. The idea of St. Charles being the 'main' church in our area seems to have taken hold and more and more people are now coming.
The church is attractive in the modern sense. It may not have the particular high arches of stone of the Romanesque, but it does reflect this style with large expanses of sweeping arches made of wood. The stained glass came from our old church and were only about five years old when the new church was built, so the decision was made to incorporate the 'old' stained glass into the new church. It worked. These windows are not the generic, hippie dippy designs of the last forty years where you sat in your pew wondering what scene the window represented or if it depicted anything at all. These windows were exquisitely designed and built in the traditional manner of old and clearly depicts gospel scenes that are easily recognized. Yet, other than these windows, the main crucifix behind the alter, and the stations of the cross around the walls, handmade by a former woodworking pastor, there really isn't anything else at all to show the former glory of the churches past. Then changes began...slowly.
It was announced one morning at Mass that, over to our left, near the far wall, was a new statue of the Holy Family. It was sculpted almost life size from some sort of white 'stone' or material that to me suggested marble. It was beautiful. It was NOT done in an abstract style as so many pieces of art are today, trying to pass as 'sacred' art. It looked real, alive and you can see the time and skill that the sculptor put into sculpting this piece. Then something else a few months later popped up...
On another Sunday morning, I entered the church and in the huge narthex there was a six foot tall image of Our Lady of Guadeloupe hanging high above the sanctuary doors, front and center. On one of the side walls there was also a hand-painted portrait of our patron saint, St. Charles. It brought this whole entrance to the church, the narthex, a big step closer to heaven. Then two weeks ago...it happened again. Once Mass was over, I turned to walk back out down the center aisle of the church, and high above the exit doors I had just entered, were two beautiful icons, large, painted with vibrant colors that one sees in Orthodox Churches.
St. Charles parish church is becoming more of the Catholic church that I, and the millions more before me throughout the ages in other churches, knew, grew up with and loved. Perhaps along with the new Mass translations, these other changes in our art and music cannot help but follow suit. To deny our senses of the mystery and holiness of heaven in good, sacred music and divinely inspired art, is to deny our humanity and creativity: the need of humanity to incorporate its whole being in the worship of God at Mass, and that includes our senses. When we die, our soul leaves the body for it is immortal, yet that is not the end. The Resurrection proved that. Our bodies will rise again as did Jesus. Without the body, we cannot be what we were created to be, fully human; body and soul. And that includes our eyes and ears.