In my college years, I worked with a company that built and serviced pipe organs around the Washington, D.C. area. During those years I probably entered some 300 different churches both Catholic and Protestant.
Of course, as a Catholic, I particularly loved going to the Catholic churches. I especially loved visiting the older city parishes that were built back before the revolution. I had grown up in the suburbs, where almost every church was built after 1955, when church building took a decided turn for the worse. In vogue were ugly, bland, beige buildings with carpeted floors and potted plants. A plain wooden table and two candlesticks were the altar. There were almost no statues, and rather than a crucifix, that strange 70s invention known as the “resurrected Christ” was on the walls floating in midair with his hands extended. Maybe there was a cross behind him…maybe, but he certainly wasn’t nailed to the cross. “We are resurrection people,” was the inevitable response to those of us who wondered aloud what ever happened to the very Catholic crucifix.
So there I was, a young man in my early 20s, toolbox in hand, come to tune and service a pipe organ. I would walk into one of those beautiful, old, city parishes with their soaring ceilings. More often than not, it was ornately decorated with carved stations of the cross, stained-glass windows, high altars made of marble and carved wood, statues, and burning candles. I could even smell the candles and the incense.
Every now and again I’d walk into an old church and be gravely disappointed. Someone had “wreckovated” it: painted its beautiful walls beige, demolished its altars, turned its pews sideways, and carpeted its terrazzo floors. “Such a tragedy,” I thought.
No one really taught me to think this way, to prefer old churches. My parents were not all that traditional in terms of Catholicism. Somehow I just “felt” the magnificence of beauty in my bones. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the human person is wired for beauty. Somehow we innately appreciate symmetry, proportion, and order.
Once we’ve seen beauty, it’s hard to get it out of our system. Having grown up in the suburbs with their sterile churches, I was largely unaware of beautiful old churches. Yet in my early 20s, as I walked into many of them, some of them with a faded glory, so many of them wonderful to behold, I was struck by their beauty. And I’ve never gotten it out of my system. But of course, I’m not supposed to. Having seen beauty, I am meant to be drawn to it and to its beautiful message.
So in my mid 20s, my questions began to grow. What had happened? Why did we set aside such beauty? Why had we destroyed some of the beautiful things we already had?
One day I asked an older priest why so much had been discarded by the priests of his time. I thought I’d get a straight answer from him, because he had been one of those priests who reveled in all things new, yet later came to regret that many wonderful things had been discarded and lost.
I paraphrase the answer he gave in the first person. May he rest in peace (he died some years ago). I remember his words well, and he said something like this:
I think I need to say that we really thought we were doing the right thing. Many of us had grown greatly concerned that the Catholic Church was no longer able to speak to the modern age—an age that was becoming increasingly sophisticated, scientific, etc. Increasing numbers of people had college degrees and demanded that faith speak to the intellectual and social issues of the day. But despite this need, we were still running churches that catered to a peasant and immigrant community. We were hunkered down in Catholic ghettos. The Catholic Church was increasingly identified with poor old immigrant women kneeling before statues, lighting candles, and fumbling with beads. Yes, our schools were full, but our children weren’t being “prepared for the future.”
It was thought to be a time that we had come of age in America. Science had reached new heights. There was talk of going to space; we had split the atom; computers and televisions were entering onto the scene.
Meanwhile, in our churches we were chanting in ancient languages and reciting old formulas. Many of us desperately thought this had to change if the church was ever to survive and be able to speak to the modern age. It’s funny that we didn’t turn to our own intellectual tradition. St. Thomas, St. Anselm, St. Augustine, and so many wonderful Church Fathers and Doctors had developed a rigorous intellectual tradition in the Church. Even still, all this seemed to us so “old-fashioned,” and the stuff of dusty old books.
A popular book from that time, “A Catholic Priest Looks At His Outdated Church,” articulated our many concerns for a Church that was out of touch with the modern world.
Regarding architecture, remember that Art Deco and other streamlined forms were very popular in the 50s. The phrase, “sleek and modern,” comes to mind. Straight lines and functional design were all the rage. But our churches pointed back to flourishes and excesses of what many people considered “myths” of a previous time. Why should we keep running to St. Blase to bless throats when modern medicine has more to offer? Did priests really have more to offer us by way of counsel than Sigmund Freud and other modern psychotherapists? Who needs exorcism when you have psychotherapy? Was not our time mumbling on beads better spent with social action?
Yes, we were desperately afraid that the Church was frozen in time, while the modern age was moving forward at the speed of light.
So we thought we were doing the right thing. Updating was essential if the Church was to survive and be able to speak to the modern age. We started gutting and simplifying churches to make them look “sleek and modern.” We started demanding more vernacular in the Liturgy and in the celebration of the Sacraments. English was common in the Sacraments long before Vatican II. Baptisms and weddings were conducted almost wholly in English as early as the 50s.
For most of us, changes like these couldn’t come fast enough. How could we appeal to the new, young college “jet set,” to those were going to school on the G.I. Bill? How could we ever appeal to a young, intellectual crowd while running old-fashioned, peasant churches, reciting “old myths,” novenas, legends of the Saints, and catechetical formulas?
And so we ushered in our little revolution, convinced that we were doing the right thing, convinced that this would save the Church from irrelevance in the modern, scientific, intellectual, and supposedly-sophisticated age.
Remember the times! We were building the interstate highway system; we had just introduced television; there were scientists in lab coats seen everywhere, and computers were entering on the scene. We were planning to go to the moon by the early 60s! Yes, we thought we had come of age. If it was old it was bad, but if it was new it was good.
So, when the cry for “aggiornamento” (modernization) went out, the foundation for this phrase had been laid more than a decade before. Whatever the Pope meant, most of us in the trenches heard, “out with the old, in with the new!”
That was Father’s answer to me. I appreciated it, first of all because I trusted him; he was no rebel. He had come to see many erroneous insights for what they were. But he did at least have this testimony: that many who undertook the revolutionary cry did not do so with malice. They thought they were doing the right thing.
Let me be clear, dear reader: I do not write these reflections as a complete repudiation of any updating or changes that occurred back in the 60s and 70s. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church is always to be reformed). Yet most of us looking back on that time do not see just a few minor updates, but rather a great rupture in the hermeneutic of continuity. And the rupture was about far more than just art and architecture. It was about the shredding and scrapping of time-tested theological teachings in favor of trendy sociological and psychological substitutes, questionable moral philosophies, dubious Scriptural theories, and the like. It was about open disobedience to liturgical norms and the casting aside of our spiritual traditions in favor of far-Eastern and other non-Christian philosophies.
It is one thing to make necessary adjustments, for example as language changes and our terms need adjusting. Further, as new avenues emerge for evangelization (such as the Internet and social media), we ought to use them.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, considered by most as a conservative, was actually quite cutting-edge as he exploited a new medium called television. But he combined age-old wisdom with modern forms of communication.
Too many of us in the Church have not gotten this balance right, and in favoring the new we discarded the old. We have not been like that wise man our Lord Jesus praised: Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old. (Matt 13:52)
I do not argue here for a wholesale return to the “old days” or to an exclusively Latin Liturgy. My first concern remains those who demand we change our doctrine to suit the times. We cannot. Liturgical debates and changes permit some leeway, but not the doctrines and solemn moral teachings of the Church.
Even today, there are far too many in the Church who want to go on making the mistakes described above by my older priest friend. How desperately they want the Church to adapt to the modern age by discarding the received doctrine, tradition, and wisdom of God. Too many would have us reflect the modern age, rather than Christ. In order for the Church to be “welcoming,” modern, and sophisticated, they believe we must succumb to worldly demands that we “cave” on many issues related to marriage, sexuality, respect for life, and Church authority and governance. The Church cannot survive, they say, unless we make these sorts of changes.
Never mind that denominations that have done just this (such as the Episcopalians and many branches of the Lutherans and Methodists) have suffered far worse declines than we have. Still, many insist that we must better reflect the modern “wisdom” of the modern age in order to appeal to it.
But really, have we not learned at this point that seeking a rapprochement with the world only ends in the further erosion of the Church and the ultimate impoverishment of the world? Our modern world is in a mess, in darkness, because we have failed to be what we are supposed to be—a light in the midst of darkness and a sign that is often contradicted.
It is not the job of the Church to be popular, to reflect the thoughts of the times, or to parrot worldly “wisdom.” It is the job of the Church to reflect the views of her founder and head, Jesus Christ, who speaks in the Scriptures and through the sacred Tradition he handed down to us. It is not our job to be appealing, or even numerous. It is our work to proclaim that which has been received, whether in season or out-of-season.
In the Sunday readings of the past two weeks, St. Paul has also hammered away at this theme. He calls us to remember that we live in a world that is arrayed against God’s wisdom, that mocks and ridicules it. If we are configured to Christ and his Cross, we will often be called fools. But as St. Paul writes, the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.
Those who come to God’s house do not need another voice to parrot the same thing they hear from the news anchors, the talking heads, or the University intellectuals. What the world needs, and what every Catholic needs when he comes into the Catholic Church, is someone who speaks God’s wisdom. The world will often called this foolishness, call it out of touch, backward, intolerant, bigoted, or homophobic. But we speak the wisdom of God.
To conclude, here are some reminders of what Paul has been teaching us in the sacred Liturgy these last three weeks:
- For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:18-25)
- Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness” ; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” So then, no more boasting about human leaders! (1 Cor 3:18-21)
- But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor 3:27-29)