How Beauty Can Renew the Catholic Church

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Deal W. Hudson
January 22, 2009

The criticism of a recent column, “My New Year’s Wish for the Church,” forced me to think more deeply about the road to renewal in the Catholic Church. Several readers argued I was forcing Evangelical habits on a Catholic parish.

Of course, I would still insist that Catholics need to be more welcoming to each other and to parish visitors. But the key to Catholic renewal is found elsewhere, at the heart of what it means to practice the Faith.

In my earlier column, I spoke about the lack of “connectedness” that many non-practicing Catholics report when they are asked why they have stopped attending Mass. I limited my interpretation of this to their sense of rapport with other worshippers – that is, I think, what elicited the criticism. It gave the impression that Catholics should primarily nurture an emotional connection among the members of the parish community to evangelize. Personal recognition is a good thing, but it is not the primary thing, at least among Catholics.

So what makes Catholics distinctive among other Christian groups? Certainly, papal primacy, the authority of bishops and priests, the universality of the Church, and the meaning of sacraments are among the most important. Of the sacraments, our belief in the “real presence” of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist not only distinguishes us doctrinally but liturgically as well. When a Catholic comes to Mass, his expectation – the one foremost in his mind – should be this real encounter with Christ in the Eucharist. If this encounter with His presence lacks vibrancy – if it has the ho-hum quality of required ritual – then renewal is the antidote.

How is this vitality recovered? This is where I think the “logic” of being Catholic sends us on a different course than that followed by other faith groups. There is the tendency to assume this renewal should be summoned up from within, based upon prayer, rosaries, or some sort of spiritual exercises. These are all good to do, of course, but that leaves aside the most obvious place to look for renewal: the liturgy itself.

Let me offer the following example: Have you ever prayed in a great cathedral when the organ was playing or the choir was singing a Gregorian chant, a Mass by one of the Renaissance greats – Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, or Byrd – or some form of music that moved you? Did you find it easier to pray? Did you find yourself going deeper, praying longer, and rising to leave with a rare sense of joy at having been on your knees?

I know that the local parish is rarely a great cathedral or even a building of architectural distinction, and I know that most parish choirs are not schooled in either chant or Renaissance polyphony. But, I would ask, how much effort are we, both laity and religious, putting into the beauty of our liturgy? After all, isn’t it the beauty of the music, architecture, stained glass, images, homily, and the liturgical gestures that engage our senses and focus our minds on divine things?

In 2002, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger delivered a sermon, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” where he said:

[T]he most convincing demonstration of [faith’s] truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.

How much lost “connectedness” would be recovered if more attention were paid to encounters with “the Beautiful” in the liturgy so that it was never perfunctory, listless, or offensive to the ear and eye?

Don’t misunderstand me. Beauty in the liturgy isn’t just a matter of better music and homilies; it requires its proper form (i.e., rubrics) as prescribed by the Church.

In a later column, I will argue that the beauty of the liturgy, emanating from the Eucharistic sacrifice, has been marred by misguided liturgical improvisation. Dumbed-down liturgies have only increased the distance many Catholics feel from their Church, whatever their good intentions.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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