Advice to Pastors on Preserving a Legacy of Artistic Expression

How do pastors convey the rich meanings of Catholic sacred art to a congregation naïve of religious visual language?

Our Secularized Scene

Not long ago, while wending my way through the collection of paintings from medieval Europe at a major metropolitan museum, I came upon a conversation between a boy and his parents that struck me as reflecting the sad state of religio-cultural literacy in this country. The boy, who’d dutifully studied the figures depicted in a dozen or so crucifixion scenes, adorations, and images of Christ in majesty began first to pester his mother as she struggled with his younger sister’s baby stroller. “How come all the people have circles on their heads?” he asked, loudly enough to be heard throughout the gallery in which we found ourselves nearly alone. Overhearing the question, I stopped in my tracks and waited for his mother to respond with a simple explanation of what haloes signify in Western art. Just decades ago, after all, one could assume that the boy’s perfectly innocent query might have elicited at least a basic explanation of why religious pictures in the West look the way they do. Studies suggest that neither the little boy nor his mother, even if they should identify themselves as Christian, are likely today to share extensive knowledge of the history of their faith tradition, let alone the history of Christian art. It became clear to me that this was indeed the case when, dumbfounded, the mother responded to her son with an, “I dunno, ask your dad!” She seemed to await an answer herself as to why the subjects who populate Christian paintings appeared always to be walking the streets of ancient Jerusalem or floating weightlessly above some heavenly plane with gold-plated Frisbees attached to the backs of their heads. Unfortunately, the woman’s husband was no better prepared to solve the “halo conundrum” and with a somewhat dismissive “No clue!” simply ushered his little family into an adjacent Renaissance Room, where the Frisbee-wearing was reduced by half.

I wasn’t at all surprised by the conversation to which I’d just been privy. Having taught university-level courses in both art history and theology for nearly thirty-five years, I’d witnessed a gradual decline in young people’s knowledge of both the form and the content of Western Christianity. Toward the latter half of my career, for example, no classroom examination of a masterpiece like Michelangelo’s David could begin without me first apprising students of the fact that the sculpture’s subject was drawn from an Old Testament story — one, apparently, to which few had been introduced at any time previously in their education. Though bound together for centuries by that part of the Western imagination intent on drawing wisdom from the past, both David and his famous advisory, Goliath, were as absent from their historical consciousness as, say, Plato and Aristotle, Lewis and Clark or the Wright brothers. So lacking was students’ knowledge of what scripture scholar Raymond Brown (1928-98) liked to call “inspired history,” in fact, that the same could be said of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, — even Mary and Joseph — though most could place the latter in some vague way at the center of the Christmas narrative.

An Unanticipated Challenge

The decline in the culture’s familiarity with longstanding religious themes and practices is not limited to the academic classroom, of course. Indeed, one of the largely unanticipated results of the nation’s drift toward greater secularization is that the popular audience for symphonic and choral music, for theater, literature, dance — as well as the visual arts — is nowadays less able than its predecessors to appreciate in the fullest sense the masterworks in each genre that comprise the long record of Judeo-Christian artistic achievement. Likewise, it may be argued that artists at all levels to whom we now entrust preservation of the largely religion-based deposit of Western art — products themselves of a culture increasingly disassociated from religious observance of any kind — are less inclined to exhibit a personal, affective or even spiritual connection to patrimony in their care than a facility with the material that is strictly technical. A collegiate choir director-friend of mine who’d arranged to have his singers do some Christmas caroling, for example, lamented to me recently that few of his young singers knew even the first line of any of the hymns and carols long connected with the season.

In a country where roughly a quarter of the populace now claims no religious affiliation at all, religion has ceased for many to be a starting point toward appreciation for the arts. Instead, art has become their entrée to religion.

Many in a Catholic campus ministry staff with which I’m familiar expressed similar concerns after commissioning a stained-glass artist to fabricate new windows for the collegiate chapel where they oversaw daily celebrations of the Eucharist. Though recognized regionally for the quality of his colorful, free-form creations, the individual they hired was largely untrained in the conventions of ecclesiastical art-glass, including those likely to be received most favorably by assemblies of Catholic worshipers. He also was by no means a “church-goer” himself and openly expressed little affinity for the rules and rites of the Catholic Church. The man had been engaged partly on the strength of his reputation as a craftsman open to stretching the limits of his medium. What he’d bring to the project, the ministry team hoped, was an experimental spirit free of presuppositions about what religious art ought to look like. When unveiled, unfortunately, his windows met with criticism from many in the academic community confused by their highly abstracted treatment of subjects ranging from the annunciation to the crucifixion. Though the works fulfilled any objective standard of artistic quality, they clearly retained too few of the features traditionally associated with Catholic art to meet the needs of their immediate and most important recipients.

Hoping to avoid similar missteps by parish communities today throughout the country undertaking large-scale church-building or renovation projects, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, through its guidelines on art and architecture, acknowledges the value of so-called “liturgical consultants” (Built of Living Stones, 199-200), design professionals knowledgeable of the spatial and aesthetic requirements of sacred worship whose functioning within the Church is a relatively recent phenomenon. Such persons were virtually unheard of prior to implementation of the liturgical reforms of the 1960s, when architectural firms and parish bodies alike scurried to revise practices on which they’d relied for decades. The bishops define the role of such consultants as partly catechetical. Their task is to educate whole parish bodies and the architects they employ on the special demands the liturgy makes of its architectural setting (Built of Living Stones, 200). In so doing, shepherds of the Church, appear to be admitting at least some measure of inadequacy today in the liturgical fluency of their flock and in the practical training of those who provide them architectural services.

There was a time, of course, when religion was a means by which Roman Catholics and others in the United States gained an appreciation for the art of the wider culture in which they moved. One thinks immediately in this regard of the way that music and architecture for worship helped shape the aesthetic sensibilities of immigrant Christians and Jews from Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. The church building or synagogue was a classroom for the senses as much as for the mind and soul, a place where the kinship of beauty and holiness found expression in forms that couldn’t help but be affected by the artistic currents of the day. Exposure to religion as a young Christian or Jew, even if it should rely on what some regarded mere “peasant art,” was an entrée to the more elevated pretentions of the secular gallery scene, concert hall or stage. One’s spiritual formation preceded one’s immersion in the aesthetic.

So it was, for example, that Catholic parochial schoolchildren of the 1930s, who’d come to know a little about Romanesque or Gothic architecture, the paintings of the Renaissance masters or the beauty of liturgical vestments and vessels of the Baroque Era through a workbook series published by the Mentzer, Bush & Company titled Art Education Through Religion (1930), could later claim while vacationing abroad as adults that the whole of European art seemed somehow to be the province of their Church. Sixty years later, their grandchildren could make the same boast should their art education in a parish school be augmented by the contents of Art Through Faith (1996), a lavishly-illustrated catalog of paintings, sculpture, and architecture in the service of the Church issued by Seton Press. Christian children of other denominations and their Jewish counterparts educated by the nation’s public schools likewise gained at least some appreciation of the fine arts, especially music, through the various, religiously-themed pageants and stage performances that once punctuated their academic year. To this was added contact in church-and temple-schools with large portions of Scripture read aloud with the authority of polished sermonizing or sung in metered time from hymnals as thick and timeless-looking as any bible. Lending libraries with recordings of poetry-reading, sacred music, and gallery-like facilities filled with art of a representational style prohibited from the synagogue proper were often accessible to Jewish children. Their Sabbath mornings were devoted to learning from rabbi and cantor how to intone the Torah’s ancient texts in Hebrew. To be sure, sectarianism could sometimes blemish the nation’s religious landscape, but, in general, religion itself was regarded a positive force in American society and the bearer of much that was not only good and true, but also beautiful.

Today, it would seem, the tables have been turned. In a country where roughly a quarter of the populace now claims no religious affiliation at all, religion has ceased for many to be a starting point toward appreciation for the arts. Instead, art has become their entrée to religion. This is certainly the case in our public-schools, where teachers, warier than ever to remain neutral on the matter of human spirituality, are encouraged to employ the arts to illustrate the more ethereal aspects of one religion or another. A Teachers Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, published jointly in 2008 by the Tennessee Education Association and the Washington, DC-based First Amendment Center, for example, notes that “art, drama, music or literature with religious themes” should be incorporated into the lesson plans of those treating the topic in the classroom, but “only as examples of cultural or religious heritage.”1 A booklet entitled Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States issued in 2010 by the American Academy of Religion likewise prescribes a “Cultural Studies Approach” to religion in the higher grades built on the works of authors and artists illustrating how religious values become “embedded” in societies.2

Implications and Recommendation for Catholic Pastors

For the Catholic pastor committed to the ongoing catechesis of his parishioners and preservation of the Church’s artistic tradition, the challenges described here may seem daunting. “It’s hard enough to present the fullness of the faith to my people,” a priest might think. “How do I begin to expose my parish community to the riches of sacred music, art and architecture, as well?” His problem is compounded by the deficiencies he may detect in the religious instruction of parishioners who came of age during the tumultuous decades in the Church that followed Vatican Council II (1962-65) and, generally, in the aesthetic awareness of those affected by recent funding cuts to arts education in parochial and public school systems alike. It is no more challenging, however, than what he is called to daily as a minister of the Church’s sacraments and as a dispenser of insights for his people into the proper circumstance of liturgical prayer, actions the bishops of Vatican II encouraged all clergy to undertake with “zeal and patience” (Sacrosanctum concilium, 19).

To help preserve the Church’s vast patrimony of art, architecture, music and literature from the forces threatening it today, pastors must be models of an aesthetical life that finds in beauty an entrée to the sacred.

As a liturgical consultant, designer, and educator who has worked hard for decades to raise the level of appreciation for the sacred arts in parishes across the country, I offer pastors these recommendations to help them:

1. Treat the artistic dimension of worship in your parish as a priority, not a luxury. It is a reality as important to the corporate prayer you offer God as any of the written texts you may offer from a liturgical book. In a sense, art and architecture are complementary texts, and music is the means by which words of praise and adoration take flight and assume a power truly able to affect the soul.

2. Treat your church building, no matter how modest, with the reverence you show any other liturgical vessel. Ciborium and chalice contain the body and blood of Christ in sacramental form. The building in which your parish worships is privileged to hold Christ’s Mystical Presence. It is a tabernacle for the ecclesial body of Christ.

3. The Church encourages parishes to seek “noble simplicity rather than ostentation” in the arts that serve their rites (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 292). Do not treat the liturgical environment as something that needs always to be “added to” by way of embellishment. Let the architectural setting for worship speak for itself at times, conveying to users the ways in which space, form and light alone can affect the attitudes of those who behold them.

4. Strive to read, sing, and move beautifully and with obvious deliberateness through every part of the Mass. There is a built-in poetry to Catholic ritual twenty centuries in the making, a special manner of behaving at prayer sometimes called Romanitá. We members of the Church of Rome have a special way of worshiping styled in part after the austere grandeur of Ancient Rome. The “Roman Way” in which worship unfolds in your parish, based less on spontaneous emotionality than formality and reserve, will distinguish it from the sort of “praise services” that are the allure of many other Christian denominations.

5. Consider augmenting the works of devotional art likely located throughout your church building with good quality paintings and sculpture — suitable for display in other places. These need not be religious “clichés” or images drawn strictly from well-known historical sources (Filling rectories and conference rooms with photo-mechanical facsimiles of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, for example, won’t necessarily deepen anyone’s understanding of the Eucharist). Offer your people encounters with both “high art” and “high Christology” that will stretch their religious imaginations.

6. Refer to examples of the Catholic arts in your homilies, including some from your own place of worship. Do not assume that your parishioners have absorbed the fullest meaning of a special sculpture or furnishing that has been part of your parish’s patrimony for years. Build upon each religious object’s ability to teach. Thoughtfully amplify it with care, being sure not to reduce any work of music, literature, visual art or architecture to mere propaganda.

Pastors remain the “chief liturgists” of their parishes, a role they perfect by ongoing commitment to the sanctity of worship. To help preserve the Church’s vast patrimony of art, architecture, music and literature from the forces threatening it today, they must likewise be models of an aesthetical life that finds in beauty an entrée to the sacred. Along with sacraments he must dispense sets of new eyes and ears, new ways for his parishioners to perceive the materiality of the world and in it discover reason to reverence the immaterial.


1 (art. 7; http://www.teateachers.org/sites/default/files/teachers-guide-religion.pdf).

2 Part 3. https://www.aarweb.org/sites/default/https://www.aarweb.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Publications/epublications/AARK-12 CurriculumGuidelines.pdf.


About Michael E. DeSanctis

Michael E. DeSanctis is Professor of Fine Arts and Theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as the director of its honors program. He serves as a design consultant to Catholic parishes involved in the construction or renovation of places of worship and has written for a number of publications, including Emmanuel.