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Ugly Churches and Modern Day Iconoclasm

March 26, AD2017 23 Comments

cathedralRecently, my wife and I had to attend Mass at a different church outside of our diocese. Now I’ve walked into some ugly Catholic churches before, but this one stood out in its preeminent blandness. The church was basically a holdover from the proponents of a neo-iconoclasm, something which had been originally condemned as heretical over a millennium ago. Why was I seeing such a naked church in the 21st century?

Of course, the church was built around 30 years ago, so the somewhat clandestine revival of iconoclasm was obviously a thing in the years and decades following the Second Vatican Council. But let’s not forget that the Council never called for such ugly and white washed houses of worship to be constructed.

The first thing I noticed was that the tabernacle was not located behind the small, wooden desk-like altar. In fact, I never did figure out where the tabernacle was. I also noticed there were no images whatsoever in the church proper, except some technicolor banners above the altar showing random people looking up at what appeared to be the Lamb of God. But there were no statues anywhere, no stained glass windows, and no images or pictures for veneration unless they were tucked away in some corner. The church looked more like an auditorium or a lodge than a house of worship where God was truly present. The plain and sprawling lackluster brick wall that encompassed the entire interior of the building did nothing to direct our thoughts to that of heavenly things.

Worst of all, there was not a single image to be found of our Lord’s Passion in either the nave or the sanctuary. In addition, there were no visible Stations of the Cross in the nave. Oftentimes, I’ll at least see a little crucifix sitting on the altar. Not at this parish. There was a giant cross, sans corpus, hanging suspended from the ceiling, about five rows into where the congregation was seated. The crucifix that was used to process into the church wasn’t even a crucifix at all, but one of those ridiculous “resurrfixes”, where our resurrected Lord has His hands outstretched with the cross behind Him. At no time during the Sacrifice of the Mass could one even focus on an image of Jesus’ Passion, the singular most important moment in human history.

Now, through the progression of this Mass, I soon realized a couple things. First, as a parent, I in good conscience, could never submit to willingly bringing my children to this parish for regular worship. If I was a three or four years old and had walked into this building, I would have no way to differentiate it between a lodge or hall. If a church is supposed to house the Holy of Holies, should we not give our best for Christ instead of some banal brick wall featuring no references to the rich traditions, or holy men and women, which came before us in our Catholic faith? It would be hard for anyone who had not yet embraced Catholic Christianity, walking into a church such as this, to declare what St. Vladimir of Kiev’s men said )after entering a church in Greece:

“…they took us where they worship their God, and we do not know whether we were in heaven or upon earth, for there is not upon earth such sight or beauty. We were perplexed, but this much we know that there God lives among men…”

Sacred art is a fundamental factor in instructing the faithful in their knowledge of revelation, revitalizing and cultivating their faith. Pope St. John Paul II, agrees in his 1999 letter to artists :

“Believers above all have gained from [the occasions the biblical word has become image] in their experience of prayer and Christian living. Indeed for many of them, in times when few could read or write, representations of the Bible were a concrete mode of catechesis.”

As a parent, I try to teach my children about the Catholic faith, and as they cannot read yet, their instruction and catechesis come in large part through these images. This type of catechesis will continue for a few more years still, as I describe in detail the images they are seeing. I often point out to them the images adorned throughout the parishes we regularly attend. “There is your Mother”, I tell my son when I point to a statue depicting the Virgin Mary. “Here’s your Lord Jesus, your friend. Why don’t you give Him a kiss?” I say to my son, when at a Byzantine Catholic parish. I then show him how to venerate an image of our Lord. But at the parish in question, there would be no way I could do this. The Gospel was not told in pictures anywhere; most assuredly, this is a disservice to any young or illiterate Catholic that attends this parish. That also goes for those who are on a journey of conversion. Nowhere can they see images of the life of Christ. Instead, they are subjected to a white-washed, sterile, and desolate landscape where one could hardly tell that Jesus Christ is worshiped there.

Second, as I tried to focus more on the Mass, a thought kept popping into my head: iconoclasm was condemned as heresy for good reason. It was denounced at the Second Council of Nicaea, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in 787. Among the canons that were issued  during this council:

“We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration (dulia). Certainly, this is not the full adoration [or real worship] (latria) in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature… Further, people are drawn to honor these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honor paid to the image is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.

“Therefore all those who dare to think or teach anything different, or who follow the accursed heretics in rejecting ecclesiastical traditions, or who devise innovations, or who spurn anything entrusted to the church (whether it be the Gospel or the figure of the cross or any example of representational art or any martyr’s holy relic), or who fabricate perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing any of the lawful traditions of the Catholic Church, or who secularize the sacred objects and saintly monasteries, we order that they be suspended if they are bishops or clerics, and excommunicated if they are monks or lay people.”

Some strong words for those that would wish to sweep this pious custom and tradition under the rug, but necessary words nonetheless. Now before anyone tries to claim that the canons from that council are irrelevant as it was held over 1000 years ago, let me give a reminder that the Church is a living Body. Doctrine develops. Our understanding of Sacred Tradition and smaller traditions develop as well. While referring more specifically to the Ordinary Form of the Mass in relation to the Extraordinary Form, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s words in his Apostolic Letter, Summorum Pontificum (Of the Supreme Pontiffs), regarding the Church’s Tradition are apt in this matter as well:

“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.  It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”

Pope Benedict also comments more directly on the great effect sacred imagery has on the soul, in his presentation of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2005:

“Works of art always ‘speak’, at least implicitly, of the divine, of the infinite beauty of God, reflected in the Icon par excellence: Christ the Lord, the Image of the invisible God.

“Sacred images, with their beauty, are also a Gospel proclamation and express the splendor of the Catholic truth, illustrating the supreme harmony between the good and the beautiful… While they witness to the age-old and fruitful tradition of Christian art, they urge one and all, believers and non-believers alike, to discover and contemplate the inexhaustible fascination of the mystery of Redemption, giving an ever new impulse to the lively process of its inculturation in time.”

Images are a part of our tradition. There are those in the past 50 years who have hijacked what the Council Fathers had intended, with a false “Spirit of Vatican II”. We cannot all of a sudden discard our venerable traditions, especially ones that aid in our prayer, worship, and catechesis.
Who decided that there should be no illustration presenting the harmony between the ultimate Good and the beautiful? Hopefully, we have not completely forgotten that humans are a visual people.

In an essay entitled The Beauty of Holiness: Sacred Art and the New Evangelization, written by author Dr. Jem Sullivan,  we can see just exactly what being a “visual people” means, especially in the 21st-century world we live in:

“The diminishing role and place of Christian art in liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization has occurred precisely at the moment when popular media culture, in content and medium, has become increasingly sensory and visual. Everyday life is infused with images, words and sounds aimed at engaging the mind, will, senses and emotions, while the daily or weekly experience of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization is often bereft of beauty. While the surrounding culture appeals constantly to visual and sensory experiences, the place and role of sensory expressions of faith within the Christian community have decreased significantly. 

“This sensory dissonance offers one among many challenges for the new evangelization. For clearly the sensory dissonance between the immersive experience of a visual culture on the one hand, and the Church’s life of faith on the other, touches the very heart of the Church’s mission to evangelize the culture.” 

We know how much millennials like to look at their iPhone, tablets, and other devices. They are inundated with images. That is what such people are used to; a bombardment of images and graphics that they interact with every day. Why have them stop once they come inside a modern parish?

As can plainly be seen, the tradition of beautiful art in the Church, whether it’s imagery, architecture, or even music, provides an excellent way to give glory to God and to bring others closer to Him. In closing, let’s reflect on the valuable insight given by Pope Benedict in his Introduction to the Compendium of the Catechism:

“The centuries-old conciliar tradition teaches us that images are also a preaching of the Gospel.  Artists in every age have offered the principal facts of the mystery of salvation to the contemplation and wonder of believers by presenting them in the splendor of color and in the perfection of beauty. It is an indication of how today more than ever, in a culture of images, a sacred image can express much more than what can be said in words, and be an extremely effective and dynamic way of communicating the Gospel message.”

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Nicholas is 20-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet's monthly magazine, "Christ Is Our Hope".

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