This is the latest column from Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, reprinted from the Southern Nebraska Register.
There are times when words cannot express the profound meaning of a moment; when silence is the only appropriate response to beauty. Times when the heart is moved in contemplation, in adoration, in wonder, and nothing at all needs to be said.
It was extraordinary to kneel in silence with nearly 20,000 young pilgrims inside the Tauran Arena (temporarily renamed the Mercy Centre), the English-speaking venue for catechesis at World Youth Day in Krakow. To watch as young people spoke silently to the Lord. To see thousands of young people transfixed, in awe and humility, on the mystery of God, made present in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I won’t soon forget that experience. And I won’t soon forget the power of beauty in the sacred liturgy in that arena.
The sacred liturgy at World Youth Day, organized for English-speakers by Polish and American Dominican friars, was an experience of beauty that touched my heart beyond my expectations. I have long known that sacred liturgy is an experience of wonder, as Pope Francis has described so often: a moment “to enter into the mystery of God, to allow ourselves to be brought to the mystery, and to be in the mystery.” But in Poland, I experienced thousands of young people entering into the mystery of God, through the power of beautiful liturgy.
At World Youth Day, I was reminded how powerfully sacred worship can transform our hearts.
The Church teaches that the beauty of sacred worship can lead Catholics to encounter Christ in a direct and immediate way, and can help us to offer fitting worship to God, and through him. By encountering Christ in beautiful liturgy, we are sanctified, filled with heavenly grace, and made icons of the beauty of Christ. When we participate in the sacred liturgy, we are enabled to live beautiful lives—not only for ourselves, but so that we can bring the beauty and radiance of Christ to the world around us.
At World Youth Day in Poland thousands of pilgrims encountered Christ in sacred and beautiful liturgy. The organizers of World Youth Day’s English liturgies said that their goal was to express that “the Mystery of God is always ahead of us, approached but never comprehended.” Worship of the Mystery of God, they said, should call us to “fundamental humility.”
Worship calls us to fundamental humility, and brings us into communion with the Most Holy Trinity, when it is ordered, and reverent, and beautiful. Worship calls us into communion with God when it helps us become “open to the vastness of God,” expressing “the deepest human yearning for the Mystery of Love.”
Pope Benedict says that worship transforms our lives when, through it, we are “struck by the arrow of Beauty… struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ.”
Sacred worship, celebrated according to the customs, guidance, and rich tradition of the Church, can lead us to encounter Christ, approach him in humility, and offer him our lives, in union with his offering on the cross, and the sacred offering of Holy Mass. Beauty gives way to contemplation. And the beautiful music of the Church’s tradition gives us a pathway to completing the mystery of God.
When we are moved by the beauty of sacred liturgy to offer our lives in union with Christ, the Lord invites us to be transformed by the Eucharist, and, as the Dominican friars of World Youth Day said, be “transformed by the Eternal beauty of God himself.”
In some places, the importance of beauty in sacred worship has been lost. Some are fearful that if musical styles are unfamiliar, they will be an impediment to participation in the Mass. Some are concerned that if Mass is not entertaining and stimulating, it will not capture people’s attention. Some believe that to be “relevant,” the music of the Mass must mirror what we hear on the radio, or what we’ve grown up with. But the Mass is an entry point into a sacred moment: a true entryway into the living presence of God. If it seems unfamiliar, it is because the mystery of God is unfamiliar. If it is not entertaining, it is because the satisfaction God gives runs much deeper than entertainment.
The Dominican Friars in Krakow reminded young people, in the worship aid prepared for each day’s liturgy, that first and foremost, the liturgy “is all about God, and He’s a mystery.”
The polyphonies, and chants, and antiphons sung at World Youth Day were unfamiliar to many pilgrims. But they became familiar, because the ancient music of the Church is easy to learn, and easy to contemplate. And the Church’s beautiful liturgy transformed the hearts of young people, because it reflected the beauty of God. My heart was struck by that beauty. And I became convinced, more now than ever before, that beauty is “ever ancient, and ever new,” it speaks to us all, no matter our formation or circumstances, because it speaks with the beauty of God.
May each of us experience the beauty of the Most Holy Trinity in the profound, vast, and sanctifying beauty of sacred liturgy.
SNR photo by Kevin Clark