Evangelization: Why does Beauty matter?

March 31, 2022  •   LPi

interiors and details of the Sistine Chapel

“To the hard of hearing you shout.”

When Fr. Connor Danstrom received his assignment to the St. John Paul II Newman Center in 2018, the building was fine. No major roof renovations were needed. No structural damage was present. The chapel in the building, used for Mass and other liturgical functions, was a classic mid-century modern interpretation: some light tan brickwork, carpet everywhere, a soft Resurrected Jesus raising his arms above the congregation. It was an adequate space.

The chapel sits amidst the stark concrete buildings of the University of Illinois-Chicago, a few steps from the university classrooms and hallways. The Newman Center’s community is a diverse segment of young Catholics — undergraduate and graduate alike gathering to meet, worship, and grow.

This past year, Fr. Danstrom arranged for a renovation of the chapel. The new crucifix now is surrounded by rich inlaid woodwork, framed by gold-foiled stenciling. Painted details, various marbles, and tile floors replace what came before. What used to be described as “cozy” has taken on a different feeling — now it is a reverent space of worship.

What was Fr. Danstrom’s inspiration? Why did he see it necessary to renovate something that was acceptably functional?

Fr. Danstrom’s first response to the posed question was a quote from Catholic American author Flannery O’Connor, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

“In these days,” Fr. Danstrom says, “when there are so many distractions, people need something attractive enough to make them put down their phones or turn off their music, so they can get out of themselves and encounter the Lord.”

The cardinal who celebrated the dedication Mass commented that everyone seemed movingly prayerful in their new space. The Newman Center staff has received positive verbal feedback and, more importantly, the vote of feet — more people are attending daily Mass and Sunday Mass in the renovated chapel than before.

Fr. Danstrom expounds that in every age, the church has surrounded the Eucharistic mystery with art and music — beautiful paintings! Soaring chapels! Exquisite compositions! He continues, “in a particular way, now it is so easy to mute the richness of the mystery and to forget what’s going on — treat church like a meeting room or a place to listen to a homily — but this is a place to encounter the triune God where he gives you his flesh to eat.”

Catholics have long referred to beauty as one of the transcendentals, along with goodness and truth, the ways that God reveals Himself to the world. Beautiful spaces, beautiful liturgy, beautiful music, all of these can lead to deeper prayer and relationship with God Himself, as distractions are lessened, and attentions are directed to something great and profound.

Evangelization Requires an Investment

Edmundo Reyes, Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Detroit, believes that “beauty is a pathway to God,” and that beauty can be used to evangelize, to invite others to an encounter with God.

“As Catholics we used to build beautiful Cathedrals,” he says, “we would invest significant resources and time because we believe that it’s good to honor God, and that beauty leads to Him. When you enter a beautiful Cathedral, your spirits are lifted.”

In a similar way, he says, we should want to lift people’s spirits through beautiful websites, inviting graphics, inspiring social media feeds, and lovely communications. Art, in its many forms — from massive buildings to hand-held graphics — can all point to God. What is important for the parish, then, is to understand the many facets and to respond accordingly.

What can that look like? Reyes recalls a reflection from a college professor. The professor stated that, while he had lived in a house all his life, that doesn’t mean that he knows how to build one. In other words: while most people may daily interact with websites or apps … it doesn’t mean that they know how to build them.

As such, it is important to find talented individuals who can help you achieve your goals. In the words of Reyes, “Don’t just get someone to use a tool, get the best person to use the tool.”

What would this look like in your parish?

Tap into your community and use the resources within your own neighborhood network. God has given your parish a diverse set of gifts to bring beauty to the world in a myriad of ways.

  • Find a trained graphic designer to tackle your bulletin
    With a quality template, your editor can follow the layout in the months to come. (Need a professional recommendation? LPi’s graphic designers would be happy to help you refresh!)
  • Make your website welcoming
    Your website might be the first time someone “meets” your church — what does it say about you? Take the time to assess the messaging and ask a professional communicator for their tips!
  • Clean sweep your worship space
    You might not have the budget for an overhaul but review your space for any places that could use a deep clean. Extra papers, old banners, dusty silk flowers — take some time to freshen up and toss or donate the things you no longer need.
  • Seek some grounds guidance
    A person’s first impression of your church won’t be the interior, it’ll be the grounds. Ask a master gardener or professional landscaper for their recommendations on improving the look of the place.

Your parishioners’ gifts are vast — gardening, painting, masonry, graphic design, website, etc. Allowing them to bring glory to God through their gifts builds their faith as it builds the community. Not sure who to ask? See if anyone is advertising in your bulletin, it’s a good place to see who cares about your community, and who is located nearby. And it’s a great way to say thank you to your advertisers!

Father Danstrom ended the conversation with a reference to a line from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. In the story, a caring and generous Bishop lives simply to care for the sick and poor. His small garden has several rows of vegetables, but he also has one row of flowers. A woman comments on the arrangement, surprised that he dedicated a row to flowers instead of vegetables, since vegetables could be used for eating.

The Bishop replies, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a pause, “More so, perhaps.”

Beauty … more useful then the useful in focusing our attention, uplifting our souls, and pointing us to God. The pursuit of this transcendental requires care and investment, but, in our world of distractions, it captivates the heart for the promise of more. Your parish is a blessed location. Investing in the beauty of your church can serve to direct the hearts and minds of your community to God in an inviting and gentle way.

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