Understanding the sacraments: Sacred art and furnishings

Unity, not uniformity, is the Church’s criterion in identifying sacred creations that praise God

In my last column I interrupted my series on the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy to talk about the cathedral church of a diocese, summarizing the discussion found in the Ceremonial of Bishops. This month I would like to return to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and discuss the concluding chapter, “Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings.”

The Constitution begins its discussion on sacred art by explaining the relationship between sacred art and beauty, specifically the beauty of God. All of the sacred arts “are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God, which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands.” Their purpose is to give praise and glory to God, a purpose they achieve to the extent they succeed in “turning men’s minds devoutly toward God” (n. 122).

This means, continues the Constitution, that “all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world” (n. 122).

To fully appreciate what the Second Vatican Council fathers are saying here, we need to understand what the Church means when she speaks of signs and symbols. In everyday life, signs are pointers or indicators—a hospital sign, for example, indicates the location of a nearby hospital, but it does not “contain” the hospital.

However, when the Church speaks of signs and symbols in connection with the liturgy, she means something different. Liturgical signs and symbols are “bearers of the saving sanctifying action of Christ” (CCC, 1189). This is why Blessed John Paul II spoke of passing from the liturgy’s “signs to the mystery which they contain” (Stay With Us Lord, n. 17).

Thus, when the Constitution says that all things used in divine worship should be “signs and symbols of the supernatural world,” it is describing an important dimension of the liturgy—the participation of the earthly liturgy in the heavenly liturgy.

This is how the Constitution describes this participation: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with the whole company of heaven” (n. 8).

Thus, if the earthly liturgy is a participation in the heavenly liturgy, and the things used in the earthly liturgy should be “signs and symbols of the supernatural world,” then the church building itself as well as its art and furnishings are part of the liturgy and are bearers of the divine life that is communicated to us in the liturgy. Sacred art and sacred furnishings are one of the ways that God manifests his presence and saving power to us in the liturgy.

The Constitution also addresses the question of art and architectural style. “The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites” (123). She has no inherent preference for the Renaissance or Gothic or Baroque style.

The reference here to “the natural talents and circumstances of peoples” recalls a general principle of reform: “the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples” (37). Indeed, she is willing to admit elements from the culture “into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit” (37). Unity, not uniformity, is the Church’s criterion.

Finally, the Church also welcomes the work of contemporary artists. “The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor; thereby it is enabled to contribute its own voice to that wonderful chorus of praise in honor of the Catholic faith sung by great men in times gone by” (123).

The Constitution also addresses the building of new churches: “let great care be taken that they be suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and for the active participation of the faithful” (127). In its reform of the liturgy, these are two great concerns: respect for the nature and dignity of the sacred liturgy, and full, conscious and active participation of the faithful. Only thus can we ensure the two purposes of the liturgy: the glorification of God and the sanctification of His people.

Father Randy Stice is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens and is director of the Office of Worship and Liturgy. He may be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.