In his 2007 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty” (41). This is true because of the Eucharist, not because of any human desires or aesthetic preferences we may want to impose on the Sacrament. All the same, because the Eucharist is the source of all beauty, it is right and just for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist to be ornamented by the greatest beauty and reverence man can muster.
Likewise, since the Eucharist, like the Trinity, lies at the heart of the mysteries which God enjoins us to share with him through his Church, we ought to respond in a sober yet joyful way—in other words, with a sense of reverence. When we encounter Christ in the Eucharist, we are truly in God’s presence. Therefore, we should instinctually express the most profound reverence before the Blessed Sacrament—the same reverence that Moses assumed when he encountered the Burning Bush and that animated Peter, James, and John when they beheld the Transfiguration.
There are many valid and licit forms of the liturgy—in the Roman Rite, the many Eastern Catholic Churches, etc.—and each and every one can and should be celebrated in a beautiful and reverent manner. There are certainly different means by which the Eucharist can be beautifully ornamented in the Mass, but one thing is certain: regardless of form, every Mass should be marked by these two primary qualities: beauty and reverence.
In the Roman Rite, it remains true that there are two primary forms of the Mass. They go by many names, but most know them as the Traditional Latin Mass (or vetus ordo) on the one hand, and the postconciliar Mass of Vatican II (or novus ordo) on the other. Neither is immune to liturgical abuse, and neither is guaranteed to be celebrated with reverence and beauty. In both cases, the respective directives of the Church must be followed.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the source and summit of the Church’s life. The purpose of this article is to discuss the importance of beauty and reverence in the liturgy, regardless of form, regardless of rite. There are wonderful aspects of the Traditional Latin Mass that are not present in the Novus Ordo, and there are wonderful elements of the Novus Ordo that are not present in the Traditional Latin Mass. But both of these forms, as well as the liturgies proper to any of the Eastern Catholic Churches and other valid and licit liturgies, can be celebrated reverently or not, beautifully or not. In fact, not only can they be celebrated beautifully, but they should be.
In his foreword to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Robert Sarah wrote, “Let us live the sacred liturgy with reverential awe and rejoice in and draw from the wealth and richness of its traditional signs, gestures, and rites, large and small, as true lovers of Almighty God.” This applies to all valid and licit forms of the sacred liturgy.
We must remember that beauty is not an option for authentic and appropriate liturgical celebrations. It is not, as Pope Benedict says, “mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendor” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 35).
Certainly, there can be disagreements as to personal preferences about what is beautiful, as beauty does have a subjective element to it. But in a more general sense, beauty can be defined in an objective way, which is necessary for a discussion of the importance of beauty in the liturgy. St. Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as “id quod visum placet” (“that which, upon being seen, pleases”). In his Letter to Artists, St. John Paul II defined beauty as “the visible form of the good,” and it has also been called the “splendor of truth.” Because the good and true God carries on his saving work in the liturgy, it is only appropriate for us to celebrate the liturgy as beautifully as possible.
In addition to the propriety of beauty in the liturgy for the sake of the Holy Eucharist, such beauty can also have a profound and stunning evangelical effect. St. Augustine encountered such beauty in Milan, and wrote in his Confessions: “I wept at the beauty of your hymns and canticles, and was powerfully moved at the sweet sound of Your Church’s singing. Those sounds flowed into my ears, and the truth streamed into my heart: so that my feelings of devotion overflowed, and the tears ran from my eyes, and I was happy in them” (Confessions IX.6). Augustine is not the only figure to speak of the evangelical impact of beauty. The via pulchritudinis (“way of beauty”) is a strikingly powerful and effective means of evangelization. More recently, Bishop Robert Barron has written and spoken a great deal about this. Sometimes beauty can be an even more effective evangelization tool than any intellectual argument: “Don’t tell them what to think or how to behave,” Bishop Barron says, but “show the beauty of Catholicism, and that has evangelical power.” In many cases—particularly “in a postmodern culture so instinctively skeptical of dogma”—“the best evangelical strategy is one that moves from the beautiful to the good and finally to the true.”
One would probably have a difficult time finding someone who felt the Traditional Latin Mass or any of the multifarious Eastern liturgies were not beautiful and did not evoke reverence in the liturgy-goer. Even those who say that such liturgies are unnecessarily and inappropriately ostentatious would not typically deny that they are objectively beautiful.
The sacred liturgy is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life, as we read in Sacrosanctum Concilium. Note that we do not read here that the Traditional Latin Mass is the source and summit, or that the Gallican Rite is the source and summit, or that the Novus Ordo or the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or any other particular manifestation of the liturgy (as opposed to others) is the source and summit. The sacred liturgy, as overseen and safeguarded by Holy Mother Church, is the source and summit. And regardless of form or rite, the liturgy demands beauty.
If every deacon, priest, and bishop (not to mention lay liturgical ministers, music ministers, congregation, etc.) adhered to the liturgical directives of the Church—the documents of the Second Vatican Council, papal liturgical legislation, guidance and directives given by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Code of Canon Law, and more—there would be far fewer “liturgy wars.” For most of those involved in debates over the sacred liturgy, the question is not primarily about superiority of one form of the liturgy over another, but fundamentally about appropriate reverence and solemnity in the celebration of the sacred liturgy.
The Church’s liturgical directives, when followed properly (at a minimum, “do the red, say the black”), guide the liturgical ministers into a beautiful and reverent celebration. St. Josemaria Escrivá, in his book The Way, wrote eloquently about adherence to the Church’s rubrics and guidelines: “Show veneration and respect for the holy liturgy of the Church and for its ceremonies. Observe them faithfully. Don’t you see that, for us poor humans, even what is greatest and most noble enters through the senses?” This also speaks to the way beauty—beautiful sights, sounds, smells, etc.—enlighten us.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) lays this out very plainly, describing how the Mass ought to be celebrated in a way that the ministers and faithful may be enlightened and sanctified: “It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that the celebration of the Mass or the Lord’s Supper be so ordered that the sacred ministers and the faithful taking part in it, according to the state proper to each, may draw from it more abundantly those fruits, to obtain which, Christ the Lord instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of his Body and Blood and entrusted it as the memorial of his Passion and Resurrection to the Church, his beloved Bride” (GIRM, 17).
Music—But Not Just Music
Often times, the question of beauty in the liturgy ends up in the realm of music. What is good liturgical music? What is bad liturgical music? What is appropriate or inappropriate liturgical music? What are the directives and norms of the Church when it comes to the place of music in the liturgy? All of these questions have been debated endlessly. Subjective taste and cultural norms certainly play a role in the conversation, as do differing interpretations of some of the Church’s liturgical directives: What does “pride of place” mean? What does the Church have to say about guitars, drums, etc.? If the Church doesn’t explicitly denounce the use of a given instrument in the liturgy, does that mean its use is appropriate? Or if drums and dancing are commonly used for worship and to heighten solemnity in African or Asian cultures, for example, does that mean such devices should be liberally used by a typical American parish, where dancing and drums have different connotations?
But it is not all about music. Even the vestments, the decorations in the sanctuary or on the altar, the use of incense, the attire of lay ministers who enter the sanctuary, and particularly those who extraordinarily assist the priest in the distribution of Holy Communion; even the architecture of the Church building itself (see, for example, the location of the tabernacle, and the location of the music ministers) is an essential part of the liturgy’s beauty—and our reverent response.
There is another point about beauty that often gets overlooked: the beauty, and importance, of silence in the liturgy. Too often, music ministers feel compelled to fill “dead air,” as if there is something awkward or inappropriate about periods of silence during Mass. On the contrary, pointed and intentional periods of silence can do a great deal to heighten the sense of solemnity, as well as provide opportunities for deep meditation on the part of the priest and the congregation. This is particularly effective when the period of silence immediately follows music; it really makes the silence stand out, draws people into what is happening on the altar.
Reverent celebration of the liturgy, adorning the Eucharist with beauty, is also the heart of any hope of renewal in the Church. In 1997, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote, “The Church stands and falls with the liturgy. When the adoration of the divine Trinity declines, when the faith no longer appears in its fullness in the liturgy of the Church, when man’s words, his thoughts, his intentions are suffocating him, then faith will have lost the place where it is expressed and where it dwells. For that reason, the true celebration of the sacred liturgy is the center of any renewal of the Church whatever.”
In the book Seven Gifts of The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2020), Bishop James Conley of Lincoln wrote: “To undertake the work of beautiful liturgy, which is really a work of the Holy Spirit, we must know and understand the promptings and movements of the Spirit, and we must know and understand the person of the Incarnate Word of God. Beautiful liturgy—serious liturgy, to be sure—depends entirely on intimate and authentic unity with the one whom we worship. Absent that, regardless of the accidents of music, word, and movement, we cannot worship the Lord beautifully or draw others into the serious beauty of the Trinity” (112-113).
Beauty is appropriate for the sacred liturgy—rather, the liturgy demands beauty. Not only that, but such beauty draws us out of ourselves, and inspires the reverence which is also due.
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland, OR, in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Catholics Answers Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets, and is the author of Fatima: 100 Questions and Answers about the Marian Apparitions (Ignatius Press). Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.
Image Source: AB/Wikipedia. The ceiling of Sant’ Ignazio Church (Rome)