I was received into the Church as an adult, and back when I first contemplated becoming Catholic, I was super pumped to finally experience the fullness of the True Presence with a good, old-school reverent Mass with plainchant and incense and 200 year old neo-gothic churches.
After all, the Catholics have literally all the artistic and liturgical greatness banked away in their spiritual treasure-house, and their priests consecrate and immolate Our Lord in the fullness of his essence upon the altar at each and every Mass.
I had seen papal Masses on television. I had seen the Catholics Come Home commercials. I’d read Aquinas and the documents of the Second Vatican Council complete with its encouragement to use Latin and chant and the organ. Then I converted…and everything was different.
The Church advertises a certain symbolic language, but consistently fails to deliver. Your average parish Church isn’t a wonderland of Gregorian chant and organ music. Some are, for sure, but most are far more likely to include warehouse-style architecture or whitewashed walls, rock bands leading worship, and priests wearing a far different garb than one might expect (read: polyester).
Notable for their absence are altar candles, incense, organ music, altar rails, cassock and surplice, and a high altar.
I know what I prefer and what helps me reverence God and actively participate, but for the purposes of this article I’ll ponder my aesthetic preferences in the silence of my heart.
What I do find curious, though, is the seeming bait-and-switch we so often encounter. It’s a question of truth in advertising. Why does the Church seem to portray one reality, when in fact an entirely different one is true?
I started thinking about this because well-known US Bishop Robert Barron is currently working on the second instalment of his popular Catholicism video series.
Bishop Barron is awesome and smart, so I’m not complaining about his videos so much as I’m noticing an odd disconnect.
Catholicism treats viewers to a tour of ancient stone churches in which be-cassocked priests gently wave thuribles positively loaded with incense in front of high altars, all sound-tracked to polyphonic chant.
The camera lingers on beams of sunlight softly filtering through stained glass and bringing chiselled marble statuary into relief. What you see, in short, is beauty until you can hardly stand it.
And it’s not just Catholicism that advertises the Church this way. The Augustine Institute’s Symbolon series, which is marketed specifically for use in classes for potential converts, contains much of the same.
All of this, mind you, has the permission and blessing of, at the very least, the local priest in whose parish the videos are being shown. So the local Church is clearly in hearty approval of the presentations contained therein.
If you want a third example, check out the Catholics Come Home commercials sometime for good measure. They’re wonderfully, unashamedly Catholic. Incense! Nuns in habits! Altars with lots of steps leading up to them!
Now, I don’t know all that much about the creators of any of these video productions. Perhaps they all worship in parishes that reflect what their work portrays, so I’m not questioning their integrity or accusing them of being less-than-honest in their presentations.
I also understand that not every parish can afford to hire Palestrina to run the choir and Bach to jam on the organ.
Many parishes are doing the best they can and there is nothing wrong with portraying the ideal in advertising or catechetical materials.
If this is what our faith is at its best and we’re all eagerly striving to transform our parish into Chartres Cathedral, fair enough then if the advertising puts its best foot forward. But what stops me short is that I don’t think this is what’s happening at all.
In my experience (admittedly anecdotal), local parishes are intentionally organised around entirely different principles for how a Mass ought to proceed and in what sort of space it ought to take place in, and this isn’t because the ideal is out of reach but because a totally different ideal is sought.
There’s a disconnect between the symbolic language of Catholicism as portrayed in media and as actually used in a parish setting. For instance, in the US, we still have opportunities to build entirely new church buildings. When we do, we always choose expensive, ugly, stadium seating-oriented interiors with plain altars that are designed to look like tables.
There is very little statuary, no altar rails, and minimal decoration.
Often, the design choices include modernistic design and the artwork is at least semi-abstracted.
It seems to me that we’ve been successful enough with our efforts to raise the sort of cash that can purchase whatever building is desired, meaning that the plain, the banal, the modern, apparently, is actually what is desired.
Beyond architecture, Catholic advertising often portrays priests in cassocks and nuns in habit but, at least in the US, that isn’t what we get.
For instance, the LCWR conference of women religious, the largest gathering in the US, is a highly photographed event.
I think there are some habited sisters in the mix, but good luck finding her in the sea of sisters who have rejected it.
As a whole, these women are clearly trying for something different. They aren’t not wearing habits because it’s laundry day or because they can’t afford them, they’re not wearing them because they don’t want to wear them.
Not to single out the women, ask yourself when you last saw a normal, diocesan priest wearing a cassock around town, just chilling at the coffee shop or picking up groceries? Some might wear a cassock, most don’t. The vast majority don’t want to and will even laugh at those who do.
Why is it that converts and the many, many people who love these videos are seemingly attracted to one portrayal of the Church, and yet the Church in reality insists on another?
Why not advertise what we really are and watch as billions are converted and saved? (sarcasm alert, although who knows? We haven’t ever tried it.)
Why is it that when we put our best foot forward it is the very definition of the reverent, ancient symbolic language of the Church and yet we steadfastly refuse to follow through on the image we present to the world?
I don’t know that I have an answer. I don’t have anything truly profound to say about it, but it bothers me.
Maybe I’m missing something, but if what is portrayed in Catholicism, etc., is truly the version of the Church we believe in and want to present to the world, we should do whatever it takes to make our parish liturgical life reflect that.
If we find this type of symbolic language to be the most effective way of mediating the mysterious and eternal reality of the divine presence on our altars (not to mention making clear the sacramental graces promised through the ministry of the Church), shouldn’t we be courageously working towards matching the reality to the perception? And if it isn’t what we believe in, we should present a more accurate picture.
Fr Michael Rennier is the Contributing Editor at Dappled Things, where a version of this article was originally published.