Beauty must play a central role in our efforts for evangelization and cultural renewal, because it is a gift from God to lead us to him, Bishop James D. Conley said in an address at a recent apologetics conference.
“Our New Evangelization must work to make truth beautiful. By means both ancient and new, we must make use of beauty – to infuse Western culture, once more, with the spirit of the Gospel,” the Bishop of Lincoln said Sept. 28 in his keynote address at the Catholic Answers National Apologetics Conference in San Diego.
“By means of earthly beauty, we can help our contemporaries discover the truth of the Gospel. Then, they may come to know the eternal beauty of God.”
Bishop Conley told CNA on Oct. 1 that his decision to focus on beauty and culture at an apologetics conference was well-received, and that Catholic Answer’s development director, Christopher Check, “thought it was a real sort of game-changer,” because apologetics efforts can often be rejected by those with a relativistic mindset, who are not even open to entering into a standard apologetics discussion.
But to lead with beauty “opens (others) up to consider the argument” in a way they might not otherwise, the bishop reflected.
Bishop Conley opened the address by sharing a story of his first session of spiritual direction when he entered seminary. Spiritual direction typically involves a detailed discussion with a priest.
When he arrived for his first meeting, the priest, Fr. Anton Morganroth, who had fled Nazi Germany, was playing a Mozart sonata, and proceeded to finish it.
“After a few moments of silence, eager to get started,” Bishop Conley shared, “I broke the silence and said: ‘so are we going to have spiritual direction, father?’ Fr. Morganroth turned and stared right through me and said: ‘son, zat was your spiritual direction, you can go now.’”
This example of being caught up in beauty is a demonstration of how the transcendental can open minds and hearts to “the realities of the spiritual life,” the bishop said.
He emphasized that evangelization is concerned not only with individuals, but with transformation of culture as well.
“We’re starting to get a sense of our cultural mission,” Bishop Conley said. “Catholics are working to recover our traditions, and to build community … to foster a way of life that is true, good, and beautiful.”
He added that faith “is meant to be the basis of culture,” and explained how he was converted to the Catholic Church through the Integrated Humanities Program run by professor John Senior at the University of Kansas, which exposed students to the beauty of Christian culture.
This experience of beauty, he said, allowed him to be open to the great philosophers and theologians of the past, rather than assuming “that truth was found in the dictates of popular culture.”
“Senior was not an evangelist, in the traditional sense of the word: he did not preach from a pulpit, or write works of apologetics. His goal in the classroom was not to convert us, but to open our minds to truth, wherever it might be found. And he did that primarily through the imagination.”
Despite not being a traditional evangelist, the bishop said, Senior “was a remarkably gifted evangelist,” and through his sharing of the beauty of historic Catholic culture, hundreds of University of Kansas students became Catholic in the 1970s.
Their conversion “was not the result of proselytism in the classroom nor was it engaging in apologetics,” Bishop Conley said. “It occurred because we became lovers of beauty, and thus, seekers of truth. Beauty gave us ‘eyes to see’ and ‘ears to hear,’ when we encountered the Gospel and the Christian tradition.”
Senior and his colleagues “knew that students had to encounter beauty, and have their hearts and imaginations captured first by beauty, before they could pursue truth and goodness in a serious and worthy manner,” the bishop explained.
He observed that in the midst of intellectual and moral confusion, beauty can break through to hardened hearts, and that “every instance of real beauty points beyond itself” to God, who “invested this world with many forms of captivating beauty, so that created things would lead us to contemplate the transcendent glory of the Creator.”
While God “speaks to our souls through intellectual truth and moral goodness” in addition to beauty, “these forms of communication have become problematic. Many people, especially in modern Western culture, are too intellectually and morally confused to receive such a message.”
Because of this confusion, beauty may be the transcendental which “can get through, where other forms of divine communication may not,” the bishop taught.
“When we begin with beauty, this can then lead to a desire to want to know the truth of the thing that is drawing us, a desire to participate in it. And then the truth can inspire us to do the good, to strive after virtue.”
Bishop Conley said that “clearly, beauty has a major role to play in the New Evangelization” and enumerated three ways in which this can be done: through liturgy; appreciation of historic Christian culture; and openness to beauty in all its forms.
He called beauty in liturgy the “most essential” point, noting that “worship … is the basis of Christian culture” and pointing to examples of great converts who were struck by the solemn rites and extraordinary chants of the Catholic Church.
The bishop’s second recommendation was to become familiar with the beauty of historic Christian culture, such as Gregorian chant, in order to help others who appreciate it to understand the Christian beauty that inspired it.
Finally, he invited Catholics to “open our own minds to beauty, in all its manifestations” in both nature and culture, which will help us to understand beauty as “an earthly reflection of God’s glory.”
Concluding, Bishop Conley quoted famous Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who wrote in “The Idiot” that “beauty will save the world.”
“It will,” the bishop added. “When it points to God’s enduring love.”
“There are many souls to rescue, and a vast cultural wasteland to restore. Both tasks will require fluency in God’s language of beauty,” he said.
“To speak this language, we must first begin to listen. And to listen, we must have silence in our lives. I pray that God will open our eyes and ears to beauty, and help us use it in the service of the Truth.”