Since the earliest days of the Church, Catholics have sought divine inspiration and connection to God in the world’s great works of art and music. Archetypical Renaissance man Michelangelo during his lifetime often was called Il Divino (“the divine one”), because of the sense of awe-inspiring grandeur he infused into his famous creations, such as the Pieta and David – two of the world’s most sacred and awe-inspiring sculptures.
“The Church throughout the centuries has honored and promoted the arts,” explains Father Christopher Smith, rector and episcopal vicar of Christ Cathedral. “According to the Church’s perspective, that which is beautiful is a gateway to the divine, to seeking and finding God.”
Seeking out art and music is unique to human beings, Father Smith notes. “No other beings on the planet appreciate beauty. It taps into what is the essence of being a human person – we are wired for beauty.”
When it comes to the visual arts, says Rev. Msgr. Arthur A. Holquin, Episcopal Vicar for Divine Worship for the Diocese and pastor emeritus of the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, “we can talk an awful lot about theology and what we believe as Catholics, but it only takes walking into a beautiful cathedral with its soaring verticality, statuary and stained glass for us to be touched by a visual theology of what it means to be a believer.”
Likewise, visitors are powerfully moved by pilgrimages to secular monuments and artworks, such as the Vietnam Memorial and Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., he notes. “They take us out of the ordinary to experience the extraordinary.”
Msgr. Holquin notes that a piece of music – such as one of the 105 Masses composed by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina or any of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas – opens listeners up to the transcendent. “Even non-believers would say they are moved in a mysterious way by their beauty, which almost seduces us into a belief in the holy.”
Volumes have been written about the ways art and music inspire the human spirit, but those ways go beyond logic, he adds. “We have the experience of being in the presence of something beautiful architecturally, artistically or in the case of a magnificent piece of music, aurally. In a sense, it has changed us.”
Historically, we can enjoy both priceless art and timeless music that would never exist today if not for commissions paid by the Church over the centuries, notes Dr. John Romeri, the newly hired first director of music ministries for Christ Cathedral. “Most of our musical ancestors had to write their cantatas for the next Sunday Mass,” Dr. Romeri explains. “Our job is to make sure the great treasures of liturgical music remain alive.”
In addition to appreciating Christ Cathedral’s sacred music, he finds inspiration in strolling the grounds and enjoying its gardens and statuary. “Such things take us beyond so that we see beauty and hear God.”
For many people, he adds, music is their inspiration for returning to the Catholic faith. “The beauty of music draws them in a non-threatening way. It’s why Catholics who have fallen away attend Mass at Christmas – they want to hear the beautiful music.”
St. Augustine said that “he who sings prays twice,” Dr. Romeri reminds us. “The Church tells us that music is the greatest of the arts because it’s only music that can carry the word of God.” In his new role, he will lead the development of the Christ Cathedral Parish’s music program and the liturgical music program that will support major Diocesan celebrations to take place in Christ Cathedral once it is renovated and dedicated. Presently he is auditioning potential singers for the Diocesan Choir, reorganizing the Cathedral English and Spanish choirs, and making plans for a future Diocesan children’s choir.
Lauren McCaul, Christ Cathedral music administrator, believes that Catholics find divine inspiration in art and music because “people learn in different ways, and people connect with their faith through different media – some are inspired by the priest’s sermon, while others find their worship home based on the music that feeds them.”
McCaul sings at three parishes – St. Timothy’s in Laguna Niguel, the Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano, and St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point. “Miserere Mei,” composed by Gregorio Allegri and sung on Ash Wednesday, takes the text from Psalm 51 – “Have mercy on me, O God; Create in me a clean heart, O God” – and weaves it into a 12-minute piece with a repeating mantra that especially inspires her, McCaul says.
“The text is beautiful and simple, with a beautiful, flowing light,” she explains. “To me it sounds like purity.
“Music has the ability to convey prayer in a way that sometimes the simple spoken word cannot,” McCaul adds. “It takes spoken words of prayer and elevates them, engaging people on another level and encouraging them to enter fully into prayer.”