01 Aug 2021

Live-streamed from St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 1 August 2021

The true (verum), the good (bonum) and the beautiful (pulchrum) – it was a 13th century German Dominican and Doctor of the Church, Albert the Great, who first identified these as the three ‘transcendental properties of being’.[1] Truth, beauty and goodness are, he said, three perfections of God in which every created thing participates to some degree and which constitute our ultimate desires.[2]

The Bible regularly names God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit ‘Truth’.[3] The godly walk in the paths of truth and Jesus’ disciples are people of truth.[4] Christians are passionate realists, concerned to get to the truth of things, and convinced that what is revealed by God and shared with others is true. If the human mind is made for truth and God is truth, then our minds are made for God. We contemplate, proclaim, console and teach a Gospel that converts minds to God.[5] Which makes faith a kind of knowledge.[6]

Likewise, the God of the Bible is Goodness and all He wills and does is good.[7] The godly abide by God’s law and all their deeds are righteous.[8] Faith is something to be lived not just thought or said, and living our faith gives testimony to Christ as effectively as speaking about Him. If the human heart is made for goodness and God is goodness itself, then our hearts are made for God. Good deeds that demonstrate, attract, walk the talk of the Gospel bring hearts to God.[9] As St Paul VI observed, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”[10] Which makes faith a kind of action and testimony.

But what about beauty? Well, once again the Bible has many passages that refer to the sheer beauty, brilliance, holiness or glory of God and His creation.[11] The children of God share in that divine image or beauty and enjoy the beauty of creation, of their own being and of each other.[12] If our imagination is made for beauty and God is true beauty, then our imaginations are made for God. And so faith is artfully illustrated, ritualised and celebrated. Which makes faith a kind of art and rapture.

It was somewhat controversial for Albert to raise beauty to the status of truth and goodness. Yet to this Patron Saint of scientists it seemed that the beauty of creation points to the Creator; empirical science, rather than being a rival to faith, glimpses a first Cause behind all natural causes, the great Designer behind complex but simple nature. Many followed this appreciation of the spiritual significance of beauty. According to legend, Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent ambassadors to witness the divine liturgy at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. So overwhelmed were they by what they saw, they reported to the Prince: “We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth.” The prince promptly became a Christian and the Russians followed him into the Byzantine Church.[13] (If he had been able to send his ambassadors to see the liturgy at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, all of Russia might be Catholic today!)

Paul VI once suggested that in addition to the via veritatis or way of truth, and the via bonitatis or way of goodness, a third good way to Christ is the via pulchritudinis or way of beauty, which he thought Our Lady best exemplifies.[14]Pope John Paul I, in one of the few communications of his short pontificate, wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI), who was to be his legate at a Marian Congress in Ecuador, joining the themes of evangelisation, beauty and Mary as he predecessor had done; the short-lived pontiff thought “the very beautiful ceremonies” would bear abundant spiritual fruit in ”greater eagerness to spread in every direction the saving message of Christ.”[15] John Paul II, in a Letter to Artists called for a new epiphany of beauty and a new dialogue between Church and art.[16] And at his first Mass as Pope, Benedict XVI said that “nothing is more beautiful than to know Christ and speak to others of our friendship with Him” and that this is a service “to God’s joy that longs to break into the world.”[17]

Subsequently Pope Benedict took up Pope Paul’s idea of the way of beauty.[18]Through art, architecture, literature, music, poetry, theatre or film we can experience a kind of transport – a shock or thrill, a joy or tranquillity, that suggests something greater, deeper, more sublime and serves to elevate our soul.

Some artistic expressions, Pope Benedict said, are

true roads to God, the Supreme Beauty, and help us to grow in our relationship with Him in prayer. These are works that were born from faith and express faith. We can see an example of this when we visit a Gothic cathedral [like this one]: we are enraptured by the vertical lines that soar skywards and uplift our gaze and our spirit, while at the same time we feel small yet long for fullness.[19]

Pope Francis echoed this, observing that “the arts give expression to the beauty of the faith” and “the grandeur of God’s creation”[20] and that “the Church exists precisely to communicate Truth, Beauty and Goodness in person”.[21]

So all five post-Vatican II popes – all of them champions of the new evangelisation – have pointed to the power of beauty to speak to us in a way which goes beyond words and actions. No wonder the Church has so often been a patron of the arts. She knows that art is more than stone and glass, words or notes on paper, sung sounds, paint on canvas: at its best art is an inspired use of such materials and skills to offer us a glimpse of ultimate beauty and so engage us in a conversation with the One who is beauty, that is Christ Himself.

All of which might say something to our present state of lock-down. So many of us are struggling in a bubble of isolation and ‘social distancing’, doing our best to study or work from home, to get along with each other in our confinement, to keep fit and fed, to maintain electronic contact where we can no longer be face-to-face and skin-to-skin, to maintain a life of prayer and worship, and so on – all without knowing how much longer this will last. How do we raise ourselves out of the monotony and demoralisation that is almost inevitable in these circumstances, avoid turning in on ourselves and rolling up into a physical, emotional and spiritual ball? At the end of the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul observed that in order not to sink into despair we need beauty, for it is beauty that brings lasting joy to the heart and unites people,[22] – even when physically distanced. The arts can bring colour to a time of greyness, clarity amidst so much uncertainty, and so ground our hope and prayer.

Beauty, then, can serve to bring about that spiritual revolution of which Paul speaks in our epistle, so that we “put on the new self in the goodness and beauty of the truth” (Eph 4:17, 20-24). We can survive the desert experience of lockdown by feeding our imaginations with, amongst other things, great religious art, music and literature, and so be readied to approach Christ, the visible and audible splendour of God and our life Bread.

In his encyclical Laudato Si`,Pope Francis exhorts us to awe and wonder before a cosmos which his name-saint called “a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness”.[23] Just as faith interprets the meaning and mystery of our unfolding universe,[24] so natural and man-made beauty inspire and confirm faith.[25] The Sacraments enable us “to embrace the world on a different plane” and in the Eucharist, especially, “all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation”.[26] By a greater attentiveness to the Sabbath spirit on Sunday, to the action of grace in transforming simple things like bread and wine and human company into sacraments, to practices like grace before meals and fasting to share with those with less, our relationships with the Creator, creation and our fellow man can be healed.[27]

Come Lord Jesus, Bread of Life, make this time of lockdown a time of spiritual retreat for us, an opportunity for you to feed our minds and hearts and imaginations and bring about a ‘revolution of spirit”. May we emerge from this enforced retreat and return to the table of that Bread that is Your flesh for the life of the world, more faithful, more appreciative, more united.

[1] From 1225 onwards, a series of medieval doctrines of the transcendentals was formulated by such diverse authors as Philip the Chancellor, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Alexander of Hales, Henry of Ghent, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. These writers differed somewhat on exactly how many transcendals there are and which ones. It was Albert who first identified these three in particular according to Jan Aertsen, “Die Frage nach dem Ersten und dem Grundlegenden. Albert der Große und die Lehre von den Transzendentalien,” in Walter Senner and Henryk Anzulewicz(eds), Albertus Magnus: Zum Gedenken nach 800 Jahren – Neue Zugänge, Aspekte und Perspektiven (Berlin: Akademie, 2001), 91–112; Bernhard Blankenhorn, Mystery of Union with god: Dionysian Mysticism in Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas (Catholuc University of America Press, 2016); Brendan Sammon, The God Who Is Beauty: Beauty as a Divine Name in Thomas Aquinas and Dionysius the Areopagite (Lutterworth Press, 2013).

[2] St Albert the Great, Summa de bono (1243), De Pulchro et Bono () and Super De div. nomin. (), ch. 4, no. 71; cf. Wis 13:5; CCC 41.

[3] E.g. Num 23:19; 1Kings 17:24; Tob 3:2,5; Ps 15:2; 25:5; 45:4; 96:13; 119:142, 160; Isa 45:19; Dan 4:37; Jn 1:1, 14, 17; 14:6, 17; 15:26; 16:13; 17:17; 18:37; 1Jn 1:5; 3:18; 4:6; Eph 4:21; Rev 21:5.

[4] 1Kings 3:9; Tob 1:3; 14:6; cf. 1Macc 7:18; Ps 5:9; 25:5; 51:6; 86:11; 145:18; Prov 8:7; 12:17-19; 23:23; Eccles 12:10; Wis 3:9; 6:22; Sir 4:25, 28; 37:15; Jer 4:2; 5:1-3; 26:15; Zech 8:16; Dan 11:2; Zech 8:16, 19; Mt 22:16; Mk 12:14; Lk 20:21; Jn 4:23-24; 5:33; 8:31-32, 40; 17:8, 17; 14:17; 17:17, 19; 1Cor 13:4-6; Eph 4:15, 25; 6:14; 1Tim 2:4; 3:15; 2Tim 2:15; 1Jn 5:20; 2Jn 1:4; 3Jn 1:3-4; Jas 1:18.

[5] Ps 51:6; Rom 15:4; 2Cor 10:5; 2Tim 3:15-17; 4:4.

[6] Rom 10:17; Eph 1:13-14; Heb ch. 11.

[7] Gen ch. 1; 32:9; 50:20; Ex 18:9; 34:6; Josh 21:45; 1Chr 16:34; 2Chr 5:13; 6:41; 30:22; Tobit 14:4; 1Macc 4:24; Ps 16:2; 23:6; 25:7-10; 27:13; 31:19; 34:8-14; 52:9; 54:6; 57:3; 68:10; 69:16; 84:11; 85:12; 86:5,15; 100:5; 104:28; 106:1; 107:1,9; 109:21; 117:2; 118:1, 29, 39, 68; 135:3; 136:1; 143:10; 145:7,9; Sir 39:33; Neh 9:13, 20; Jer 24:6; 29:11; 31:12; 32:41-42; 33:9-11; Lam 3:25; Dan 3:89; Hos 3:5; Nahum 1:7; Mt 19:17; Mk 10:18; Lk 1:53; 18:19; 10:11,14,32; Acts 10:38; 14:17; Rom 7:12-21; 1Cor 15:1; Phil 1:6; 1Tim 4:4; Tit 3:4; Jas 1:17; 1Pet 2:3; 2Pet 1:3.

[8]  Dt 6:18, 24; 12:28; Josh 22:5; 1Sam 12:23; 25:15; 2Sam 14:17; 1Kings 3:9; 2Chr 6:27; 14:2; 24:16; 31:20; Ezra 3:11; Neh 2:18; 13:14; Tob 4:21; 12:6; 2Macc 15:12; Ps 26:3; 37:3,27; 38:20; 92:1; 133:1; Prov 2:9,20; 4:2; 11:23,27; 12:2; Eccles 2:3; Wis 1:1; 7:22,26; 8:19-20; Sir 33:14;  39:16; Isa 7:15-16; 38:3; Jer 6:16; Amos 5:14-15; Micah 6:8; Mt 5:16; 7:17; 12:35; 13:8,23; 19:16; 25:21,23; 26:10; Mk 3:4; 4:8,20; 9:50; 14:6; Lk 6:27,35,43,45; 8:8,15; 10:25; 19:17; Jn 2:5; 5:29; Acts 9:36; 11:24; Rom 2:7,10; 12:2,9,21; 15:14; 16:19; 1Cor 7:35; 2Cor 9:8; Gal 6:10; Eph 2:10; 5:9; Col 1:10; 1Thes 5:15,21; 2Thes 1:11; 2:17; 1Tim 1:18-19; 2:10; 1Tim 5:10; 6:12,18; 2Tim 2:21; 3:17; 4:7; Tit 1:8; 2:3,7,14; 3:1,8,14; Heb 13:16,21; Jas 2:14-16; 3:13-17; 1Pet 3:11,17; 4:19; 3Jn 1:11.

[9] Ps 86:11; Acts 6:3; 11:24; Rom 12:2; 1Tim 5:25; Philem 1:6; Heb 10:24; 13:16; 1Jn 1:8; 3:18; 2Pet 1:5.

[10] St Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 41.

[11] E.g. Ex 15:11; Ps 27:4; 50:2; 96:6; Wis 8:2; 13:3-5; Sir 43:9; 47:10; Ezek 28:7; Hos 14:6. There are also many references to “the glory of the Lord”.

[12] Gen 1:27; 2Chr 2:9; 1Macc 2:12; Isa 28:5; 33:17; 62:3; Ezek 16:14; Mt 6:26; 13:31-32; Lk 12:6; Phil 4:8; 1Pet 3:4.

[13] Reflecting on this story Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Eucharistia come genesi della missione: Address to a Conference at the XXIII Eucharistic Congress of Bologna, 20 September 1997, declared that “it is in effect certain that the internal force of the liturgy played an essential role in the diffusion of Christianity…That which convinced the ambassadors of the Russian prince, that the faith celebrated in the Orthodox liturgy was true, was not a missionary style argument whose elements appeared more convincing to those disposed to listen than those of any other religion. No, that which struck home was the mystery in itself, a mystery that, precisely because it is found beyond all discussion, imposes on reason the force of truth.”

[14] St Paul VI, Address to a Mariological Congress at the Antonianum, 16 May 1975. Cf. Pope Francis, Laudato ’Si: Encyclical on Care for Our Common Home (2015) 241.

[15] John Paul I, Letter to Cardinal Ratzinger for the Marian Congress in Ecuador, 1 September 1978.

[16] John Paul II, Letter to Artists (1999). In his earlier Encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998), he said: “I have unstintingly recalled the pressing need for a new evangelisation; and I appeal now to philosophers to explore more comprehensively the dimensions of the true, the good and the beautiful to which the Word of God gives access. This task becomes all the more urgent if we consider the challenges which the new millennium seems to entail, and which affect in a particular way regions and cultures which have a long-standing Christian tradition. This attention to philosophy too should be seen as a fundamental and original contribution in service of the new evangelisation.” (n. 103)

[17] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Mass for the Inauguration of his Pontificate, 24 April 2005.

[18] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 31 August 2011; Address at the Screening of the Film ‘Art and Faith – Via pulchritudinis’ in Paul VI Hall, 25 October 2012. See also his Address to Artists in the Sistine Chapel, 21 November 2009; Homily at the Mass for the Dedication of the Church and Altar of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, 7 November 2010; Pontifical Council for culture, The ‘Via Pulchritudinis’: Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue (2006).

[19] Benedict XVI, General Audience, 31 August 2011. In an interview with Vatican Radio just before leaving for the World Youth Day at Cologne (14 August 2005) Pope Benedict said, “I, on the other hand, would rather help people understand that to be supported by a great Love and by a Revelation is not a burden: it gives wings, and it’s beautiful to be Christian. This experience lets us grow… The joy of being Christian is beauty, and it is right to believe it.” Back in 2002 as Cardinal Ratzinger he gave a philosophical reflection upon beauty in Plato, Augustine and von Balthasar, among others. He went on to say: “The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and… opens our eyes… For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other and spontaneously said together: ‘Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.’” Joseph Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 37. Cited in Anna Krestyn, “The via puchritudinis,” Aleteia 3 May 2013 and in Christopher Collins, The Word Made Love: The Dialogical Theology of Joseph Ratzinger/ Benedict XVI (Liturgical Press, 2013), p. 4.

[20] “Pope Francis’s prayer intentions for August: ‘for artists’”, Vatican Radio, 4 August 2017.

[21] Pope Francis, Address to Representatives of the Communications Media, 16 March 2013.

[22] St Paul VI,s Address to Artists at the Closing of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, 8 December 1965: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration.”

[23] Pope Francis, Laudato ’Si 12; cf. 11

[24] Pope Francis, Laudato ’Si 79; cf. 97.

[25] E.g. Pope Francis, Laudato ’Si 235 & 238.

[26] Pope Francis, Laudato ’Si 235-36.

[27] Pope Francis, Laudato ’Si 237.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time. As lockdown continues to prevent us from gathering in person, I encourage you to keep praying for an end to this pandemic, for those who have died of COVID and those grieving them, for the sick and those caring for them, for those testing and vaccinating us, for the isolated, lonely or anxious, for those leading us through these times, and for those places faring much worse than we are. We pray for each other, that we may remain in spiritual communion even as we suffer the effects of physical separation. To everyone watching via livestream, a very warm welcome!