Does Iconoclasm Further the New Evangelization?

“You will know them by their fruit.” Thus says Our Lord, in a guarantee as concise and direct as it is sobering.

Catholics today, it seems, hear fairly constant talk of the new evangelization. The word “new” can sometimes be a source of confusion, but it really isn’t so much something new and different, as it is a re-evangelization.

Pope Francis has often painted the image of the Church as a “field hospital” where the broken are mended and souls are led back to the refreshing and salvific waters of Christ. Decades ago, St. John Paul II put into wide use the very term “new evangelization” to identify the mission of this field hospital. Benedict XVI then labored quietly but tirelessly, during his brief pontificate, to repair and secure the posts and footings, lest even the hospital base itself become a casualty.

This is not a picture of quaint, romantic tranquility. These are wartime images. At one level, it is somewhat comforting to know that this is really nothing new, since the Church Militant has been in constant spiritual battle with the gates of hell from the beginning.

More off-putting, though, is the idea we are deep in a crisis, right here and right now, that will only get worse with each additional year that continues to pass without it being acknowledged for what it is by those who have the power to change it—namely, not an external attack as much as an internal cancer. Put simply, Holy Mother Church, while we have the assurance from Christ Himself that she will not die, nevertheless has a severely compromised immune system at present.

But how often do we stop to ask why we find ourselves in such dire straits? Why and how has the formerly Christian world come to need a re-evangelization in the first place? In short, we forgot God. We ceased to breathe God; to live God as the central reality of our lives. And these things could never have happened without first, among other things, ceasing to see God.

The idea that the eternal and omnipresent I AM can somehow be seen is likely a source of confusion across wide swaths of modern western culture. This is due, in no small part, to the prevalence of an almost neo-Manichean tendency to see goodness as something purely spiritual and invisible, while holding suspect the visual and tactile world as evil or distracting. This is, essentially, the modus operandi behind the infamous widespread “wreckovations” that tore asunder the Catholic landscape from the 1960s well into the 1990s and a bit beyond.

But on the contrary, authentic Christianity is an incarnational reality. Not only did God create the material world and call it good, but He actually became part of the material world in order to redeem it. So, not only can the Divine be depicted and seen, but this is thanks to His very own ordaining. It is through images that we come to visualize and relate to the intangible realities they represent. Though not because of the senses, it is nonetheless through the senses that we reach the sublime much more easily than we would otherwise.

OurSaviourRC Before

Perhaps this is what was going through the mind of Fr. George William Rutler when he commissioned acclaimed artist and Catholic convert Ken Woo to beautify the interior of the Church of Our Saviour in Manhattan between 2004 and 2010, with what would become award-winning traditional iconography. Maybe it is also what prompted him to reintroduce the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite into the regular liturgical schedule, and to heighten the sense of solemnity, awe, and reverence in the sacramental rhythm of parish life in general.

His tenure as pastor at Our Saviour, by all accounts, was a snapshot of the new evangelization in action. He transformed an emaciated parish, mired in debt and on the brink of closure in 2001, into a formidable “field hospital” that served as an oasis for many a weary and wounded soul. By the time of his departure twelve years later, he left the parish debt-free, in complete repair and enhanced on the interior, and with steadily increased Mass attendance. All if this was done while also rebuilding a healthy cushion of savings in the bank. Indeed, you will know them by their fruits.

The formula, as they say, is not rocket science. Sacred art, architecture, music, and ritual are the vehicles by which we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch God, and these things attract people because they can’t find them anywhere in their fullness except through the sacraments and sacramentals of the Church. “If you build it, they will come,” is not just a meaningless old saw.

Knowing this, then, what would please the Enemy the most in his relentless battle to numb as many souls away from Christ as possible? The answer is simple: obscure, neuter, and mute the sacred. Make God just a little less visible. Deemphasize both the battle and the end goal. Make people feel not much different upon entering a church than they did outside. Exaggerate the horizontal, and try as hard as possible to truncate the vertical, while always remaining just within an inch of looking too obvious to anyone who isn’t paying close attention.

Lamentably, to an admittedly outside pair of eyes peering in such as mine, this is the scenario that appears to have been unfolding at Our Saviour since Fr. Rutler’s transfer from the parish in 2013. Over the past week or two, the Catholic blogosphere and media have been exploding with stories of naked iconoclasm, quite literally, within its walls. The six-year project of beautification undertaken by Mr. Woo is now mostly removed, with smaller saints and angels already gone, and the expansive and majestic mural of Christ Pantocrator rumored to be the final prize.

The concerned and alarmed are assured in an after-the-fact statement that this is all part of a plan to restore Our Saviour exactly to the architect’s original vision, despite that original vision having been built around the Traditional Latin Mass with ad orientem worship—the very same Extraordinary Form which, along with the icons, has been abruptly banished from the parish with little explanation. But, even assuming the belated explanation is the real reason the icons are disappearing, the best defense cannot turn an inherently bad idea into a good one.

Seeing blank walls and simply leaving them alone without choosing to embellish them is one thing. Seeing walls richly storied with beautiful representations of heavenly realities, and choosing to go out of one’s way to tear it all out after it’s already there, is quite another. The former might be called indifference or contentment; the latter is called iconoclasm, no matter the attempt at justification. One is passive; the other is openly hostile and destructive, even if done with professional care.

The most important question, however, is this: how do self-imposed disruptions of the peace in a once-thriving parish—things like arbitrarily defacing church interiors and abolishing the increasingly mainstream Traditional Latin Mass—contribute in any way to the new evangelization? How does detonating a figurative grenade inside the very field hospital itself—both in the assault to the edifice, and in the consternation caused to the faithful—further Christ’s mission of building, healing, and saving souls?

I usually steer away from using the present year as justification for a serious argument, but really—it’s 2015, not 1975. Younger priests, religious, and committed laity, especially millennials, have no time and no stomach for the rigid clericalism of the immediate post-conciliar period. And what makes now so very different from then, is that technology and instant communication allow anyone to plainly and openly demonstrate the self-destructive failure of the modernist experiment that has held Holy Mother Church hostage for too long. The hermeneutic of continuity really is winning, even if there are still sporadic bursts of masochism such as we’re currently witnessing unfold at Our Saviour.

So, for the love of all that is holy, I issue this plea to all who have any sort of power or influence over decisions and directions in the hierarchy. Please, let’s put a stop to this petty, destructive, and scandalous nonsense once and for all, and get on with reclaiming souls for Christ. And, in the meantime, bring back the icons at Our Saviour!

Editor’s note: For those interested in signing a petition addressed to Timothy Cardinal Dolan to save the icons at Our Saviour church in New York City, click here.

Michael Tamara

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Michael Tamara is an architect who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He holds a BA in architectural studies and art history from Hobart College in Geneva, New York, and an M. Arch I from Syracuse University. He studied in both Rome and Florence.

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