How Beauty Can Renew the Catholic Church

The criticism of a recent column, “My New Year’s Wish for the Church,” forced me to think more deeply about the road to renewal in the Catholic Church. Several readers argued I was forcing Evangelical habits on a Catholic parish.
Of course, I would still insist that Catholics need to be more welcoming to each other and to parish visitors. But the key to Catholic renewal is found elsewhere, at the heart of what it means to practice the Faith.
In my earlier column, I spoke about the lack of “connectedness” that many non-practicing Catholics report when they are asked why they have stopped attending Mass. I limited my interpretation of this to their sense of rapport with other worshippers — that is, I think, what elicited the criticism. It gave the impression that Catholics should primarily nurture an emotional connection among the members of the parish community to evangelize. Personal recognition is a good thing, but it is not the primary thing, at least among Catholics.
So what makes Catholics distinctive among other Christian groups? Certainly papal primacy, the authority of bishops and priests, the universality of the Church, and the meaning of sacraments are among the most important. Of the sacraments, our belief in the “real presence” of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist not only distinguishes us doctrinally but liturgically as well. When a Catholic comes to Mass, his expectation — the one foremost in his mind — should be this real encounter with Christ in the Eucharist. If this encounter with His presence lacks vibrancy — if it has the ho-hum quality of required ritual — then renewal is the antidote.
How is this vitality recovered? This is where I think the “logic” of being Catholic sends us on a different course than that followed by other faith groups. There is the tendency to assume this renewal should be summoned up from within, based upon prayer, rosaries, or some sort of spiritual exercises. These are all good to do, of course, but that leaves aside the most obvious place to look for renewal: the liturgy itself.
Let me offer the following example: Have you ever prayed in a great cathedral when the organ was playing or the choir was singing a Gregorian chant, a Mass by one of the Renaissance greats — Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, or Byrd — or some form of music that moved you? Did you find it easier to pray? Did you find yourself going deeper, praying longer, and rising to leave with a rare sense of joy at having been on your knees?
I know that the local parish is rarely a great cathedral, or even a building of architectural distinction, and I know that most parish choirs are not schooled in either chant or Renaissance polyphony. But, I would ask, how much effort are we, both laity and religious, putting into the beauty of our liturgy? After all, isn’t it the beauty of the music, architecture, stained glass, images, homily, and the liturgical gestures that engage our senses and focus our minds on divine things?
In 2oo2, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger delivered a sermon, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” where he said:
[T]he most convincing demonstration of [faith’s] truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.
How much lost “connectedness” would be recovered if more attention were paid to encounters with “the Beautiful” in the liturgy, so that it was never perfunctory, listless, or offensive to the ear and eye?
Don’t misunderstand me. Beauty in the liturgy isn’t just a matter of better music and homilies; it requires its proper form (i.e., rubrics) as prescribed by the Church.
In a later column, I will argue that the beauty of liturgy, emanating from the Eucharistic sacrifice, has been marred by misguided liturgical improvisation. Dumbed-down liturgies have only increased the distance many Catholics feel from their Church, whatever their good intentions.

Deal W. Hudson


Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ Formerly publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine for ten years, his articles and comments have been published widely in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and U.S. News and World Report. He has also appeared on TV and radio news shows such as the O'Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, NBC News, and All Things Considered on National Public Radio. Hudson worked with Karl Rove in coordinating then-Gov. George W. Bush's outreach to Catholic voters in 2000 and 2004. In October 2003, President Bush appointed him a member of the official delegation from the United States to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of John Paul II's papacy. Hudson, a former professor of philosophy for 15 years, is the editor and author of eight books. He tells the story of his conversion from Southern Baptist to Catholic in An American Conversion (Crossroad, 2003), and his latest, Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States, was published in March 2008. He is married to Theresa Carver Hudson, also a Baptist convert, and they have two children, Hannah and Cyprian who was adopted from Romania in 2001.

  • Kevin V.

    An excellent point, you are definitely onto something here.
    We recognize truth most easily through beauty and it is the beauty of the Catholic faith which called out to me long before I understood it’s truth. The banalization of liturgy has obscured the truth of the faith.

  • janet

    Your point about the beauty of the liturgy is the reason many people are working so hard to try to reclaim the musical treasure that belongs to the Church. It is harder to lift your heart to God if the music is firmly planted here. I personally like many of the contemporary Christian recordings I will occasionally hear on the radio… that same music in the Divine Liturgy — not so much. Most people don’t even know what is missing if they have never experienced a liturgy when the celebrant sings his prayers and the people respond back in kind. If you then add Gregorian chant (or even simply chanted prayers in the vernacular) to it, it goes a step forward toward the sacred… add polyphony and beautifully played organ pieces and you have an entirely different experience than you would at most Catholic parishes in the U.S.

    We need more workers adding to our efforts… check out

  • Casey Khan

    Along the lines of this article, this site is must reading

  • Lisa Galli

    I think the main problem with most Catholics not being more connected to the mass starts before they leave home. Many of the parishioners dress like they are going to the store or going to work in the garden. Flip flops, jeans, t-shirts, spaghetti straps,short skirts, and sweats are examples of dress common at masses. If you wear a t-shirt adorned with skulls or goofy characters who are you celebrating. Another concern is how late people arrive to mass. If you rush in during the readings how can you prepare yourself to receive communion. (I won’t go into people leaving right after communion.) At my parish so many people don’t sing or even say the responses. Father gave a lesson before mass one day and I can’t say that it helped much, but at least he tried. I would ask my fellow parishioners what sacrifices are they bringing to the mass. What have they done to live out their Christian duty to love thy neighbor. The last thing I will mention is confession. So many find themselves to be without sin and so worthy of communion that they do not go to cleanse their soul. Everyone needs to be prepared to share the body and blood of Christ and by perfecting of ones self before mass one will be ready to celebrate.

  • Steve Skojec


    Careful – you’re starting to sound like me! smilies/wink.gif

    Seriously though, you hit on something very important here:

    Have you ever prayed in a great cathedral when the organ was playing or the choir was singing a Gregorian chant, a Mass by one of the Renaissance greats — Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, or Byrd — or some form of music that moved you? Did you find it easier to pray? Did you find yourself going deeper, praying longer, and rising to leave with a rare sense of joy at having been on your knees?

    …After all, isn’t it the beauty of the music, architecture, stained glass, images, homily, and the liturgical gestures that engage our senses and focus our minds on divine things?

    For me, this is where the path toward traditional liturgy started. It was rooted in this deeper experience of the senses. Everything from the music to the shape of the building to the liturgical gestures had SO much more significance to me. They told a story that was expressed in something more than words.

    My first step was into the mass of Paul VI in its most orthodox format – Latin, ad orientem, with sacred music from a more reverent time.

    But when you begin to realize that all these accoutrements were designed for the Gregorian rite – that they are, in effect, plug and play components of the most ancient and longstanding liturgy of the Roman Rite – they seem far more at home there than they do tacked on to the newer form. Any renaissance composer whose masses you enjoy composed them for the form of liturgy which arose from Trent and traced its lineage back to Pope St. Gregory the Great. That was the liturgical source of inspiration for the great architects, musicians, painters and sculptors of Europe.

    I’ve never understood the reform-of-the-reform movement. They seem to seek to do all that they can to make the new mass resemble the old one as closely as possible without ever quite arriving there. Everything they want is already present in the Gregorian Rite – why reinvent the wheel?

    (Incidentally, if you haven’t read Mosebach’s The Heresy of Formlessness, it evaluates liturgy from the perspective of aesthetics and culture, and is a really excellent read.)

  • Guest

    Deal… I think you’re onto something. I’m curious where this line of reasoning will take you. You might be surprised. =)

    “lex orandi, lex credendi”

    -from the WDEO chick who hadn’t read your book.

  • Peter Freeman


    Your reference to dumbing down the Mass makes me recall my comment on David Warren’s piece on Prophecy.

    I think you are right on the money with regards to Mass being dumbed down. There is a certain liturgical snobbery that often comes with education, and I think that snobbery assumes that the average-Joe Catholic just doesn’t get what the Mass is really about. There is an assumption (or so I assume) that Mass has to be infantilized or a “growing idiocy.” The problem is, of course, that even if the majority of the laity don’t know the Latin names for Mass parts or liturgical vessels, they still “get it.”
    Ironically, now that the Mass has been dumbed down for them…no one has a clue what’s happening.

  • Michael

    The Church must and will eventually return to the beauty of the True Mass codified by Pope St Pius V. No dancing, no woman on the Altar, No guitar Mass……

  • T. Needham

    Not only would the singing of Gregorian chant or the great Masses of the Renaissance or Classical masters add inexpressable beauty to the Mass, but setting these works in the original context for which they were written would restore great beauty and meaning to them which is lost in the concert halls where they are more often heard … and how much more beauty when all the angels and saints would join in the singing of such beautiful music to the glory of God! … ok, so I’d love to attend a Mass in one of the great Cathedrals to the music of Mozart, original latin rite etc. …

  • Ann

    Right on Mr. Hudson.

    To the commenter who mentioned about the clothing and arriving late, I couldn’t agree more. Unless you are coming straight from work as a manual laborer and there is no time to change and no other way you can attend Mass, you should be dressed properly and modestly. I can’t believe the way people dress in my church, especially the teenagers. I go back and forth. Sometimes I feel judgemental, like I can’t believe their parents let them come to Mass like that. And then I flip back and say, well, at least they are here.

    I also think that the habit of arriving late is not acceptable and the doors should be shut at a certain point. It would be nice if our priest would mention something to that effect during the announcements. It is very distracting and disrespectful. But then I flip again, and say, well, at least they are coming and I believe that our Lord and our church would prefer they come, even if it is late.

    I also agree with the dumbed down liturgies. I was reading a meditation in Magnificat the other day, and I read it aloud to my husband. We are both educated, and we could hardly understand it, but it still spoke to us. I wish we could hear homilies like that in real life. Challenge us.

    I also think there is an opportunity to make our homes beautiful. I want my children to remember a Catholic home, filled with beautiful art and music and prayer, and then to want that for themselves and their children.

  • Michelle

    So true! There is nothing more spiritually uplifting than a Beautiful Mass. From the music, to the vestments, to the vessels. They all point to the divinity of God and the worship due to him. Since we have two dimensions, the physical and the spiritual, this beauty fills the physical part of us. All the senses are covered: sight (vestments/stained glass), smell(incense), tact (holding the missal), taste (Eucharist), hearing (music). The outer beauty of all this is a physical reality of the inner (spiritual) beauty and reality of what is really happening during the Mass. I do think that appreciation for this beauty comes with maturing in our Faith. The more we understand about it all, the more we are aware of the Real Presence, then the more we see the need for all this beauty.

  • Patricia Extance

    The most important way, in my estimation and experience, to renew the Church is with reverence when the Priests offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. So sad to have to report that so many of the priests “fly through the Holy Mass”, giving the impression that they have something more important to do. The prayers are recited, not prayed from the heart, so fast that there is no way one can keep up with them. When the Sacred Host is elevated, after the Consecration, so many priests hold It up and return It to the altar so fast that it looks like something similar to a jack-in-the-box motion – how very, very sad. How can the priests who offer Holy Mass this way expect their flocks to believe the Host is TRULY THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST if the Priest shows a total lack of reverence in this regard.

    One other point in regard to the music, eliminate the PRACTICE OF THE” CANTOR” LEARNING HOW TO SING THE MUSIC BEFORE THE HOLY MASS BEGINS so there will be SILENCE for those worshipers who would like to pray BEFORE HOLY MASS BEGINS in order to prepare themselves to participate more spiritually and fully in the AWESOME MIRACLE THAT IS TO TAKE PLACE. Amen P.E. from CT

  • Jennifer

    Interesting take on this topic, and great article.

  • Father Richard


    Thank you very much for this. I could not agree with you more. The metamorphosis of Catholic Church from the ugly and dry reductionism of modernism to a bursting forth of our renewed recognition of the power of beauty is absolutely AMAZING to behold in our times.

    If I were to guess what this pope’s legacy will be, I would say that he awakened our Church to beauty once again.

  • Guest

    I agree 100%

  • Guest

    I have recently changed parishes so that my family and I can attend the Traditional Latin Mass (Extraordinary Form)… also known as the Tridentine Rite.

    After attending this with my wife and three children (2 teenagers and a 10 year old), I have noticed a change… a transformation in the family and in myself. We are much more focused on the Mass now. The propers of the Mass (Introit prayers, communion verse.. offertory prayer, etc…) are readily available in handout form in English at the entrance to the church

  • Jennifer Reese

    Two years ago, my family and I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Their churches, which are usually COVERED in icons, are very beautiful, and it does indeed make a conducive atmosphere in which to worship. I agree with the author of this article, that praying in a beautiful cathedral is awe-inspiring. The Orthodox view is that when one comes into church, they should feel as if they are surrounded by “heaven on earth.” I remember in the 70’s, when I was a little girl, how so many beautiful Catholic churches were stripped of their lovely statues and made to look quite plain, even rustic! Great article!

  • Anne

    I agree with the author of this article about the spiritual inspiration gleaned from the beauty of classical religious music and liturgy (Latin Mass). It dignifies the individual, lifting his spirit up out of the ordinary and worldly. Modern music pop and rock, common language used in the mass and the loss of privacy in church are essentially ugly and demeaning. There seem to be more and more Catholics young and old who feel the same and would at least like to attend Latin Mass. Lets hope.

  • Jason

    It’s a fact that things were better before Vatican II and the fabrication of the new “mass.”

  • Carole Stall

    As an artist (painter) and Catholic cantor I agree that beauty in all liturgical aspects definitely contributes to the celebration of the Mass and the glory and praise of God which should be our goal. In my opinion, churches built in a very modern style seem to inhibit prayerfulness and reverence and often lack beauty. There are a few done well. Most of the time, the proportions, divisions, lines, colors, and textures are not ideal. They are too geometric and cold. The cyma curve referred to by Hogarth as the line of beauty is found everywhere in nature. To learn about perfect design one must only study nature. Every textbook element of design was first used by God. God rarely uses a straight line in his design of the world. I always tell God when I look at his handiwork what a wonderful designer He is. I feel we should take a lesson from Our Creator when we design His churches. Our beautiful cathedrals are filled with curves, arches, and organic forms which resound with beauty. I read that Michelangelo said his rosary everyday. His prayerfulness and Divine inspiration is evident in all of his work – especially the Sistine Chapel. Therefor, let us select prayerful, holy people, to design our churches as well. Even if funds are limited in a parish, something small like the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal at Rue du Bac in Paris where Our Lady Appeared to Catherine Laboure can be built in an intimate, well-designed, and beautiful manner. Beautiful sublime colors, guilding, rich textures like marble, and wood, and classic forms like gothic arches, tresfoils symbolic of the Holy Trinity, etc. need to be brought back and especially beautiful crucifixes placed over the altar and the tabernacle brought back to its rightful place in the center behind the altar, not pushed off to the side. Hopefully, the beautiful embellishments in the churches being closed in Boston and elsewhere will be saved and used elsewhere.
    For those of you who wonder why Gothic Churches rouse the soul as they do, one reason is that gothic arches resemble folded hands pointing up to heaven. In addition to their beautiful curved shape, they are directionals as well. Directionals, for those of you who are not painters are lines which lead the eye and in this case the soul down a path or in a certain direction – in this case up to heaven and God above.) Let us return to such considerations when we build and design future churches.
    As for music choices, they are wide and varied. I have noticed that the congregation always responds to songs that have lyrics directly from the bible , especially the Psalms. The Word of God beautifully sung has a profound impact on souls. I am in a privileged position at the front of the church and witness the effect certain songs have on the congregation. It is amazing to see. I have always been strict about enunciation, also. Clear articulation is very important for the congregation, especially during the Psalm response. Unfortunately, I am not the music director so I do not choose the songs I sing. There are many beautiful ones which we no longer do because they are not in the current hymnal. What a pity. Many churches do not take their music seriously. I feel this is a huge mistake. Music should not be considered optional and superfluous. For so many Catholics, including myself, I would drive out of my way, out of my parish boundaries, to go to a church that takes its music seriously. In fact that is what I do. If the angels and saints praise God in song for eternity, why shouldn’t we do our best at the Mass. There is a whole segment of our society that responds to music in a way that words cannot effect. This I see as well. I would encourage anyone who reads this who assists in Mass in any way, as a reader or cantor or musician, to ask God at the beginning of Mass to use your voice or instrument to touch the souls and hearts of everyone present – especially those most in need and to offer their efforts for the souls in purgatory or the priests of the parish. There is alot of time spent preparing for a beautiful Mass and this too is an offering.
    Let’s bring on the return of beauty and reverence so our parishioners won’t turn to New Age practices for spiritual fulfillment.@

  • Mary Anne

    This column has made me think in a new way about beauty. As a convert from Protestantism, I suppose I have always thought about the beautiful as some sort of “add on” to worship — nice, but not essential. Yet it is also true that when we doubt the very existence of God, we can be reassured by the existence of the beautiful — how else could it exist if there were not some reality underlying our often ugly human condition that is itself beautiful? I wonder if atheism would be so prevalent today if we had paid more attention to defending what is beautiful, instead of often accepting in our art and architecture, what is simply functional, dull or banal.

  • Deal Hudson


  • Kevin

    Your article hits the nail on the head as far as some of the problems with the liturgy in the Catholic Church today. There are many other articles on the Internet that also admirably make the same point. The problem is, even with all the attention that it gets, that nothing is being done about it. Granted, there seems to be some response in larger parishes in larger cities but for the most part, the average small town parish is unchanged. The forces that be in our parishes, for the most part, are resistant to any kind of change that might encompass a return to Latin, chant and other efforts to return beauty to liturgical celebration. Part of the blame might go to volunteer parish ministers who, through no fault of their own, are musicians first and liturgists second. The bottom line is that until our bishops take the bull by the horns and mandate a return to requisites for beautiful liturgies, nothing is going to change.

  • Mother of Two Sons

    Being a Catholic Composer of music myself, I find the saddest part of this reflection to be that due to the spiritual deprivation of our time most find a need to go back in time and experience the precious Liturgy in a language they do not understand and be submurged in a music they would never otherwise listen to in order to have an experience that points them to GOD. I, myself went to our National Basilica in DC for Midnight Mass and it was beyond words beautiful and truly the highlight of my Christmas. However what I don’t see Catholics of today willing to do is to invest in the development of their spiritual walk with Jesus to the point where our Parishes are actually teaching future musicians from the inside out so that the music being written is coming from the soul — you cannot tell me that “Here I Am Lord” for example is not a moving as a piece of Gregorian Chant. The music being sung at Church today sounds hollow often because of the spiritual development and/or musical development of the singers and composers and then of course the body of Parishoners.

    I am just saying neither Jesus nor did the disciples have Gregorian Chant or the Tridentine Mass to make it “holy”. I just pray that we are not just climbing mindlessly onto a pendulum because we don’t want to do the real work of cultivating Beauty… our day, in our time.

  • Brian Saint-Paul

    I, myself went to our National Basilica in DC for Midnight Mass and it was beyond words beautiful and truly the highlight of my Christmas.

    When I was a graduate student at Catholic University, my dorm room window looked out onto the Basilica. I’d wake up each day to see the dome sparkling in the morning sunlight — it made getting up a little bit easier.

  • Lynne of Austin

    Deal, you’ve hit it precisely on the head!! So many liturgies that I’ve been part of have been so very offhanded to say the least! We are most fortunate in our parish to have a Pastor who made it a point to school himself in traditional religious music (MA in Music, among many other degrees!) and liturgy. I cannot tell you how exquisitely beautiful our masses are. The mass I attend is a silent one (no music at all) and still it is most reverential and lovely. I cannot sing our Pastor’s praises long enough! Unfortunately for the Church, he seems to be a rarity. Too bad.

  • Steve Skojec

    you cannot tell me that “Here I Am Lord” for example is not as moving as a piece of Gregorian Chant.

    I can. Happy to do so – no offense.

  • Deal Hudson

    Please don’t compare “Here I am, Lord” to Gregorian chant, or any other kind of chant, please…. Like Steve said, no offense.

  • Mother of Two Sons

    I heard “Here I Am” by the original composer soon after the song was born and I have heard it sung at a huge ordination… and over the years so many “non-Gregorian chant” souls point to that song as life-changing to them…. not to be compared to the very poor renditions I have heard in between.

    Deal, et al who share your impassioned view, are you not, underneath the surface (a few feet-since you have held this view a long while) really pointing us to, and I get this…. an aching for the Giovanni Palestrina’s of today? and isn’t it so TODAY to look for a simple response instead of doing something that inspires/develops that level of BEAUTY–?

    Are you not simply leading a move backwards toward our 1400-1600 Medieval past? Why not be bold and start a 21st Century Renaissance in the Church — I really don’t think that the Holy Spirit is all out of inspiration.

  • Deal Hudson

    The answer is “no,” and the Middle Ages began roughly in 700s and ended in the late 1300s.

  • Joe H

    Hello everyone,

    I’m sure some of you must remember the outspoken economic leftist who doesn’t like the GOP very much smilies/smiley.gif

    It may strike some as puzzling then that I am as “conservative” as one can be when it comes to the liturgy, though it shouldn’t, because the Catholic social teaching from which I draw inspiration pre-dates the liturgical innovations of the last few decades.

    On one level I consider the Mass to be my spiritual food, or nourishment if you like. The Tridentine Mass is like a healthy, full course meal, while some of the more outrageous forms of the Novus Ordo Mass are, well, lets just say, not as nourishing.

    Like many others it is particular the music that strikes me as one of the greatest differences because of its impact on our senses, though I also appreciate the sprinkler and the incense at the traditional Mass. I am lucky, I suppose, to live in an area where we get a polyphonic choir for the High Mass (and I am thinking about joining it myself). Now that I have experienced it I could never go back to the plain old piano of the vanilla Novus Ordo Masses in my area, let alone the rock bands that play at some of the “youth” Masses.

    We are, as I understand, supposed to pray the Mass, not simply “pray at Mass”. It is less easy to pray with loud and/or banal music blaring, and it is certainly less reverent. And I agree totally with Steve Skojec – why reinvent the wheel? Why try to “reform the reform”? Why not instead take whatever steps are necessary to bring a traditional Mass to your area? I ask seriously, because I don’t know how logistically difficult that would be.

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