Joy and Hope
April 24, 2010
Choose wisely from the old and the new
A common warning among the members of my family about traveling is with me is, “You’re going to see lots of churches.” I believe the threat is slightly exaggerated. My siblings’ complaint fails to take into account that if you want to see beautiful art and architecture then you go to the churches because that’s where it is.
This is especially true in many of the colonial cities of Latin America. You would be neglecting the cultural and religious treasures of many regions if you did not go into the splendid churches built on an extraordinary scale by the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and Jesuits during the dynamic colonial period.
I still remember the reactions of my nephews the first time they stepped into a colonial church in Guadalajara, México. They were initially repelled, but then later drawn by the many graphic images exuding the bloody anguish of Christ’s passion. The saints, both men and women, were set in poses of both agony and ecstasy.
These vivid portrayals were not familiar to them. They were more accustomed to the stoic, rigid, monochromatic, often modern figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the saints. The plethora of polychromatic images in colonial Mexico was overwhelming to these young boys, whose only experience was the more contemporary parish church where images are few and the faces stern, if one were even able to discern the face in some modern renderings.
I had taken for granted the powerful impact of these images after many frequent trips to Mexico and Latin America through the years. Traveling with my nephews reminded me of the creative ingenuity of the church during those colonial times. The Catholic art and culture still speak to us after centuries of change.
The inspiration of a colonial artist 500 years ago provoked a spontaneous catechetical session between my nephews and me as the questions cascaded out of their stimulated brains: “Why is Mary crying? What does that palm branch mean? Did the soldiers really scourge Jesus that hard? Why does that saint hold a sword and this other saint hold a cross upside down?” After I had enough of the questions I was inspired to direct their minds in another direction: “Let’s go look for some ice cream!”
Many of the ancient cathedrals from that time have the old choir stalls, usually prepared with beautiful wood carvings extolling the lives of the saints or dramatic biblical narratives. In these settings, the cathedral canons would gather to chant the liturgy of the divine office as well as sing during the Mass.
Set in the middle of this sacred space of prayer was usually a huge wooden monstrosity with four panels. If you could touch it without the security guards in the cathedral frowning, you would notice that the top portion with the four panels rotated on a pedestal. With a little imagination, the function of this ecclesiastical furniture becomes clear. It served as a huge bookstand from where the choir of canons read their music chant. Touring through a diocesan library from the same time period there would be found huge volumes standing three or four feet tall containing the musical verses of the psalms and canticles sung during the colonial liturgies.
I thought of those huge leather-bound books filled with the beautifully scripted vellum pages as I recently celebrated a vibrant confirmation celebration at St. Catherine Church in Vallejo. Before the Mass, I asked the coordinator for a copy of the music sheet or song book. She pointed me to the walls of the church, where the words of the music were prominently displayed — not a parchment, but a projector screen twice or three times the size of those ancient colonial volumes. As I recalled the monstrous colonial bookstands while looking at the digital screens scrolling the words of the entrance song, I chuckled at the curious convergence of the old and the new in the timeless task of assisting God’s people to praise their Creator and Redeemer.
In the weeks ahead, you will be hearing about the changes I am implementing for The Catholic Herald. This proud Catholic journalistic tradition is not ending, but it is changing. I will be shifting The Herald to a bimonthly magazine format while also making increasing use of the Internet for communicating with the Catholic community.
I understand that some of these changes may be upsetting to some of us who like to hold a newspaper in our hands and hear the rustle of the pages while we sip a good cup of java. The rapid changes going on in journalism, Catholic as well as secular, demand that we adapt to the whirl of technological innovation surrounding us. As we do this, keep in mind that whether it is an old bookstand or a digital screen, we are pursuing the same mission to bring the vibrancy of the Gospel of Jesus into the culture of our times.
I hope that we choose wisely from the old and the new so that we can still stimulate the minds and hearts of Catholics, both young as well as old, to “comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” (Eph. 3.18-19)