Friday, May 25, 2007

The Cultural Heritage of the Catholic Church

The Agreement (Accordo) made between the Holy See and the Republic of the Philippines last April 21, 2007 on the cultural treasures of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines hardly stirred any ripple of excitement in Philippine society as a whole. This is a tragic occurrence for this reflects a state of a soul that is anemic to a Filipino culture that is elevated to works of art and to a faith that is expressed in images, arts and lines. As it is the affair seems to be of no serious import. It seems that many of us are still in the mental mold that considers the cultural patrimony of the Church as belonging to the historical past whose proper place is the moldy archive or remodeled museums. It has nothing to do with the current buzz and modern ways of our life with its up-tempo technology, its fast dizzying pace, articulated in music, arts and letters that are attune to the uneasy soul of the modern man. If at all, its usefulness may be confined to its power of attracting some artists who have the eye for the fine things in life; or, of drawing some tourists of sound cultural background who still marvel and appreciate the works of art that have incredibly withstood the rough nature of time of relegating everything along its path into the limbo of forgotten things.

And yet the cultural patrimony of the Church is such a priceless legacy that the Holy See and the Republic of the Philippines took the effort to put together their authority to preserve, restore, catalogue, protect and care for them. Each within its own competence and within its own way of appraising the values of these cultural goods entered into this agreement with the common purpose of protecting these works of art. They know that cultural goods reveal the creative capacity of artists and craftsmen who have been able to draw artistic lines on what is visible the religious experience and the prayer life of the Christian community of Filipinos.

The Republic of the Philippines has seen in the cultural heritage of the Church a priceless stock of the aesthetic ingenuity and human wisdom of the Filipino artists and craftsmen. For the State this heritage makes up a composite of the creative works of its sons and daughters, geniuses who have been able to express in artistic lines, images and letters the deep Filipino sentiments towards the Transcendent. As such they have human values and, therefore, secular worth. As such they fall within the State’s domain to care and to protect.

For the Church the value of the cultural patrimony is its faith content. After all works of art in the Church are not purely secular. Church art is a human product, but it participates with what is sacred. For in the tradition of the Church, real work of art breathes its life from the theology of the Word made flesh. The sacred can be expressed in art because the Sacred, who is God Himself, has taken a human flesh and blood. As Christoph Schonborn concludes his investigation on “God’s Human Face”: “There exists an intimate connection between the whole concept of the arts and the concept of the mystery of Christ as God and man. The Incarnation not only transformed our knowledge of God, it also changed man’s view of the world, of himself, and of his activity in the world” (p. 238).

It is because of this theology of the incarnation that Church art has down through the ages been used extensively for catechesis and liturgy. Using the variegated work forms of art, such as painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, mosaic, the artists in the Church have been able to convey the message that transcends earthly reality. They greatly help the soul in its search for the divine. Hence, art in its various forms is in the Church not just for decorative purposes, but is there to help its members to keep in touch with God, to adore Him, to worship Him. As Jesus Christ, the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), brought man back to God, so works of art that are enlivened by spiritual inspiration have that uncanny power to assist the soul find His God. As expressions of the human spirit, these works of art bring man closer to his Creator.

It is therefore not surprising that the Church has always held in high esteem the ministry of arts, safeguarding the artistic treasures belonging to it. As the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy puts it: “The Church has always held the ministry of the arts in the highest esteem and has striven to see that all things set apart for use in divine worship are truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world” (“Opera Artis,” Circular Letter on the care of the Church’s Historical and Artistic Heritage, 11 April 1971).

Such is the worth of the cultural heritage of the Church in the Philippines that the Holy See and the Republic of the Philippines, each within its competence, converged “for the conservation, appreciation and proper use of the cultural heritage” (Agreement, Art. III). For this Agreement to take effect in the concrete, it spells out two important provisions, namely, 1) the Holy See will work through the Apostolic Nunciature and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines while the Republic of the Philippines will work through the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA); 2) in the conservation, appreciation, and proper use of the cultural heritage of artistic and historical significance owned by the ecclesiastical institutions and organizations, the designated parties of the Holy See and the Republic of the Philippines shall see to it that the implementation of the Philippine legislation regarding the cultural heritage of the nation shall be harmonized with the norms of Canon Law and the exigencies of the pastoral activity of the Church (cf. Agreement, Art. IV).

The Holy See and the Republic of the Philippines have taken the initiative to safeguard the cultural treasures of the Church in the Philippines. It is hoped that the ecclesiastical authorities should be stirred up by this act and take up the chore of treasuring the cultural patrimony within their domain. As the Congregation for the Clergy underlined it: “In our own times as well, bishops, no matter how hard pressed by their responsibilities, must take seriously the care of places of worship and sacred objects. They bear singular witness to the reverence of the people toward God and deserve such care also because of their historic and artistic value” (ibid.).