Friday, June 22, 2007

The Local Community, the Tourists and the Works of Art

In the six months of my stay in the Diocese of Tagbilaran, I have seen and savored the beauty of creation that is Bohol and the grandeur of human ingenuity as expressed by the many antique Churches spread out in several parishes of the province. It is no wonder that thousands of foreigners as well as local tourists come in droves to this place through cars, planes, and fast crafts. This experience caught me off balance, a bit puzzled of what to do with this overwhelming phenomenon. I know that the great influx of visitors bespeaks of the greatness of the place, but as a religious leader I have to contend with religious questions that come with the issue at bar. For one how will tourism affect the religious sensitivity and culture of our people? These old yet stately Churches have been there for centuries to receive and serve the native congregation that has been for years “of one heart and one soul,” worshipping the God whom they have known as their Provider and Savior and serving one another as an expression of their awareness as one Christian community. It has been out of these Churches, complete with intricate works of art in images, signs and symbols for evangelization, liturgy and devotion, that a culture which is typically Boholano was born and has developed and matured. Now these same Churches are frequented by tourists and other individuals whose interest are far from being inserted into the religious life of the native folks. Can a World Heritage Church be adapted to a mixed congregation of worshipers? How can it meet the needs of both the local community and the amorphous group of tourists and visitors?

Faced with such realities, I have to dig deep into the accepted teaching of the Church on religious iconography and the discipline that it has established to regulate the proper actions related to the Churches and works of art. Here I come across the traditional teaching that the patrimony of the Church is profoundly connected with the truths of faith. Through the years these works of art have served the mission of the particular Church to come up with a response to the deep religious longing of man for the transcendent, to provide contemporary individual the tool to experience more vividly the religious wonder at beauty and wisdom captured in images, lines, and hues. Faith after all has that innate power “to express itself in artistic forms and historical witness that have an intrinsic evangelizing force and cultural valence before which the Church is called to pay her maximum attention” (cf. John Paul II, Motu Proprio “Inde a Pontificatus Nostri initio, March 25, 1993).

Liturgy is the formal expression of this faith. It is the official worship of the Community that is formed by this faith, the stance of the People of God in its attempt to reach out to the Infinite whose nature is Truth and Beauty. As such it has to be articulated with beautiful signs and symbols. With the purpose of drawing the worshipers’ mind and heart to God, liturgy has to make use of what is refined and artistic. They should be fitting expressions of the congregation’s faith. They are not mere additives or decors, but essential language of the soul in contact with the Creator. Originally they ooze out from a lowly man in contemplation with the divine, from an artist’s encounter with God in prayer, from a contemplative’s intense gazing with the God made visible.

Of course, God is so transcendent and therefore unutterable. He who expresses this transcendent God has to be reminded: “Take off yours shoes, for you are stepping on sacred ground” (Ex 3:5). But the Church well knows that this Holy One “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross” (Ph 2:6-8). It is this utter emptying of Jesus that the gap between the transcendent and the lowly mortal is bridged. This is also the reason why the Church through her artists could depict the transcendent in works of art. As Theodore of old once remarked: “If, then, Christ has become lowly for our sake, how could the signs of lowliness not be visible, suck as color, tangible forms, a body? By means of all this and in all of this he now can be “circumscribed”. Those who do not accept this, really destroy salvific plan of the Eternal Word” (Nova Patrum Bibliotheca, 35f).

The sacredness of the signs and symbols in the liturgy and in the structure of the Church comes from an interior vision of an artist in his act of stretching out his God-given talent to touch the exalted One with the end in view of expressing it in lines, colors and images. In turn these images, signs and symbols, coming as they are from a deep contemplation of the artist, have appropriated that innate power to lead man to awe and wonderment, to profound prayer and meditation. As such these artistic images, signs and symbols have become proper instruments for the service of Liturgy and catechism. It is along this line that Cardinal Ratzinger made this incisive remark: ” The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God. God has acted in history and entered into our sensible world, so that it may become transparent to Him. Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship. There will always be ups and downs in the history of iconography, upsurge and decline, and therefore periods when images are somewhat sparse. But they can never be totally lacking. Iconoclasm is not a Christian option”(Copyright © 1999 - 2007 by Adoremus: Ratzinger, “Art, Image and Artists. Sacred art, inspired by faith, both reflects and informs the culture Part II).

It is because of this intimate connection of faith and artistic works that it has devolved to the bishop the primary task to materially conserve these treasures, to protect them juridically, and to spread and deepen the faith. The Code blandly expressed this obligation in Canon 386, “§1. The diocesan bishop is bound to teach and to illustrate to the faithful the truths of faith which are to be believed and applied to behavior. He is himself to preach frequently… §2. By whatever means seem most appropriate, he is firmly to defend the integrity and unity of the faith to be believed…” The Second Vatican Council is more explicit on this matter when in bold lines it enjoined them: “Ordinaries are to take care that in encouraging and favoring truly sacred art, they should seek for noble beauty rather than sumptuous display…. Bishops should be careful to ensure that works of art which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or through lack of artistic merit or because of mediocrity or pretense, be removed from the house of God and from other sacred places ” (SC, 124).

The norm then that the bishop has to observe in the fulfillment of his task to promote and take care of the Churches and the works of art has to be based on the restless hunger of man for God and the corresponding response of the Gospel as contained in these signs and symbols. After all there is in every man, whether he is a tourist or a native Christian, that space that can only be filled up by a God experience. The very structure of the Church and works of art convey the transcendental content that the local community and the tourists could gaze on and contemplate. That these works of art may have become stale tools to effectively reach the modern soul may be a valid observation. But as they reflect the great Mystery they have that innate power of prodding tourists to reflect. Meantime the authority of the particular Church has to take up the necessary adaptations in order that these works of art could reach the soul of the tourist without sacrificing the religious sensitivity of the local community.