Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The People of God, the Liturgy and the Religious Artists

It was on May 29, 2008 that the bilateral Agreement between the Vatican and the Republic of Philippines to preserve and protect heritage Catholic Churches spread throughout the island was finalized. Ironically, in spite of its weight and significance, it was done in a simple ceremony, one that did not catch the attention of our people.

Signed by no less than Pope Benedict XVI and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, it was considered to be a landmark treaty, for it set into writing the commitment to a mutual cooperation for the proper care of old Churches. As the Nuncio to the Philippines, Archbishop Edward Joseph Adams, aptly puts it: “It is a fact that what constitutes the cultural patrimony of this nation takes its origin from the Church and was contributed by her agents.” For his part, DFA Secretary Alberto Romulo commented: “Heritage Churches are more than just worldly possessions. They are concrete expressions and enduring representations of profound faith.” Hence, the bilateral pact has deep repercussions in the years to come in the field of religious arts, culture and catecheses.

The Diocese of Tagbilaran looks at this agreement with anticipation. For years the people of God in this local Church has been growing in its awareness at the value of the religious patrimony of their parish Churches. The work of art that they have meticulously conserved in their Churches have given them the sure footing of orthodoxy, one that ever reminds them of the Catholic faith that has been handed down to them. This has shaped their way of reaching out to the God they know and their mode of praying to this Transcendent One. The mode of their prayer, guided by the artistic lines, hues and symbols, painted all over the ceiling and walls of the Church, is within the traditional doctrine of the Catholic faith. Yet, with the passing of time the influx of fresh religious ideas and reflections, new expressions of faith, new ways of identifying oneself with the transcendental reality, has entered into the consciousness of our people. Slowly, new ecclesiastical art and architecture has crept in, influencing at its wake the temptation to break from all past Catholic artistic and architectural traditions.

Not long ago, there came out in the Internet an interesting article regarding the influence of the new theological ideas to our liturgy, visual arts and symbols (cf. H. Reed Armstrong, “Art and Liturgy: Splendor of Faith,” CRISIS, 1814/2N Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, mail@crisismagazine.com). It put forward the idea that man does not need a transcendent God. This he will experience if he just care to take the effort to look intently at his own nature, contemplate on its beauty and goodness, appreciate its innate power and its limitless potentials, reach out for what it is worth for without the intervention and aid of divine grace and the sacraments. In this position, grace is somehow held as intrinsic to nature. A certain professor, a representative of this new theology, once made this statement: "There is now a radical capacity in nature itself, and not superadded to nature, by which we are ordained to the knowledge of God. Thus all dualism between nature and grace is eliminated. Human nature is already graced existence” (ibid.).

Armstrong then concluded: “The effects of this new "lex credendi" have been seen for some time in art and architecture. If man already lives an "engraced" existence naturally, and the sacramental union with Christ is ontologically superfluous, a mere symbol of entrance into a "faith community," then the altar rail (iconostasis, the rood screen) that separates the natural world of the faithful and the supernatural world of the Divine mysteries must go. As Christ is already present in the community, the sacramental presence of Our Lord in the tabernacle is now superfluous and can therefore be removed from the sanctuary precinct. With the traditional concept of the Mystical Body obscured, the images of saints and holy mysteries, a tradition going back to the catacombs, are removed in favor of a single figure of the "Risen Lord" (ibid.).

It is fortunate that our lay faithful and our priests have not succumbed to these strange and alien teachings. They still see themselves as sinners badly needing the redemption promised to them from above, and therefore, weak individuals who are not ashamed in reaching expectantly outward to the Transcendent One who has become one of them, the “Immanuel,” uttering that simple but powerful prayer: MARANATHA – “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

As the true faith keeps on feeding the heart and mind of our people with the revealed divine realities, ever moving them to deeper contemplation of God, their prayer life becomes more vigorous and potent. To express these experiences and to help them to get them back to God, they need relevant liturgy and sensitive artists.

With the exchange of instruments that marked the forging of the bilateral Agreement of the Vatican and the Republic of the Philippines to protect the religious and cultural heritage of our people, it is our hope that arts in our Churches will be properly cared for and revered. It is also our hope that with this renewed interest for religious arts and the subsequent effort to promote and protect them, we may see the emergence of new artists with fresh visions coming out to revitalize our symbols of prayer, divine longing, and our liturgy. As Fr. Reed Armstrong concluded in his article in the Internet: “Even today, in this age of iron or, let us say, white metal, the Temple of Solomon and the Cathedral of Chartres have not exhausted all the possibilities of getting back to God. There is still something to be garnered from those people with plaster in their hair and fingers full of paint”(cf. ibid.).