“The purpose of art is nothing less than the upliftment of the human spirit.” I think of this quote from Saint John Paul II often when I have the privilege to visit churches within the Archdiocese. I tried to find the origin of his quote, but could not locate it.
I find these words especially appropriate for a house of prayer. It was Saint Teresa of Avila who spoke of prayer as a “surging of the heart upward.” Entering a beautiful church has that effect on our hearts and souls – moving us to pray.
Over a recent weekend I had the privilege to celebrate Mass in three different parish churches. What a privilege it is for me to visit priests and parishioners and to uncover the richness of parish life and of the parish churches. The three churches were Saint Bartholomew, Saint Boniface and Saint Martha, all in Jefferson County. (Easily I could have written of the same inspiration in visiting the Catholic Holy Land of Kentucky!)
It was a Saturday evening, and the bright setting sun filled the Church of Saint Bartholomew for a special celebration at 6 p.m. The Mass was in Spanish, and so many faithful from the Latino community gathered. Devotion to the Blessed Mother is so rich in the Latino community, and for this special Mass, we honored Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, the pride of the Cuban community. Recalling the miraculous uncovering of a statue in a storm near Cobre, this statue recalls the protection of the Blessed Mother and is a source of great devotion. The beautiful stained glass of the narthex or gathering space filled the church with soft and colorful light. Viewing this, I experienced the warmth of our faith that architecture can promote. It was Father Terry Bradshaw (now pastor of the Basilica of Saint Joseph Proto-Cathedral) who designed and installed this stained glass when he was pastor of Saint Bartholomew.
Then, on Sunday morning, I was privileged to visit the magnificent church of Saint Boniface. I was a sub for Father Jeff Shooner, recovering from surgery, and it was a delight to enter the soaring tall nave, to experience the great presence of the Crucifixion scene of Jesus prominent in the sanctuary and the 14 Stations of the Cross surrounding the faithful along the walls of the nave. The music was uplifting, and the faithful gathered in the narthex of the Church for a sunny photo around the baptismal font that greets those who enter. I recall that Father Tim Hogan, before his retirement, oversaw the restoration of this gem in the center city of Louisville. The spires on Liberty Street are so prominent from almost every vantage point in Louisville’s downtown; they beckon one to enter and be enriched in faith.
My third stop was at Saint Martha Church. Since the faithful of Saint Martha confirm their youth at the Cathedral, it had been some time since I have visited this church. Kudos to Father Mark Hamilton and his parishioners for the fine manner in which the Church has been renovated – to inspire and, as Saint Teresa of Avila once said of prayer, to allow for a “surge of the heart.” After the renovation, the sanctuary and nave have taken on an organic unity that is very appealing. I blessed the new organ and the beautiful Stations of the Cross and found the fervent enthusiasm of the parishioners uplifting as well.
Just as the most essential parts of our homes are the people residing within, so too, it is the presence of God that is central in a church, not the externals. Each church is a house of God – a sacred space in which we together come to meet our God. What a gift we have each Sunday and even for some, each day, as we enter into the sacred mysteries of the Holy Eucharist – as we come to allow the Word of God to touch our hearts and to be fed by the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ who died for our salvation. Nevertheless, the beauty of the church inspires as we enter, and we cannot overestimate the capacity for beauty to lead us to God. The art and architecture of our churches are essential details. As Saint John Paul said, “The purpose of art is nothing less than the upliftment of the human spirit.” Another great author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky in “The Idiot,” provides a decisive insight: “Beauty will save the world.”