Rorate Caeli

Benedict XVI: Beauty, Claudel, and the traditional Mass

Cardinal Suhard celebrates a Pontifical Midnight Mass at his 
Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris (Notre-Dame de Paris), Christmas 1948

The work of art is the fruit of human creativity, which questions the visible reality, trying to discover its deep meaning and to communicate it through the language of shapes, colours, sounds. ...

One example of this is when we visit a Gothic cathedral; we are enraptured by the vertical lines that shoot up towards the sky and draw our eyes and our spirits upwards, while at the same time, we feel small, and yet eager for fullness ... Or when we enter a Romanesque church: we are spontaneously invited to recollection and prayer. We feel as if the faith of generations were enclosed in these splendid buildings. Or, when we hear a piece of sacred music that vibrates the strings of our heart, our soul expands and helped to turn to God. A concert of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, in Munich, directed by Leonard Bernstein, again comes to my mind. After the last piece of music, one of the Cantate, I felt, not by reasoning, but in my heart, that what I heard had conveyed something of the faith of the great composer to me and pressed me to praise and thank the Lord ...

But how many times have paintings or frescoes, the fruit of the faith of the artist, in their forms, their colours, in their light, encouraged us to direct our thoughts to God and nourish in us the desire to draw from the source of all beauty. What a great artist, Marc Chagall, wrote remains true, that for centuries painters have dipped their paintbrush in that coloured alphabet that is the Bible. How many times, then can artistic expressions be occasions to remind us of God, to help our prayer or for the conversion of the heart! Paul Claudel, a poet, playwright, and French diplomat, in the Basilica of Notre Dame in Paris, in 1886, while he was listening to the singing of the Magnificat at Christmas Mass, felt God's presence. He had not entered the church for reasons of faith, but to in search of arguments against Christians, and instead the grace of God worked in his heart.
Benedict XVI
General Audience [transl. Asianews]
August 31, 2011

[Note: this passage of the life of Paul Claudel is quite famous; one cannot be sure it would have happened in quite the same way if a man of his same sensibility were to visit Notre-Dame de Paris one century later, in 1986... We had some of his words posted here in Rorate in 2010: the traditional Roman Liturgy was an essential part of his conversion.]


  1. Gratias5:54 AM

    The Missa Cantata in a preconciliar church building is truly a work of art that quickens the Faith. We are fortunate to have the complete Easter Triduum offered at our nearest Dioscesan TLM, so we rent a hotel room there (75 miles from our home) on Holy week. It is the highlight of our year.

  2. This is what we call a true embodiment of The Roman Catholic Faith. In every human sense for the participant we respire the absolute essence of beauty & majesty which is at once sublime and inspirational. Symbolically and realistically, every element leads our contemplation toward the triumph of Our Blessed Lord at Calvary. Everyone present in unison, including the celebrant, turns to face Almighty God in a liturgical act that glorifies the divine.

  3. Anonymous2:28 PM

    Let us remember, too, that the
    Roman Rite was dear to the heart of
    St. Francis of Assisi and was spread from Europe to the New World
    by OFM Missionaries sent over by
    Spanish monarchs. To him, it represented his attachment to the Papacy and the Roman Church.

  4. Anonymous5:54 PM

    What they have since done to the sanctuary of Notre Dame is blasphemous and that barbeque grill they now use for incense makes one expect child sacrifice.

  5. Precision, precision. Maybe it was the first Mass in France to be televised, but the first Mass EVER to be televised was at Christ the King Church in Haddonfield, NJ in 1947.

  6. Stephen, please, complain to the INA, OK? We will keep their information, since it is backed by an actual video recording of the event. If you wish complete precision, the first one, actually, was the Midnight Mass that would lead to Saint Clare's patronage over this medium.

    NC, going back to recess (and fleeing from aggravation...)

  7. Catholic Internet Broadcasting TV confirms it. Footage available from the local station too.

  8. OK, if you say so. We will still keep the information provided by the Institut national de l'audiovisuel - it could be interpreted in many ways.

    Best regards,


  9. Sentiments similar to those of the Holy Father can be found in a book from the early 1940's by M.O'Leary called The Catholic Church and Education. Two quotes follow, one short, one long.

    1. "The senses are the gateway of knowledge, through which the memory and emotions may be reached, and they in turn are acted upon by the intellect, the
    spiritual, abstract power which raises the human being above the level of the animal creation."

    2. "The idea of educating by environment is not peculiar to Christian theory, but it is specially suitable to it because of the value which Christian thought attaches to objective truth. If once a way of life can be evolved which can be looked upon as giving concrete expression to definite principles, it will have an incalculable power of
    leading the mind, imperceptibly but surely, to the full acceptance of those principles. The Church, as the Mother of souls, has always aimed at presenting some such environment to the young, and, indeed, not only to the young, but also to men of every age and every walk of life. Christendom is a corporate society, in which, ideally, every man, and especially the less-well instructed, will draw from the social conditions
    from which he lives, from the institutions, customs and buildings which surround him,
    knowledge and love of dogmatic truth.

    For this reason the very structure of the cathedral or monastic church was compounded of symbolism and storied teaching. The doctrines of the Trinity and of the Atonement, the central character of Eucharistic worship, the entrance of the soul into life by the gateway of Baptism could all be read in nave and transept; altar and font; arch, and triforium and clerestory. Scriptural and dogmatic teaching was illustrated in stone carving, in painting and stained glass. It was hymned in the liturgy, enacted in the ritual, formulated from the pulpit. As the seasons of the year
    succeeded one another, the feasts and the pageantry, the very drama and social gatherings were founded upon Christian teaching. The art of the day was in the main centred upon religion. The hierarchy of the visible Church was organised to link the ordinary man or woman with an authority derived from God."

  10. Interesting that Leonard Bernstein gets a mention. He may have been a talented conductor, but as a composer he was responsible for one of the most scandalous and
    blasphemous works concerning the Catholic Mass. Written in the early 70's, it clearly demonstrated how in a short time the noble Mass of Ages had become the target of the most vile and low abuse, insult and ridicule, with scarcely anyone left to defend it.

    The work, commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, is entitled "Mass", (formally "Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancer") and was premiered in 1971 as part of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The work is based on the traditional latin Mass but is a horrific deformation; pastiche, parody, travesty, caricature, mish-mash. Even the critics who considered it from a totally secular point of view called it vulgar and tasteless. The liturgical passages are sung in Latin, but there are also additional texts in English written by Bernstein, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz, and Paul Simon. The work is intended to be staged theatrically, but it has also been performed in a standard concert setting.

    The original cast consisted of a Celebrant, three choirs, and altar servers. A full classical orchestra performed in the pit, while onstage musicians -- including a rock band and a marching band -- performed and interacted onstage.

    To give you some idea of how the work unfolds here is part of the synopsis:

    In the beginning all of the performers are in harmony and agreement. During the course of the Mass, however, the street choir begins expressing doubts and
    suspicions about the necessity of God in their lives and the role of the Mass itself. At the play's emotional climax, the growing cacophony of the chorus' complaining finally interrupts the elevation of the Body and Blood (the consecrated bread and wine). The celebrant, in a furious rage, hurls the sacred bread, housed in an ornate cross-like monstrance, and the chalice of wine, smashing them on the floor.

    A review about this work in Amazon had this to say: I had to take part in a performance of this anti-Catholic monstrosity in college, and I discovered that everything negative that has been said about it is true. It is a tasteless, vulgar piece of propaganda written in the Sorry Seventies by a composer who was obviouly at the
    end of his sanity. Bernstein uses the sacred words of the Catholic Mass and massacres them, using them for political purposes, mocking them, and clothing them
    in the most trashy and banal music. Don't waste your money on this dated piece of garbage.

    The sad thing is that for each of the six negative reviews, of which this is one, there are at least seven positive ones.

    I suppose the charitable thing to say about Bernstein would be: Father, forgive him for he knew not what he did. But how I wish that Cardinals and Bishops in America would have banded together and admonished him with the words: Stop messing with our Mass.


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