RECENTLY watched a two-part special on JFK that focused on his early political campaigns through to his presidency. My wife and I noted that his speech, and that of his colleagues and opponents, was nothing like the political discourse of today. Their words were almost always refined and elegant. They were masters of the language. It was beautiful to hear, and it was inspiring. Kennedy’s speeches in particular, with phrases such as “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” or “sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to the earth, not because it is easy but because it is hard” and “we must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth” were important because they assumed that most listeners would understand that striving for excellence is important and that not everything should be so watered down as to be easy or require no effort.
Kennedy (no matter what you think of his politics) spoke in a way that befitted his office. His speech had a cadence and rhythm that made it elevated and aspirational. Further, his wife beautified the White House so that all would recognize it as an almost ‘sacred’ place, worthy of only the best our culture had to offer. She invited the most important musicians and artists to perform there, not because it was her preference, but because it showed that a great country should support and sustain its culture. The use of language, the promotion of beauty, and the aspirational speech galvanized the people of the nation. A bar was raised that made the people proud of their country, aware of their rich cultural heritage, and helped all to appreciate excellence. Today, many would say that we no longer care about excellence, art, beauty, and a sense of the sacred; that we no longer know how to use elevated and respectful speech; and that we have squandered the pride of our rich cultural heritage. Many would say that our country has suffered greatly for these losses.
Our Church has lost many of the same things.
Our Catholic aspirations are much higher than even those of a great nation. Our aspiration is to get to heaven—period. Many people who will read this article have already experienced these losses. They know about the climate and discourse in so many of our parishes and on the internet. Still others will never have known about our rich cultural heritage except by attending a symposium or seminar.
So here is the question: has the kind of speech that has been foisted on the liturgy under the guise of ‘contemporary’ music, and has the loss of great art and architecture, the dismissal of a refined and elegant language, and the lack of aspirational speech focused on excellence led to a dismantling of our Catholic culture?
Excellence, beauty, elegant speech, lofty ideas. Where can these be found? What is our Catholic culture? Perhaps excellence and beauty can be found in the sacred music of chant and polyphony, which the Church tells us should hold pride of place in our liturgies. Perhaps elevated and inspirational language can be found in the sung dialogues of the priest and people, and in the newly refined Collects of the Roman Missal. Perhaps a sense of the sacred can be revived in the way the priests, deacons, and servers might comport themselves during Mass. Perhaps our culture can be saved by allowing people to once again experience the wonder of traditional vestments, by adorning our churches with beautiful art, by building new churches with architecture worthy of a sacred place, and by singing chant and sacred polyphony on a regular basis. Perhaps the 50-year experiment of singing “songs” with words about us, instead of sacred words about God, has led us to lose our focus. Perhaps.
“We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”
Perhaps this is about truth.