Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as Academic Dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Theology and U.S. Catholic Church History. He has served as a parish priest, high school seminary teacher, and as a Censor Librorum for his Diocese, as well as a theological consultant for NET TV. Fr. Cush is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Tablet and the Albany Evangelist.
In my last contribution for the Register, I related the experience of searching for a theological underpinning for evangelization for young people in campus ministry. The occasion for my thoughts on this matter was when I was asked to offer a conference for seminarians in third theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy, where I am blessed to serve as a member of the seminary’s formation faculty, as academic dean.
I realized that my talk, when I first reviewed it several days before having to offer the formation conference, was more of a “things-to-do” and “things-to-avoid” talk. Yes, seminarians, future priests, need to have firm, established boundaries in their relationships with those to whom they will (or already are) ministering. Yes, seminarians, future, priests need to be aware about the proper use of social media.
But I wanted to give the seminarians a theological basis in evangelization, so I turned to Bishop Robert E. Barron’s thought, especially as articulated in his 2017 interview book, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, written with John L. Allen, Jr.
The way of the transcendentals — truth, goodness and beauty — are, in my opinion, the key to a program of evangelization. Again, in my last entry, I reminded us what exactly the transcendentals are, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 40, 41):
Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking. All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures — their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Cnsequently we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfections as our starting point, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”
John L. Allen, Jr., in his interview with Bishop Barron (2017), states:
In Christian tradition, beauty, goodness, and truth are known as “transcendentals,” linked to the three core human abilities to feel, to wish and to think. Jesus refers to them in the Great Commandment when he talks about the mind, the soul and the heart, and inducements formed the core of his temptation scene in the Gospels.
If we were to examine the transcendentals for evangelization, with which should we begin? The order, I believe, is to begin with beauty; then to go to goodness; then to go to truth. This is also what is prescribed by Bishop Barron. Again, John Allen writes: “While Barron is convinced that Catholic Christianity represents the fullness of all three, he’s equally convinced that the right way to open up the Catholic world to someone is with beauty.”
So, why not truth? Why not begin with Veritas? In 2015, Bishop Barron states in an essay celebrating the history of New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral:
There’s something more winsome and less threatening about the beautiful. “Just look,” the evangelist might say, “at Chartes Cathedral or the Sainte Chapelle, or the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or the mosaics at Ravenna.” “Just read,” he might urge “Dante’s Divine Comedy or one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems, or Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.” “Just watch,” he might suggest, “Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity at work among the poorest of the poor.” The wager is that the encounter with the beautiful will naturally lead someone to ask, “What made such a thing possible?” At that point, the canny evangelizer will begin to speak of the moral behaviors and intellectual convictions that find expression in the beautiful. If I might suggest a simple metaphor, when teaching a young person the game of baseball, a good coach begins, not with the rules or with tiresome drills, but rather with the beauty of the game, with it sounds and smells and the graceful movements of its star players. (quoted in To Light a Fire on the Earth, 41)
Why? Beginning with beauty simply makes sense. It attracts. Recall the old adage: “You attract more flies with honey, than vinegar.” This is an obvious insight that is articulated well by one of Bishop Barron’s greatest theological mentors, Hans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1988), as well as the illative sense as described by the soon-to-be canonized John Henry Cardinal Newman (d. 1890) in his work Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. In a future piece, I would like to discuss Balthasar’s theology and its influence on Bishop Barron, but, for the sake of what is really a short piece in pastoral theology, I will simply allow Balthasar to speak for himself on the topic of beauty:
Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it danced as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man…Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much as courage and decision as do truth and goodness., and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past- whether he admits it or not- can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love. (Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Volume 1- Seeing the Form, as quoted in Barron/Allen )
For those who sadly might dismiss the insight of Balthasar on beauty, I recommend reading Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, who writes on the essential role of beauty in many places. One place where this theology is encapsulated is in his 2002 address to the ecclesial movement, Communion and Liberation, entitled “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty.” In his 1985 interview, The Ratzinger Report, the future Pope stated:
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history.
This is precisely the thought that Bishop Barron is tapping into when he believes that effective evangelization begins with beauty. Above all else, the beautiful reflects and radiates the beauty of the All-Beautiful One.
From very early on his theology, Bishop Barron has attempted to tap into the beautiful. In great literature, great music, great art, great philosophy, we encounter beauty. In his classic early work, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (1998), Bishop Barron writes:
…we will range widely through the Christian tradition, drawing on authors as diverse as Dante, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Aquinas, Origen, Hans Urs von Balthasar, James Joyce, William Faulkner and Paul Tillich…The Christian tradition stubbornly and patiently walks around the icon of Christ, seeing it, describing it, speaking of it in various ways and with various audiences in mind, convinced that no one word, no one take, is sufficient to exhaust the “infinite richness of Christ.”…It was John Henry Newman who said that the mind is brought to assent, no so much through any one clinching argument, but through a series of probable arguments converging and tending in the same direction. It is in accord with this “illative” approach that we proceed. (15)
With all that being said, what does it mean to start with beauty in the evangelization of young people who are coming, ultimately, to campus ministry to echo the word of the Greeks who come to the Apostle Philip: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:21)? What advice could I give to young seminarians and priests who wish to “begin with beauty” in their campus ministry?
Well, for the seminarians whom I blessed to help form, it’s fairly obvious, living in the Eternal City. Think of the success that they might have with inviting students to attend the annual Lenten Station Church pilgrimage or on a tour of the Vatican Basilica of Saint Peter’s; to go to Assisi and spend time in a medieval city dedicated to the Poverino or to Siena to pray with Catherine. They are surrounded by beauty here — I encourage them to use the beauty of Rome and throughout Italy to evangelize, for instance — taking these young people on a “Caravaggio Run,” bringing them to all the different places where the artist’s works are.
Perhaps this is more apparent in such a beautiful city like Rome, but beauty is all around us, no matter where we are. Expose students in campus ministry to the wonders of Catholic literature; bring them to experience wonderful classical art; and, perhaps, in what I have found works the best- expose them to good film and television. For instance, I have used M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) to discuss the importance of the sacraments, especially Holy Baptism, and the basic morality tales found in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964).
And do not forget good liturgy as the height of beauty. Often, in our campus ministries, whether through an attempt to be more “youth-friendly” (with embarrassing, cringe-worthy music) or due to lack of a good space (many times, one has to celebrate Holy Mass in a classroom) or sheer exhaustion (in many cases, due to the very busy schedules of students on the weekend, Holy Mass on Sunday will be at 10:30 p.m.!), we forget to offer a reverent Mass, with a good homily, and with good music. The Lord Jesus Christ is the All-Beautiful One. He is fully present in the Eucharist.
Yes, it makes sense (to me, at least) to begin evangelization with beauty. By doing so, we are not hiding truth, nor dismissing goodness. Beauty entices, and, as Father Thomas Dubay teaches us:
Truth beauty and goodness have their being together, by truth we are put in touch with reality which we find is good for us and beautiful to behold. In our knowing, loving and delighting the gift of reality appears to us as something infinitely and in-exhaustively valuable and fascinating. (The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet, 23).
In my next entry on the theology of Bishop Robert E. Barron, I would like to continue on this theme of evangelization through the transcendentals, this time focusing on goodness.