Among the many inspiring addresses at the recent Convocation of Catholic Leaders was a speech by Bishop Robert Barron on the challenges and opportunities in preaching the Gospel in the age of the “nones,” the growing cohort of people with no religious affiliation. One opportunity Bishop Barron focused on was the evangelizing power of beauty. Rather than beginning with theological argumentation or moral appeals, he said, “Just show people the beauty of Catholicism—show them cathedrals, show them the Sistine Chapel, show them Mother Teresa’s sisters at work. Don’t tell them what to think and how to behave, show the beauty of Catholicism, and that has an evangelical power.”
This potential of beauty as a tool in spreading the faith was also noted in 2002 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in a message to the Communion and Liberation meeting at Rimini. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote of the beauty that exceeds physical aesthetics, of “being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ,” which is itself a kind of knowledge “more profound… than mere rational deduction.” This is because reason so often can be manipulated to “prove” nearly anything—it has a “wax nose,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar put it. Beauty, on the other hand, strikes us as an arrow to the heart, piercing through our preconceptions and opening us to a new reality. And the most convincing form of beauty, Ratzinger notes, is the beauty of Christ reflected in the lives of the saints, “through whom [Christ’s] own light becomes visible.”
An enduring example of this evangelizing power of beauty, both beauty of the aesthetic and of the moral kind, was seen in the 1944 Oscar-winning film Going My Way. Bing Crosby stars as Father Charles O’Malley, a charismatic young priest sent to aid an elderly pastor in turning around the fortunes of a struggling parish. When the young boys of the neighborhood rob a poultry truck, Father O’Malley realizes he needs to give them an alternative activity to keep them out of trouble.
After getting into their good graces by taking them to baseball games and movies, Father O’Malley asks them to start a boys’ choir for the church. The boys are skeptical, fearing they’ll be put in “lace panty-coats” and “turned into altar servers” (gasp!), but Father O’Malley assures them it will be fun.
Father O’Malley starts simply, having the boys sing “Three Blind Mice,” then having them sing it in the round. Next he separates them out into parts, from tenors to basses, giving each a different note to sing. When he finally has them sing their notes together, the boys are visibly pleased and excited by their accomplishment. Soon the boys are accompanying Father O’Malley as he sings “Silent Night.” When he asks whether they want to call it a day and get some baseball in, the boys all shout together, “Let’s sing some more! Yeah, come on! Let’s sing some more!” They form a regular choir for the church, and even have a hand in bringing the parish out of its financial difficulties. When Father O’Malley is transferred to another parish, he places one of the older boys (formerly one of the biggest trouble makers) in charge of the choir.
Now, we have no epilogue for the film that tells us whether Tony Scapone or Herman Langerhans grew up to become priests or Knights of Columbus or otherwise fine upstanding members of their Catholic communities, but the transformation of the young men in the film is evident. The boys go from dirt-faced rascals engaging in petty crime to choristers who “look like Botticelli’s angels,” to quote one character. They still enjoy baseball and movies, but they show gratitude for the outings and sing together on the bus ride. A definite change has taken place in these young men.
And Father O’Malley was able to bring it about, not through weighty sermons or haranguing the boys about their behavior, but through introducing them to something better, something beautiful. Of course, good preaching and fraternal correction are essential, but they are seldom the proper tool to plant that initial seed or ignite that first spark of faith in a person. Any moral argument against, say, poultry theft surely would have gone through their ears, if not over their heads—but the beauty of music, whether it’s “Three Blind Mice” or “Ave Maria,” surprised them, pierced them, and opened them to a way of looking at and interacting with the world.
A boys’ choir is hardly likely to be the model solution in every parish for youth evangelization, but other such activities that bring people, young or old, into contact with the beauty that is inherent in the Catholic faith can have a similar effect to that shown in the film. A recent study showed that in the UK, a significant percentage of young people decided to become practicing Christians after visiting a church or cathedral—more than were moved by attending a youth group or participating in a program like Youth Alpha.
Music especially seems to have a special power over our souls. Ratzinger noted this about himself in his message, sharing that at a particular performance of a Bach piece, “The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.” Maybe Tony Scapone would not have put it the same way, but no doubt he had the same experience.