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VATICAN LETTER Mar-31-2006 (920 words) Backgrounder. With photo to come. xxxi

The Way of Beauty: Can it lead people to God?

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Poets and philosophers have long pondered the mysterious nature of beauty: Is beauty only what pleases or teases the eye of the beholder? Or does a more universal beauty exist that can attract people of all ages and cultures? And what about the wilting or wrinkling demise of physical beauty? Isn't there perhaps something more enduring that offers a glimpse of the divine?

Just as Socrates and other esteemed Greek intellectuals gathered one day more than 2,000 years ago to discuss beauty and love, another kind of symposium was held in the Vatican March 27-28 when more than 40 cardinals, bishops, religious and lay experts in culture revisited these perennial questions.

Participants in the Pontifical Council for Culture plenary assembly met to discuss the "Via Pulchritudinis" -- a not so beautiful-sounding Latin phrase for the "The Way of Beauty" and how it could become a "Privileged Pathway for Evangelization and Dialogue."

Beauty, along with what is true and good, can lead people to God, said the council's president, French Cardinal Paul Poupard.

But, he asked, how can the church help people discern this liberating and redeeming path of beauty from the more deceptive forms glistening and gleaming in magazine ads, on television and in storefront window displays?

Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick, Ireland, said in his address that most advertisements aim to persuade people they need certain products or services and that something "passing and trivial is more important and desirable than it really is."

Auxiliary Bishop Mark Coleridge of Melbourne, Australia, said drugs and alcohol are also part of these "false beauties" and "destructive ecstasies" that leave people empty, unconnected and severed from agape and charity.

In a world full of bright, attractive images, Bishop Murray said, "questions about the awful do not exist," and, quoting U.S. psychologist William James, he said "the big outside worldly wilderness with all its sins and sufferings" is avoided.

One topic of the plenary discussion was how people, obsessed with what some called a cosmetic or escapist beauty, would ever see the beauty of Christ disfigured, wounded and suffering on the cross.

Bishop Murray noted that "a great deal of modern art sets out to be crude and shocking, even ugly."

But perhaps in some works -- another bishop mentioned Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," -- there is "a valid protest against a shallow beauty" that avoids any insight into the inner depths of reality, he said.

"What refuses to face the truth cannot be beautiful," said the Irish bishop.

Christ possesses an everlasting, universal and saving beauty, and he is the only one who can quench humanity's longing for the truth, the good, and its "nostalgia for the beautiful," he said.

While the modern world seeks to distract itself from, gloss over or mask the facts of life or disconcerting truths, "the saving beauty of Christ faces the fear that a world is ending; it faces the fear that life might have no meaning," said Bishop Murray. "Evil, helplessness, fear and impermanence are conquered not by ignoring them, but by God's entry into them" by his becoming man.

In the ugliness of Calvary, God shows his redemptive power, his unconditional love for his children and his everlasting splendor, he said.

This saving beauty is visible and felt not only in the image of Jesus on the cross, with Christ's presence in the Eucharist, and in sacred art and music. Beauty is also present in the natural world God created, like in a starry night's sky, a sunrise, a field of flowers or the smile of a child, said U.S. Bishop William B. Friend of Shreveport, Louisiana.

Christian beauty is also manifest in people who live a life of holiness, said other participants.

Slovenian Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik said people infused with love for the other become beautiful. It is not enough to offer kind words and do good deeds; "only spiritual people" bathed in the grace of the Holy Spirit emanate beauty, he said.

Cardinal Ivan Dias of Mumbai, India, said the lives of the saints can be inspirational even for people of other religious faiths or no faith at all.

Most holy people do not often embody modern notions of beauty; many, like Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, were poor and others, like Pope John Paul II, were ailing and practically voiceless, and yet they still attracted people of all beliefs to listen to their message, he said.

People living a holy life might also be the object of ridicule, persecution or other hardships, making them unpopular and hardly attractive to most people, he said.

But the beauty of Christian holiness is like looking at a cocoon, he said. "Some despise the worm there as ugly, while others see in it a beautiful butterfly in the making."

A world that has become indifferent and jaded by so much flash, glitz and dazzle needs authentic beauty, participants said, and it's the church's mission to point out that "via pulchritudinis."

Father Rupnik said beauty is what links humanity to God and the divine. Take away the saints and angelic cherubim, and people are "left with only the animals," or worse, are alone.

Quoting Pope Paul VI in his Dec. 8, 1965, letter to artists, Cardinal Poupard said the world "needs beauty in order to not sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy" to the human heart, and "resists the wear and tear of time."

END


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