Art in Our Churches
Bishop Malloy Says Love, Care At Heart of Church Decorations
By Louise Brass, Observer Correspondent
April 26, 2018
Fine artwork can be a statement, a signpost, or a guide to understanding a message.
Art in our churches should be a link directing us to the Divine, and the message of Jesus, according to the 2000 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) liturgical guidelines.
Each work of art in a church—statue, glass work, or oil painting—can lead us to the Divine, because Christian beauty manifests itself as an echo of God’s own creative act, the guidelines state, and therefore should reflect the best of our artistic heritage.
Many churches in the Rockford Diocese contain dramatic and beautiful artwork for the edification of parishioners and visitors, said Bishop David Malloy during a recent Northern Illinois Newspaper Association gathering of journalists, students and religious leaders in DeKalb. 
“I think that’s been demonstrated especially by the historical and ethnic churches that are scattered throughout the diocese, particularly those with the magnificent stained glass windows that not only convey the story of faith and the Scriptures, but they also have that attraction and beauty that we are so aware is an opening to faith and the truth,” Bishop Malloy said.
The bishop is no stranger to churches in the “old world” as well.
“I spent many years in Europe and Rome and some time in France, and the ability to go into some of those churches, even if you are not a Catholic, or not a believer, to observe the love and the care and the beauty that is put together is something to observe.”
The lesson is the same here as it is there, he added.
The USCCB guidelines titled, “Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship,” states: “The place where God gathers this people powerfully draws them more deeply into communion and expresses in beauty God’s profound holiness.”
Lay persons can find direction when creating art for sacred spaces through The Catholic Art Guild, an all-volunteer, 501c3 non-profit organization created to support Catholic art and artists. 
The mission of the guild is to catalyze artists towards participation in the new evangelization, answering the call of Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Paul VI, all of whom called artists to use their gifts in aid of the Church and for the greater glory of God. 
In almost every church, stained glass windows display many scenes from the life of Christ and images of saints, creating a kaleidoscope of color. However, the crucifix is usually the most dramatic and symbolic of all the art in a Catholic church, and typically is placed prominently above or behind the altar.
“It has always been the custom and the tradition that we focus on the cross, because it is the death of Christ that opens the way to Easter and the resurrection,” Bishop Malloy said. 
The Church considers artwork a constitutive element of the sacred liturgy. So it has to be sacred art, opening the mind of the viewer to truth.
“People in our contemporary culture have the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ which makes the beauty or goodness of a piece of art subjective,” said Father Jonathan Bakkelund, director of the Office for Divine Worship and pastor at St. Peter Parish in Geneva.
“But our Church has never taught that. For us, beauty is objective,” Father Bakkelund said.
To determine if something is sacred or not sacred, he said, the question is, “Does the image represent accurately the ontological reality or the fundamental being of the thing it is representing? If it does that well, it is beautiful. If it does not, then it is not,” Father Bakkelund said.
Ultimately it is up to the bishop, as the chief liturgist, to decide appropriateness of a work of art. And that ensures continuity.
When it comes to artwork, everyone has preferences. One pastor may want certain decorations or artwork, and the next priest to come to a parish may want something different. 
“Then the next guy comes and changes everything back. To ensure it is not a matter of personal preference, in the Diocese of Rockford — because the Church thinks in centuries — the Church’s understanding of changes in the sacred liturgy go through the Office of Divine Liturgy,” Father Bakkelund said.
The “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” is really the governing document for liturgical art and architecture, he added.
Pope St. John Paul II, in his letter on the Eucharist, said that Catholics understand the liturgy as a banquet and a feast, a memorial and a celebration, but amidst all those things it is most fundamentally a sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.
A small crucifix is placed on or near the altar during Mass to help keep the sacrifice of Christ in the forefront of the mind of the celebrant when saying the Mass, Father Bakkelund added.
Artwork, whether of glass, canvas, wood or stone, helps add a deeper understanding of what is happening on the altar, he said, and can guide the congregation into an appropriate state of mind for participating in the liturgy.
 “We believe the liturgy is literally heaven on earth,” he said.