Will Heaven Notebook
ould you hire a Continental priest to paint and redecorate your home – honestly, a priest from across the Channel to be your interior designer? I wouldn’t dream of it. Just imagine the hideous results!
I know this may sound harsh, but most European priests are not exactly in tune with good taste. Socks and sandals are a giveaway, but even the better dressed ones will let you down. When it comes to things like art and music – what is beautiful and what is not – far too many priests are all at sea.
So here’s a question: why do we Catholics allow priests to disfigure the most beautiful buildings in the world, namely our churches?
Before I offend those priests who read The Catholic Herald, and who do understand good taste, let me explain.
Last month I took a late summer holiday in the south of Italy. I stayed with my girlfriend for a couple of weeks near Positano, which John Steinbeck called “a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone”. We had plenty of time to visit the local churches.
The Church of Santa Maria Assunta, in Positano itself, was the first: the Duomo is the most striking feature of the town and arguably lends the place its dream-like quality, which Steinbeck noticed in 1953. But once we stepped inside the church, the dream became a little nightmarish.
First, there was the creepy muzak. It buzzed loudly through the speaker system, sounding like a mixture of Gregorian chant and the sort of thumping noise that teenagers listen to on the London Underground. The speakers also emitted a highpitched whining. It was as if we were riding a fairground ghost train.
Then there was the nonreligious paraphernalia. At the back of this once beautiful church there was a large and ugly arrangement of national flags. The implied message, believe me, was not: “We welcome visitors to this Catholic church”, but a trendy internationalist yell: “Hey, tourists, come on in!” (I think there was even an EU flag.) In the side chapels, there were ranks of fake electric candles on tacky wooden stands. Idle air conditioning units gathered dust. Posters advertising forthcoming festivals and out-of-date Sunday School noticeboards completed the cluttered effect – the church simply didn’t feel like a church any more. It was becoming a junk yard.
Who was to blame? Well, there was no sign of a priest. But who else? Who else would have sanctioned the muzak and ordered in the electric candles and put up the garish posters? Perhaps he’d have offered a robust defence. “This isn’t a museum piece or a relic for snobbish and uncharitable English tourists,” he might have argued, “it’s a working parish church.” So I’m afraid I would have partly blamed the parishioners, for allowing their priest to ruin a place of worship with his bad taste.
The second church we visited was the cathedral at Amalfi. And it’s a similar story: the church itself was in parts utterly mesmerising, but it seemed rather like a painting in need of restoration. A layer of muck had accumulated on its canvas: for example, an enormous poster hung off the pulpit, no doubt hiding outstanding medieval masonry. Again, I left feeling a bit empty – and wishing I’d been able to see the cathedral in Steinbeck’s era.
The trouble is, I’m sure some priests reading this assume I’m an unsympathetic young traddie who is lost without a Tridentine Mass. Not in the least bit: I just think, as Evelyn Waugh did, that bad taste is tied up with bad faith.