All Great Works of Art are an Epiphany of God: From Pope Benedict XVI’s Dialogue in Bressanone

by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, appearing in Volume 15

The Cathedral of Bressanone, Itay. Photo:

On August 6, 2008, during his two-week retreat at the seminary near Bressanone, Italy—a town at the foot of the Alps near the Austrian border and a long-time vacation locale for Benedict XVI and his brother Monsignor Georg Ratzinger—the Holy Father met with four hundred priests of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone at the Cathedral of S. Maria Assunta for an open question-and-answer session. The questions on beauty and the protection of creation and the pontiff’s responses are reproduced below.

Question: Holy Father, my name is Willibald Hopfgartner, I am a Franciscan and I work in a school and in various areas of guidance of my order. In your discourse at Regensburg you stressed the substantial link between the divine Spirit and human reason. On the other hand, you also always underlined the importance of art and beauty, of aesthetics. Consequently, should not the aesthetic experience of faith in the context of the Church, for proclamation and for the liturgy be ceaselessly reaffirmed alongside the conceptual dialogue about God (in theology)?

Answer: Thank you. Yes, I think these two things go hand in hand: reason, precision, honesty in the reflection on the truth—and beauty. Reason that intended to strip itself of beauty would be halved, it would be a blinded reason. It is only when they are united that both these things form the whole, and precisely for faith this union is important. Faith must continuously face the challenges of thought in this epoch, so that it does not seem a sort of irrational legend that we keep alive but which really is a response to the great questions, and not merely a habit but the truth—as Tertullian once said. In his First Letter, St. Peter wrote the phrase that medieval theologians took as a legitimation, as it were, a responsibility for their theological task: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you”—an apologetic for the logos of hope, that is, a transformation of the logos, the reason for hope in apologetics, in response to men. He was obviously convinced of the fact that the faith was the logos, that it was a reason, a light that came from creative Reason rather than a wonderful concoction, a fruit of our thought. And this is why it is universal and for this reason can be communicated to all.

Yet, precisely this creative logos is not only a technical logos—we shall return to this aspect with another answer—it is broad, it is a logos that is love, hence such as to be expressed in beauty and in good. Also, I did once say that to me art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith. The arguments contributed by reason are unquestionably important and indispensable, but then there is always dissent somewhere. On the other hand, if we look at the saints, this great luminous trail on which God passed through history, we see that there truly is a force of good which resists the millennia; there truly is the light of light. Likewise, if we contemplate the beauties created by faith, they are simply, I would say, the living proof of faith. If I look at this beautiful cathedral—it is a living proclamation! It speaks to us itself, and on the basis of the cathedral’s beauty, we succeed in visibly proclaiming God, Christ and all his mysteries: Here they have acquired a form and look at us. All the great works of art, cathedrals—the Gothic cathedrals and the splendid Baroque churches—they are all a luminous sign of God and therefore truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God. And in Christianity it is precisely a matter of this epiphany: that God became a veiled Epiphany—he appears and is resplendent. We have just heard the organ in its full splendor. I think the great music born in the Church makes the truth of our faith audible and perceivable: from Gregorian chant to the music of the cathedrals, to Palestrina and his epoch, to Bach and hence to Mozart and Bruckner and so forth. In listening to all these works—the Passions of Bach, his Mass in B flat, and the great spiritual compositions of 16th-century polyphony, of the Viennese School, of all music, even that of minor composers—we suddenly understand: It is true! Wherever such things are born, the Truth is there. Without an intuition that discovers the true creative center of the world such beauty cannot be born. For this reason I think we should always ensure that the two things are together; we should bring them together. When, in our epoch, we discuss the reasonableness of faith, we discuss precisely the fact that reason does not end where experimental discoveries end—it does not finish in positivism; the theory of evolution sees the truth but sees only half the truth: It does not see that behind it is the Spirit of the creation. We are fighting to expand reason, and hence for a reason, which, precisely, is also open to the beautiful and does not have to set it aside as something quite different and unreasonable. Christian art is a rational art—let us think of Gothic art or of the great music or even, precisely, of our own Baroque art—but it is the artistic expression of a greatly expanded reason, in which heart and reason encounter each other. This is the point. I believe that in a certain way this is proof of the truth of Christianity: Heart and reason encounter one another, beauty and truth converge, and the more that we ourselves succeed in living in the beauty of truth, the more that faith will be able to return to being creative in our time too, and to express itself in a convincing form of art.

So, dear Father Hopfgartner, thank you for your question; let us seek to ensure that the two categories, the aesthetic and the noetic (intellectual), are united and that in this great breadth the entirety and depth of our faith may be made manifest.

Question: Holy Father, my name is Karl Golser, I am a professor of moral theology here in Bressanone and also director of the Institute for Justice, Peace and the Preservation of the Creation. I am pleased to recall the period in which I was able to work with you at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What can we do to increase the sense of responsibility for creation in the life of our Christian communities? What can we do in order to view Creation and Redemption as more closely united?

Answer: Thank you very much, dear Prof. Golser. You have thus touched on the theme of Creation and Redemption and I think that this indissoluble bond should be given new prominence. In recent decades the doctrine of Creation had almost disappeared from theology, it was almost imperceptible. We are now aware of the damage that this has caused. The Redeemer is the Creator and if we do not proclaim God in his full grandeur—as Creator and as Redeemer—we also diminish the value of the Redemption. Indeed, if God has no role in Creation, if he is relegated merely to a historical context, how can he truly understand the whole of our life? How will he be able to bring salvation to man in his entirety and to the world in its totality? Twenty-three years ago Christians were accused—I do not know if this accusation is still held—of being the ones truly responsible for the destruction of Creation because the words contained in Genesis—“subdue the earth”—were said to have led to that arrogance with regard to creation whose consequences we are reaping today.
I think we must learn again to understand this accusation in all its falsity: as long as the earth was seen as God’s creation, the task of “subduing” it was never intended as an order to enslave it but rather as the task of being guardians of creation and developing its gifts; of actively collaborating in God’s work ourselves, in the evolution that he ordered in the world so that the gifts of Creation might be appreciated rather than trampled upon and destroyed.

If we observe what came into being around monasteries, how in those places small paradises, oases of creation were and continue to be born, it becomes evident that these were not only words. Rather, wherever the Creator’s Word was properly understood, wherever life was lived with the redeeming Creator, people strove to save creation and not to destroy it. Chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans also fits into this context. It says that the whole of Creation has been groaning in travail because of the bondage to which it has been subjected, awaiting the revelation of God’s sons: it will feel liberated when creatures, men and women who are children of God, treat it according to God’s perspective. I believe that we can establish exactly this as a reality today. Creation is groaning—we perceive it, we almost hear it—and awaits human beings who will preserve it in accordance with God. The brutal consumption of Creation begins where God is not, where matter is henceforth only material for us, where we ourselves are the ultimate demand, where the whole is merely our property and we consume it for ourselves alone. And the wasting of creation begins when we no longer recognize any need superior to our own, but see only ourselves. It begins when there is no longer any concept of life beyond death, where in this life we must grab hold of everything and possess life as intensely as possible, where we must possess all that is possible to possess.

Thus, I believe we must strive with all the means we have to present faith in public, especially where a sensitivity for it already exists. And I think that the sensation that the world may be slipping away—because it is we ourselves who are chasing it away—and feeling oppressed by the problems of Creation, afford us a suitable opportunity in which our faith can speak publicly and make itself felt as a propositional initiative. Indeed, it is not merely a question of discovering technologies that prevent the damage, even though it is important to find alternative sources of energy, among other things. Yet, none of this will suffice unless we ourselves find a new way of living, a discipline of making sacrifices, a discipline of the recognition of others to whom creation belongs as much as it belongs to us who may more easily make use of it; a discipline of responsibility with regard to the future of others and to our own future, because it is a responsibility in the eyes of the One who is our Judge and as such is also Redeemer but, truly, also our Judge.

Consequently, I think in any case that the two dimensions—Creation and Redemption, earthly life and eternal life, responsibility for the Creation and responsibility for others and for the future—should be juxtaposed. I also think it is our task to intervene clearly and with determination on public opinion.