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Fr Billy Swan

The following is the second part of an article on the theme of beauty. Part I explored the theme of beauty in Scripture, the Fathers and the saints.

Retrieving Beauty Today:

With all of the great tradition of beauty in mind, Pope Francis turned his attention to the evangelical power of beauty in his Apostolic Exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel’. Although credited for this refreshing approach, Francis was repeating what many of his predecessors had said before him. At the closing of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI famously said: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair” (Message to Artists, 1965). No doubt he had here in mind the famous quote from Dostovesky’s work The Idiot where he wrote that, with Christ in mind, ‘Beauty will save the world’. Similarly, St John Paul II said that “beauty is a call to transcendence…the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God” (Letter to Artists, 1999). In the same letter to artists, he urges an attentiveness to “new epiphanies of beauty”. In a similar vein, Pope Francis clarifies that:

“Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” or what he calls the via pulchritudinis. Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus” (The Joy of the Gospel, 167).

He continues: “We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others” (The Joy of the Gospel, 167). The goal of this process is leading people to faith in Christ: “Beauty is a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the risen Christ to radiate within it. The incarnate Son is the revelation of divine beauty’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 167).

With this encouragement, the pope urges priests, catechists and all the baptised to contemplate sources of beauty where they are found and help connect that experience of beauty with the source of beauty who is God. Following on from this, the ‘Directory for Catechesis’ published in 2020 by the Pontifical Council for promoting new evangelization, picks up the theme of beauty as a source of catechesis. It clarifies that this focus on beauty is always understood as the expression of goodness, unity and truth. Beauty therefore is the radiance of unity, goodness and truth (para. 108). The foundation of this teaching of course is our understanding of who God revealed himself to be as truth, goodness and beauty. The beautiful God plants his own beauty in creation as clues for us to find Him. As Simon Weil explains: “The soul’s natural inclination to love beauty is the trap God most frequently uses in order to win it and open it to the breath from on high” (Waiting on God).

Loving Beauty Early

If Augustine, myself and countless others have come to know beauty late, how can we ensure that young seekers and believers come to know beauty early? What are the epiphanies of beauty in our culture today? Here I share a few thoughts about how we all can find beauty, behold beauty, cherish it, love it and how it can lead us to the beauty of Christ and the beauty of God.

  • Having new eyes to see. In ‘Christus Vivit, Pope Francis says that eyes can only see accurately through tears. Let us see the suffering of others through tears of compassion for them. That the Lord will heal our blindness to see all there is to see and not just what we want to see. Ask for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that we might see all there is to see with new awe and wonder – to delight in the beauty of the natural world, the magnificence of a night sky without clouds, a stunning rainbow or an awesome sunrise. These daily miracles are worth watching and not missing. Nothing kids can find on a screen can ever replicate these things.

  • The Beauty of people. Have you ever sat waiting for a plane at the airport and just sat there ‘people watching?’ It definitely takes you out of yourself by observing people from all over the world coming and going. The truth dawns on us that each human life is unique and uniquely beautiful. Just as Christ’s beauty was hidden beneath wounds and bruises, so the poor have a beauty beneath their sadness and hardship. Yet their beauty is so easy to miss and ignore: “In so far as you neglected to do it to these my brothers and sisters, you neglected to do it to me” (Matt. 25).

  • The Beauty of charity. Goodness and charity are beautiful when we see it. Selfishness and greed are ugly. Look for the beauty of charity whoever it comes from. Be a person of charity, love and justice in order to make the world a more beautiful place. In the light of beauty, morality can be approached by a new route and understanding. Doing what is right and just is beautiful and wholesome. Immorality and injustice are horrible, dark and divisive.

  • The Beauty of truth. The poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats ends with the line ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know’. Like beauty, truth resists us conforming it to us but rather truth conforms us to it. Having a passion for truth take us on an adventure of discovery outside ourselves. Whether the truth we discover is scientific truth, religious truth or moral truth, all truth makes demands of us and changes us. As truth is beautiful so lies and deceit are ugly.

  • The Beauty of art and architecture. A phrase we often hear is that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. I have always struggled to accept this. For example, if you see a painting by Carravaggio and make up your mind that you don’t like it, then the problem is with you, not with Caravaggio! Or if we enter Chartes Cathedral in France and remain indifferent to the beauty found there then the problem is with us and not the people who designed this magnificent building. The Church’s patrimony includes an awesome array of art and beautiful buildings that serve to draw people into an experience of beauty and transcendence. This was the intention of the artists. For example, Augustus Welby Pugin who designed our Cathedral in Enniscorthy, said that height is emblematic of the resurrection. His famous gothic style of architecture served to help lift the heart, mind and souls of worshippers towards the divine.

  • The Beauty of Music. Again, the same is true of beautiful music as it is for art. If I don’t like Pachelbel Canon in D, or Allegri’s Miserere or a Mozart symphony, then the problem is on my side. I am failing to hear and perceive the beauty that is there. For St Augustine, beautiful music helped to break open his deafness to hear and sense the beauty of God: “How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran and it was good for me to have that experience” (Confessions, 9, 6). The Church has a wonderful musical patrimony but there are other forms of music too, not strictly sacred or liturgical, that can lead us to a beautiful spiritual experience.

  • The Beauty of Mary and the Saints. The liturgy is our encounter with heavenly realities. It is the place where the divine encounters our humanity in a way that renews God’s image and likeness within us. Therefore, the liturgy both helps us to see again the beauty of God and makes us radiant with that same beauty. In the saints we see windows of God’s grace triumphant in human lives where God’s beauty shines through them. We think here of the beautiful charity of St Maxillian Kolbe, Mother Teresa, Edith Stein, Therese of Lisieux and countless more. In a special way, the feast days of Our Lady show us how God’s grace makes a human life beautiful. Her Assumption and Immaculate Conception reveal Mary as someone beautiful in body and soul, radiant with God’s grace and without the sin that dims that light. This is why the Church honours Mary as the tota pulchra (the ‘All Beautiful’). Mary is beautiful because God is beautiful and because she bore him in her womb who is ‘the fairest of the children of men’ (Ps. 45:2).

  • The Beauty of Christ. The beauty of people, charity, art, music and the saints all converge on the One who is beautiful, Our Lord Jesus Christ. He is beautiful in his mercy, his truth, his compassion, his goodness, his kingdom, his healings, his forgiveness, his wounds and his love. His loveliness shines from his transfiguration, his cross, his resurrection and ascension. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God is ‘beauty’s self and beauty’s giver” (‘The Leaden echo and the Golden echo’, from A Selection of his Poems and Prose). Through Christ, God continually offers his beauty to the world to redeem it and save it. When the beauty of his light shines on us it changes us to become radiant with his light in a way than changes us. Here is the beauty of Christ that he shares with us. Here is the beauty of holiness – the beauty that does indeed save the world.


What the Church needs today is people who have discovered a beauty in the story of Christianity and who desire to lead others to that beauty too. There is, in fact, no narrative more beautiful, more powerful and more fascinating than that that which the Scriptures put before us. Contained in that story is the beauty that conforms us to itself and makes us reflect it. Let us not be late to love beauty like St Augustine but to discover it today in our faith. Let the whole Church witness to the beauty of God and the God of beauty. For when we do, we become the Church Christ intended – to be ‘Lumen Gentium’ – showing the light of God’s beauty to the nations. Let people see this light and be smitten. And may they come to believe in the God of beauty too.


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