Austria: The Church and the Arts

During my time in Graz, Austria I was often strike by the high level of discussion on the relationship between the Church and the arts. There are many efforts by the Church to bring contemporary art into the church and into the liturgy, even when it is quite challenging if not shocking in its modernity. Here are excerpts from a recent talk by the Bishop of Graz on this topic.  – Ed.

Bishop Kapellari Emphasizes the Christian Roots of European Culture

Lecture of the Diocesan Bishop of Graz at the Summer Conference of the Catholic Academic Society of Austria in Tainach

Diocesan Bishop Egon Kapellari of Graz emphasized the manifold connections between culture, art, and the Church in Europe. Even with all the conflicts between art, culture, and church which appear at times right up until today, one must not lose sight of the fact that church history also was always art history and cultural history, and that European culture has “extraordinarily much to thank to Christianity.” Austria in particular could serve as an example of a “successful mutual relationship between church and art.” Kapellari spoke within the context of the summer conference of the Catholic Academic Society of Austria (KAVÖ) on Thursday … on the topic of “Art and Religion – and the Relationship of the Christian to the Arts.”

In six successive reflections, Bishop Kapellari developed the theme of what high value art continues to possess from an ecclesial and theological standpoint, while he also indicated clearly its limits. A “disassociation,” i.e. a marked break in the harmony which existed up until then between the Church and art extends back approximately 200 years, according to Kapellari. Since then “many bridges between the Church and art have broken off, or are they are rarely tread.” Above all the artistic engagement with the catastrophes of the 20th century has often repressed beauty, which until then represented the connection to religion. Beauty has been allowed to become the “Cinderella of modernity” according to Kapellari.

For Kapellari, it is in the nature of things that such a “disassociation.. . can never be final.” Both art and the Church draw their fundamental inspiration from the “large themes of human existence” such as “life and death, happiness and tragic futility, peace and war, beauty and horror.” The Church needs art, said Kapellari, with reference to the address of John Paul II in 1983 in the royal palace in Vienna, “in order to comprehend with ever greater depth the ‘conditio humana,’ the splendor and the suffering of humanity.”

New Dialogue between Art and the Church

This admonition is found already in the manifold struggle with the Old Testament’s prohibition of images. This repeatedly demands a correction and criticism even of religions portrayals of Jesus Christ. On the one hand, prohibition of images could count as “the expression of the purity of faith; but it could equally contribute to an impoverishment of and loss of faith,” Kapellari emphasized.

At the same time the Bishop referred to the chance for a renewed dialog between art and the Church which results: “The demanding challenge of life’s large themes will repeatedly lead art and religion together for conversation, and will certainly prompt the Church to commission artists.” Until now in Austria this dialogue has only partially been cultivated according to Kapellari, with reference to, for example, the Viennese priest and art patron Msgr. Otto Mauer (d. 1973), or the priest Günter Rombold from Linz, or the Cultural Center of the Friars Minor (conventual Franciscans) in Graz.

Kapellari clearly emphasized – again with reference to Otto Mauer – the limits of what art may and may not do, such as when it is a matter of art which “denigrates people, is racially discriminatory, or is anti-Semitic.”   …

Arts as a Spiritual Cure of the Liturgy

Finally Kapellari referred to the central place of the engagement with art in the Church: the liturgy. Art can “especially help the liturgy to retain or to retrieve its holiness, its mystical depth.” Art can also help “drive banality out of the worship service.”

In fact there is in the liturgy today “much banality because of incompetent use of word, space, altar, liturgical vesture, and gesture,” said the bishop. Here one could learn something from the rigors of art. Kapellari appealed for theology professors, seminaries, religious orders, and lay training centers to be “qualified loci for diagnosis as therapy.” Like art, the liturgy is a “place of self-transcendence” to God and other humans.

The KAV summer conference… is dedicated to the question, “What do the arts have to say about God?” …

Kathweb Nachrichten, tr. and excerpted by awr.


  1. When he speaks of the arts, I assume he is referring mostly to the visual arts and music, but I would also add just a small footnote on the proclamation of scripture, which he alludes to once. Recently, I attended a Mass at which the readings were read so fast, they were hardly intelligible– much less a vehicle for meaning or engagement on the part of the hearers. I started to imagine (fancifully!) that someone must have given the reader a bonus meal at the local diner if she could read the whole passage without taking a single breath. The previous week (same parish) a gentleman read the reading as though it were a stock report. Utterly flat. No inflection. In fact, the news is read more expressively on the radio. What can one say? Abysmal. Just abysmal.

    1. +JMJ+

      I share your concern for the quality of proclamation of Scripture in our parishes. From time to time I hear a very wooden reading, as if every sentence were the same sort of sentence. No inflection at questions, no expression of poetry or rhetoric (in St. Paul’s letter, specifically), no noticeable heart or passion.

      There is surely a middle ground between a “Ben Steinian” reading and a thespian’s performance.

      1. What do you think is the cause of such poor proclamation? Is it that people are not screened? Is it poor training? I think a lot of people assume that anyone of a certain educational level can read aloud effectively, but I have found it is truly a gift — a gift that can be developed, but not everyone wants to put work into it.

      2. +JMJ+

        I can think of a whole number of factors (including yours). In no particular order…

        1. They are not screened: they just sign up and start lectoring.

        2. They are poorly trained: they receive little to no instruction and feedback, and they don’t know how to read Scripture aloud.

        3. They do not prepare: they do not take the time to read the Scriptures (in their context) before Mass.

        4. (At one extreme) They are caught up in lectoring: They see it as a performance or display, and so they try to put as much of themselves into the reading as possible.

        5. (At the other extreme) They do not care: they see lectoring as perfunctory, just some job that someone has to do to get the Mass moving along, so they are not concerned with how well it’s done.

        That’s what I’ve come up with.

        I was a lector for four years at my previous parish, where we did have a screening process and some form of training. We also received workbooks every liturgical year with the Sunday readings (from LTP, I think). I don’t know how much “on the job” feedback and training there was; in my experience, it was just to see if you were ready to start, not a constant evaluation. The quality of lectoring there was (on the whole) very good, in my opinion.

        At my current parish is where I hear the wooden readings, and it’s the sort of thing that makes me want to “come out of retirement,” if you’ll pardon the expression.

      3. This past Sunday, the lector utterly mangled the word “Ecclesiastes” – prompting a fellow seated behind me to disgustedly mutter the Lord’s name in vain. I am fairly confident that this lector received no feedback from the priest, since, in over 12 years of lectoring, I have never received any from our priests. Of course, as far as I know, I have never mangled the name of a Biblical book so completely.

        Training in proclamation is non-existent at our parish. And I think the criteria for becoming a lector is equally absent.

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