Today, Father Steve expounds upon his recent experiences in Tucson at the mission church of San Xavier del Bac and the Vatican Observatory, incorporating a reflection on John Henry Newman's process of "real assent" as it applies to these two important locations.
I returned this past Friday from Tucson Arizona where our crew filmed at sites that will be featured in the CATHOLICISM series. The production of the series is now nearing its completion with only sites in the Chicago area remaining to be filmed. After all the grand places and international locales that have previously been the focus of our crew's attention, the Tucson trip might be seen as somewhat anti-climatic. Of course this perception is mistaken. We experienced some rare gems of the Church's cultural treasury in Tucson.
Our first stop was the impressive mission church of San Xavier del Bac located about 10 miles from downtown Tucson on the Tohono O'odhan Tribal Reservation. Upon our approach the white stucco exterior of the church gleamed in the desert sun, beckoning us to consider what might present itself from within the mission's walls. That invitation did not disappoint. The interior of the mission is a riot of color and sculptural enthusiasm, a folkloric interpretation of the Spanish Baroque. The main altar was, unfortunately for us,covered with scaffolding but there was still much in the Church visible that expressed its unique witness to the Catholic Faith. The church lacks the convenience of air conditioning but the doors were propped open to welcome pilgrims and a cooling breeze.
Gazing at the decoration of the sanctuary one knew that this was more than just a roof and walls intended to protect the faithful from the elements. The mission church is experienced as a temple for the Lord, the privileged setting for the Sacrifice of the Mass and a receptacle for the reservation of the presence of the Lord abiding in the Blessed Sacrament. A steady stream of pilgrims made their way into this temple during our filming, most making their way to a side altar where beneath an image of Christ depicted as the "Man of Sorrows" there was a recumbant sculpture of Saint Francis Xavier depicted in the sleep of death. A pall covered this statue and to this cloth were pinned written petitions and mementos commemorating the saint's intercession. Pilgrims left these and flickering candles behind as a demonstration of their needs and as testimony to the depth of their devotion.
I thought to myself as I surveyed the image of Saint Francis and watched the piety of the faithful that this is a place that is made impressive, not just by history or unusual decoration, but because of the faith that has found expression here for centuries. This faith is not just faith in the abstract, but the Faith of the Church, a faith that holds firmly to the the belief that there is a real relationship between the living and the dead, and that the fullest expression of our heavenly destiny is not just to disappear into some monistic abyss, but to take our places as heavenly intercessors in the Communion of the Saints. I also felt a sense of deprivation and loss at the cold modernism that has captured so much of contemporary Catholicism with its stark, empty churches and the absence of the kind of imagery that inspired the devotion of the pilgrims at San Xavier del Bac. Would the modernist artistic and theological rationale that has dominated Catholic culture for decades even permit the construction of a temple like San Xavier's, let alone allow the image of a dead saint be placed in a church as a provocative reminder of the passing of this world and our hope for heaven? I know the answer and it saddens me.
What we have lost is an appreciation for what Cardinal Newman called "real assent." Real assent is that process of reasoning to the truth that is mediated by the particularities of things, persons, and experiences. In other words, those visceral qualities of life that engage all the senses. It is the evidence for the Faith that is demonstrated in the image of a saint lying recumbant in death and in the fervor of a pilgrim on their knees in tears before such an image. It is displayed in the riot of color and gilded altars of San Xavier and in the gleaming white stucco that begs a weary traveler to stop and look within. Cardinal Newman believed that real assent was as necessary to our religious formation as the abstract ideas which characterize notional assent. We need both and in the hyper verbal, artistically evacuated, devotionally suspicious spaces of late modern Catholicism, it is also necessary for us to discover places like San Xavier del Bac.
San Xavier was not the only wonder that revealed itself in Tucson. A few hours up Mt. Graham is the Vatican Observatory. We were privileged to have access to this state of the art scientific facility that is another kind of treasure of the Church. Our crew was accompanied by the Jesuit astrophysicists Father George Coyne and Father Chris Corbally. We did not see the stars while there but the scientific apparatus that enables the Church to participate in the study of the universe and its mysterious origins. Here too, real and notional assent come together in dramatic and unexpected ways.
What is revealed is that the perceived fued between science and the Church is more mythic than anything else, an attempt by secularity to insure the hegenomy of the material over against the spiritual. Speaking to Father Coyne and Father Corbally once can appreciate that whatever victory materialists or fundamentalists might achieve in the mythic battle of science and religion, that such a conquest would ultimately prove to be pyrrhic. Both materialism and fundamentalism reduce human experience rather than inviting us into our full potential and fool us into believing that creation can restrain and control its Creator. The dedication of Father Coyne and Father Corbally to both the Faith and the sciences shows us Catholics that we need not be afraid as we scan the heavens or our minds for answers in the face of the mysteries of the universe or of Revelation, for it is precisely in our inquiry into the truth of things that we find ourselves on ever more intimate terms with the Mind of our Maker.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.