From one point of view, it is difficult to be optimistic about prospects for the Church and the Churches. Over the last two decades, time and time again, statistics have been telling us that the decline is one and irreversibly so. It is also a matter of observation.
We see around us continuing decline in mainline denominations, widespread cultural apathy towards institutions in general, and churches in particular. And a spiritually bereft but demanding young generation.
And yet, even as some secular commentators admit, in many places the Church is one of the few remaining communities on which the health of society depends. With all its flaws, it can still inspire and mobilize people as can no other organisation. The Church holds in its frail hands the treasure of the Gospel – that story of God’s transforming power. This gives us all hope.
But this hope must embrace a broadening of vision and imagination. Somehow it must involve taking the Gospel deeper into our singing, our walking and our working, into that inmost part of ourselves where our ambitions lie. This implies that Catholics must discover a renewed vision for the visual arts, because the gifts of vision and imagination are part of the Christian’s birthright.
We need to recover our visual imagination. There are many angles to our present situation. One of the most pressing factors is the ever-changing cultural situation in which we are living. Culture has made a definitive turn towards the visual, and with the rise of new media, the visual image has come to occupy pride of place in our daily lives. Someone has calculated that a Puritan in early America listened to an average of five thousand sermons in their lifetime. An Australian growing up today will watch at least seven thousand TV programs. Whereas the world and the Word was mediated to our ancestors through the preached word, it all comes to us in images.
True, images can weaken or obliterate critical thinking and analysis, as the critics argue. But there is also evidence that the images can stimulate a new visual literacy and imaginative potential.
There is no reason to resist this turn to the visual, no reason to believe the visual is inherently bad. Though all cultural trends, like all people, are flawed, they are also redeemable. The Christian faith, through most of its history, was conveyed as much or more through buildings and images as through theological texts.
With the restoration and completion of St Mary’s Cathedral, we are somehow embodying the dual factor of spirit and stone into the fabric and rhythms of the city of Perth. Future generations of Catholics will apprehend this in a different way to us. But somehow they will be tempted to translate into new forms the spirit which has been handed on to them in today’s new forms. And the Greatest Story ever Told will be told again. Again and again.