Listers, think of all your favorite Catholic authors (Chesterton, Tolkien, O’Connor, Percy, Greene, Powers). Besides being Catholic, what other common similarity do they all share? The answer is: They’re all dead! (God rest them). Now try to think of just one famous Catholic fiction writer who you absolutely love, who you know will make an indelible mark on the history of literature in the 21st century, and who is still alive today. If you are like me, you really have strain to name one off the top of your head. I am sure there are several famous authors who happen to be Catholic, but their personal religious ideals and perceptions are not entirely made known in their writings. However, there are other writers who try to write beautiful stories but can’t get published, promoted, or recognized by the secular or many Catholic media outlets because they are too “religious” and are, therefore, too “unrealistic.” Somehow “religious” has become a synonym for “unrealistic,” but as Catholics we know that is certainly not the case. Our religion is our reality. So, when a Catholic writer wants to write what they know and they want to write about the reality of being a Catholic, they are then told by everyone else that their reality is not “real” enough. If that is not discouraging, then I don’t know what is.
Flannery O’Connor acknowledges the plight of the contemporary Catholic author. She says:
But I don’t believe that we shall have great religious fiction until we have again that happy combination of believing artist and believing society. Until that time, the novelist will have to do the best he can in travail with the world he has. He may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by. This is a modest achievement, but perhaps a necessary one. — “Novelist and Believer,” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. 168.
I agree with O’Connor that this difference in ideology between author and reader is one of the reasons for the faithful Catholic artist’s plight. I believe, however, that the struggle of the contemporary faithful Catholic writer or artist can be lightened somewhat if the Catholic community and media rallies around them more. Therefore, I have composed a list of reasons why the Catholic community needs to take action against this crisis.
#1 The World Shouldn’t Define What It Means to Be Catholic
For some reason, in the 20th and 21st century, we have allowed the media to define what it means to be Catholic for the rest of the world. It is impossible to watch any sort of movie or television show portray the Catholic Church in the right way. I will never forget watching an episode of Sex in the City (Yes, I do think less of myself, and, yes, I went to Confession over this) where Carrie Bradshaw describes the Catholic Church “as a desperate 36-year-old single woman willing to settle for anyone she could get.” I savagely wanted to lodge my remote control in the middle of my television screen. Every time I read a book where there is a scene of someone in the Confessional, they have some pervy, plump, and puerile character who is suppose to resemble a priest give some trite, borderline heretical piece of advice while wringing his hands and using the phrase “my son” more than is natural for any human being. This misconception must stop or we will have a harder time being taken seriously by the rest of the world.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.” So how can we fix this? I believe that faithful Catholic artists and writers must create pieces of art and write works of literature that not only define properly what we are to the rest of world in terms of the universal language of beauty but spread the message of hope in an apathetic world. If our creative members shy away from creating because they are afraid of being ridiculed for the work being overtly religious, then we have no one describing to the world in universal terms what we are all about. However, the creative types in our community are not the only ones responsible for clearing up the the world’s misunderstanding of the Church. The Catholic media outlets need to promote and exhibit zealously the works by these marginalized people, and the Catholic community as an audience needs to seek out these artists and writers by giving them a chance and by supporting their work financially. It is by these means we can show the world what it really means to be Catholic.
#2 The Catholic Church Was Once the Main Source of Art and Literature in the Western World
Any art history aficionado knows that from the very beginning Christians began to express their love of God through the arts. Early on Christians started filling the world with images of the gospel from everything to the carvings of poems on crypts in the catacombs to the music they played and the stories they told. When Rome fell, the Church was left with the responsibility of preserving and protecting the creativity of the past all the while nurturing and developing the art of the future. Lovers of culture must acknowledge that the Church continued and advanced the skill and overall craftsmanship of art. Quite simply without Christianity art might have not been the same.
When the age of modernity came, the Church began to lose art to secularism. By the time the 20th century came and gone, art produced by the Church or its members became more and more marginalized because somehow hinting or speaking positively about one’s faith became a mark of poor creativity. The world has taken the art that the Church so lovingly cultivated and preserved for everyone and has refused to allow to the Church to continue to participate in its development. Nowadays in literature when Christian lives and practices are depicted in any positive way, somehow that perception although true to the author is deemed less genuine and less beautiful by the rest of the world.
Fortunately Pope Benedict XVI addresses this issue in his 2009 speech to the artistic community:
Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art: on the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful. — Pope Benedict XVI, “Meeting with Artists: Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI” (November 21, 2009).
Authors and artists must learn once again not to be afraid of creating an image or a story about their deep love and search for the infinite. The members of the Church must make a conscious effort of seeking out these creative, gifted, and faithful individuals. Once they find one such laudable Catholic artist members of the Catholic media should exhibit them, so that the rest of the world might have a slight chance of recognizing once again that the Church has still something valuable to contribute to the cultivation of art and literature.
#3 Catholic Writers Need an Outlet to Share Their Catholic Experience
In the infancy of Christendom, the main way for the Gospel to spread throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world was by word of mouth. Then as the primary witnesses of the Resurrected Christ began to die off, the Church resorted to writing these histories for the sake of future generations. The writing of the New Testament was the beginning of the narrative history of the Catholic Church, but it didn’t just stop with Scriptures. The Church continued to record its history of those who served Christ in each generation. With each new era, histories and legends cropped up about courageous men and women who loved and served Jesus Christ. These histories and legends were beautiful written and were told again and again in different ways creating a tradition of beautiful storytelling.
However, what story is going to be told about our generation of Catholicism? How will future Catholics perceive the state of the Church in the 21st century? I fear that they will see this as the true dark ages or rather the silent ages of Catholicism. The lack of emphasis and development of Catholic culture through the marginalization of faithful Catholic authors and artists has forced many to bite their tongues and say little to nothing about their perception of their Catholic existence. Many writers feel that if they share their experience that they will be accused of “Bible-thumping” or “Rosary Rattling.”
Despite this, I pray that Catholic writers continue to write about the “authentic beauty” that is the reality of the Catholic experience. I suggest that Catholic writers should continue to be bold despite the rules of present day literary fashion and tell it like it is. Pope Benedict XVI writes:
Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day. – Pope Benedict XVI. “Meeting with Artists: Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI,” 2009.
I hope that artists and writers will once again create stories and paint pictures depicting this interaction of the profoundest mystery of all, God, mingling with the common occurrences of human existence. Writers and authors must capture or at least sketch for the benefit of humanity the reality of the sacramental gift of every day life.
#4 Art and Literature Is an Outlet of Worship
Many people, including a great many Catholics, claim that if writers write with the specific intent of worshiping God in their work then they cease making a piece of art. I find this division between art and worship a misunderstanding of both what worship and art actually is. This separation creates a rift between the inspiration of Catholic artists from their actual creations. What if all artists were told that they were no longer allowed to use their muse to inspire them? We would find ourselves with a solemn “Mona Lisa” and not so terrifying “Scream.” For Catholic artists and writers their muse is the movement of the Holy Spirit in the every day moments of existence. To begrudge them from acknowledging the presence of God in their perception of the world around them is downright criminal.
To illustrate my point, I shall summarize The Clown of God by Tomie de Paola, which illustrates my point exactly. (N. B. I highly recommend reading this book) (SPOILER ALERT!!!!) The story is about a boy name Giovanni who grows up to be famous juggler. On his way to a city, he shares his meal with two Franciscan brothers, who say to him “Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings of the glory of God. Why even your juggling.” Giovanni doesn’t understand this concept until one Christmas night when he was no longer a famous juggler but a poor beggar seeking shelter in a nearby Cathedral. He stands before the statue of the Mary and a very solemn Christ child. He decides to attempt to make the Christ Child smile and juggles the best performance in his entire career. He, then, falls dead at the foot of the statue. When the Francisican brothers find the dead juggler at the foot of statue, they at first believe that he committed an act of blasphemy, but they discover that the once solemn statue of the Christ-Child was now smiling and holding one of the Giovanni’s juggling balls (called the Sun in the Heavens). Giovanni who was a master juggler sought the approval of men in his work, but only reached the apex of his career when he performed for God. I believe that like Giovanni Catholic writers and artists must no longer seek the approval of the world but the approval of God in order to achieve true height of their career.
Odds are if a artist or writer actually ceased to care about what the world thought of their work then they would certainly become the typical “starving artist,” but I think this is where we Catholics must start caring once again for the survival of Catholic arts. If only we really supported these artists more with our attention, with our admiration, and (yes) our financial means, then Catholic artists wouldn’t feel the need to separate their inspiration from their creation. Quite simply we would save them from selling out their faith for worldly recognition. I am not suggesting that they should grind their axes or preach Hell and brimstone (although that would be fun to read and would prove to be unique in this day and age). All I am suggesting is that they shouldn’t be afraid to truly express their deep love of God in their work. Catholic writers, artists, and their audience must be like Abel give the first fruits of their labor and their attention to God.
Pope Benedict XVI writes:
Saint Augustine, who fell in love with beauty and sang its praises, wrote these words as he reflected on man’s ultimate destiny, commenting almost ante litteram on the Judgement scene before your eyes today: “Therefore we are to see a certain vision, my brethren, that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived: a vision surpassing all earthly beauty, whether it be that of gold and silver, woods and fields, sea and sky, sun and moon, or stars and angels. The reason is this: it is the source of all other beauty” (In 1 Ioannis, 4:5). My wish for all of you, dear artists, is that you may carry this vision in your eyes, in your hands, and in your heart, that it may bring you joy and continue to inspire your fine works.– Pope Benedict XVI “Meeting with Artists: Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI,” 2009.
It is in describing their experience with this other beauty that artists and writers are able to at the same time create a great piece of artwork and express in no uncertain terms the greatness of the God of all beauty and truth. The audience of this great artwork and devout act of faith also get to participate in this sacrifice of praise called art by studying it, rejoicing in it, and proclaiming in uplifted voices “Amen!”