Arts and Culture

Artistic Masterpieces Illustrate Meaning and Mystery of Faith

by Father Robert Lauder

Second in a series

The more I think about the 10-part series “Catholicism,” the more I admire theologian Father Robert Barron’s accomplishment. Father Barron wrote the series and is the narrator in each segment. He seems to be a natural teacher. His presentation is basically low-key, and he tries very much to anticipate questions that might arise in the minds of viewers. He certainly appears to be a first-class theologian, and judging from this series, he is an expert in using the medium of television to promote the message of the Catholic Church. He seems to be the answer to the hopes and prayers of many that the Church use television to instruct about the meaning of the Church.

Having watched him commenting on the teaching of the Church, I thought of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and his exceptionally popular television show in the 1950s. Father Barron’s television persona is very different from Bishop Sheen’s. The two priests resemble one another only in their ability to communicate the meaning and mystery of Catholicism. The common denominator is not their style but rather their communication skills.

The visuals in the television series are absolutely excellent. They alone would make the series attractive and worth viewing. Anyone who contributed in any way to the production should be proud. They have helped create 10 excellent programs. I imagine that the series can be compared favorably to any similar series of programs that have appeared on television. What makes “Catholicism” so special is the wedding of the visual with the message. Father Barron uses some of the great artistic masterpieces and treasures to illustrate religious truths.

Having viewed the masterpieces that appear in “Catholicism,” I am thinking of what a mysterious reality great art is. Over the years, I have found philosopher Jacques Maritain’s theory of art helpful in trying to appreciate works of art, ranging from paintings and sculpture to theatre and film. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would say that Maritain saw every work of art as made up of two components: the matter and the form. The matter was the material component such as oil and canvas for painting; words and rhythm for poetry; and camera, plot, music, acting and many other ingredients for film. The form was a creative insight. The artist had to have something to say and the skill to say it through matter. When a deep insight is beautifully expressed in matter, the result is a masterpiece.

Many masterpieces appear in “Catholicism.” Years ago, Father Andrew Greeley pointed out that artists penetrate more intimately into the illumination of being than do the rest of us. He wrote that artists “invite us into the world they see so that we can go forth from that world enchanted by the luminosity of their work and with enhanced awareness of the possibilities of life” (America, Sept. 16, 2000).

In “Catholicism,” there are many masterpieces and all of them reveal beauty and in that sense reveal God. The great added dimension in the series is that theologian Father Barron uses the masterpieces to comment on the meaning and mystery of Catholicism.

I mentioned in last week’s column that there is a companion volume to the series, also written by Father Barron and also called Catholicism (New York: Image Books, 2011, $27.99, pp. 291). Anyone who has some background in studying theology could use the book as an aid in presenting a course based on the series. I am hoping that this will happen in Catholic parishes, high schools and even Catholic colleges.

Much in Father Barron’s writing and speaking has impressed me, but I am especially impressed by his ability to use the Old Testament to illuminate the meaning of Christ. One example is the following:

“Once we grasp that Jesus was no ordinary teacher and healer but Yahweh moving among his people, we can begin to understand his words and actions more clearly. If we survey the texts of the Old Testament – and the first Christians relentlessly read Jesus in light of these writings – we see that Yahweh was expected to do four great things. He would gather the scattered tribes of Israel; he would cleanse the Temple of Jerusalem; he would definitively deal with the enemies of the nation; and, finally, he would reign as Lord of heaven and earth. The eschatological hope expressed especially in the prophets and the Psalms was that through these actions, Yahweh would purify Israel and through the purified Israel bring salvation to all. What startled the first followers of Jesus was that he accomplished these four tasks but in the most unexpected way” (p. 15).

Father Barron goes on to comment clearly but powerfully on how Jesus fulfilled those four tasks.

“Catholicism” is a wonderful antidote to the negative images of the Church that appear in the media.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.