Faith & Thought

Can Art Change Your Life? Pope Francis Says It Can

by Father Robert Lauder

Each time I re-read the Holy Father’s message to Catholic artists which he delivered in Rome last May I experience the excitement that I felt the first time I read it. I am wondering if readers of this column share my views about the importance of art in our lives and also whether they think of art in relation to their faith in the way that Pope Francis relates art to religious faith. 

I am hoping that in commenting on Pope Francis’ excitement about the role that art can play in our lives that I am conveying something of the pope’s enthusiasm. Pope Francis said the following: 

“You are also the voice of the ‘restlessness’ of the human spirit. Indeed how often we are restless deep within our human hearts. You know quite well that artistic inspiration is not only consoling but also disquieting, since it presents both the beautiful and the tragic realities of life. 

“Art is the fertile terrain where the ‘polar oppositions’ of reality can be expressed with a language that must be creative, flexible, and capable of serving as a vehicle for powerful messages and visions.” 

The pope goes on to encourage artists to confront the restlessness in the human heart, the deep struggles of the soul. He said the following: 

“There are things in life that at times we can barely grasp, or find adequate words to express. This is your own fertile terrain, your proper field of activity. 

“It is often the place too where we encounter God, in an experience that is always ’superabundant’: We cannot force it, instead we sense it moves us on; the experience of God is always superabundant, like a continuously overflowing basin. This is the challenge I would like to propose to you today: to go beyond set bounds, to be creative without downplaying your own spiritual restlessness and that of humanity.” 

Is the Holy Father overstating his case? Is he exaggerating his case? Can art be as important, powerful, and challenging as Pope Francis claims? Can artistic masterpieces transform people’s lives? Pope Francis thinks they can. So do I. 

As I am writing this column I am recalling how some masterpieces have deeply touched me. What comes into my mind are the films “Places in the Heart” and “On the Waterfront,” the poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, Eugene O’Neil’s play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and also what is my favorite play, except for Shakespeare’s plays, Graham Greene’s “The Potting Shed.” Each of these works of art does for me what Pope Francis suggests great artistic works can do. 

“Places in the Heart” has the greatest depiction of the Eucharist in any American film. The first time I saw the film I could not believe that author-director Robert Benson had the courage to put the scene in his film knowing that many of the people viewing the scene might be secular humanists. 

“On the Waterfront” has one of the best depictions of a Catholic priest in any American film. The priest’s sermon delivered in the hull of a ship over a murdered longshoreman’s body is the greatest in any American film. The following words are part of the sermon: 

“Some people think the crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up. … Every time the mob puts the crusher on a good man — tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen — it’s a crucifixion. 

“And anybody who sits around and lets it happen — keeps silent about something he knows has happened — shares the guilt of it as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of Our Lord to see if he was dead.” 

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem is profoundly Christian in depicting Christ playing in 10,000 places and O’Neil’s tragedy is brilliant in dramatizing the failures of members of a family trying to love one another. 

O’Neill claimed that he spent his life trying to find a substitute for the Catholic faith that he had lost. With his genius O’Neill was able to dramatize the importance of faith by depicting its absence. Though Greene’s play may not be a masterpiece, I think it is deeply moving. 

I have no difficulty agreeing with Pope Francis’ statements about how works of art can touch us deeply and help us in seeing more deeply into our Christian faith. I am hoping that many Catholic artists read what the Holy Father has said about the importance of art and the power that art has to change our lives and enlighten our faith. 

In fact, I hope that not only Catholic artists become aware of what Pope Francis spoke to Catholic artists. All artists who may have doubts about the significance of their vocation could profit and gain a new enthusiasm for their vocations through Pope Francis’ insights. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV