Faith & Thought

Pope Francis and The Vocation of the Artist

by Father Robert Lauder

Something strange has happened to me in writing these five columns on the talk that Pope Francis gave to Catholic Artists last May in Rome. 

A friend of mine, who was invited to attend Pope Francis’ talk, told me about it. I quickly obtained a copy of the talk and read it. 

I thought it was absolutely marvelous, and shortly after reading it I planned to write a series of columns about it. My motive was to make known to readers of this weekly column some of the main ideas that Pope Francis stressed. 

I think my enthusiastic reaction to Pope Francis’ talk was partly because I recognized in his remarks some of the ideas about art that I have been writing about in this weekly column and lecturing on in philosophy classes that I teach at St. John’s University. 

I think my original enthusiastic reaction was not that Pope Francis was offering ideas that were new to me. Rather it was almost the opposite. I was excited because Pope Francis’ ideas were familiar to me. 

Then as I read and reread the talk, something strange happened. Pope Francis’ excitement and enthusiasm about the possibilities open to Catholic artists to influence the faith of others seemed to go beyond anything that I had previously thought. 

Pope Francis said the following to the Catholic artists attending his talk: 

“So, as eyes that dream, as the voice of human disquiet, you have a great responsibility. What is that? … You are among those who shape our imagination. This is vital. Your work has an impact on the spiritual imagination of the people of our time, especially regarding the figure of Christ. 

“In our day, as I have had occasion to say, ‘We need the genius of new language, powerful stories and images, writers, poets and artists capable of proclaiming to the world the message of the Gospel, of allowing us to see Jesus.’ … 

“This, then, is the challenge facing the Catholic imagination in our time. It is a challenge entrusted to you: not to ‘explain’ the mystery of Christ, which is ultimately unfathomable, but to enable us to touch him, to feel his closeness, to let us see him as alive and to open our eyes to the beauty of his promises. 

“Because his promises appeal to our imagination: They help us to imagine in a new way our lives, our history, and the future of humanity.” 

I hope every Catholic artist reads the pope’s address. What a marvelous and challenging vision Pope Francis has presented to artists. What could be more important than to believe that your work could help people touch Jesus, to feel Jesus’ closeness, to help people see him as alive, to open people’s eyes to the beauty of his promises? 

The vocation of the artist is not easy. It is not sufficient to have good intentions. Poor art will not work the kind of impact that Pope Francis is imagining. Pope Francis refers to Dostoevsky’s writings more than once. Because of Pope Francis I am re-reading Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” 

While rereading Pope Francis’ talk I was thinking of novels that have deeply influenced me and enriched my life. I believe that many of them have influenced my faith. 

The novel that heads my list is Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair.” I read it when I was in my third year of college. Because I had heard that sexual love was part of the novel’s theme, I wondered if I needed some special permission to read it. I smile as I write that because I found nothing objectionable in the book. 

What I recall distinctly now, some 70 years after my first reading of “The End of the Affair,” was the experience of thinking that God was jumping off the pages to communicate with me. After that wonderful experience I was moved to read all of Greene’s novels. 

I don’t know how many people I have persuaded to read “The End of the Affair,” but I know many shared my enthusiasm. I have had experiences similar to the one I had reading Greene’s novel while watching certain films or plays. For example, I cannot view Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” without wishing to be a better priest. 

Pope Francs concluded his talk with the following remarks: 

“Dear friends, I thank you for your service. Continue to dream, to be restless, to conjure up words and visions that can help us interpret the mystery of human life and guide our societies toward beauty and universal fraternity. 

“Keep helping us to open wide our imagination so that it can transcend our narrow perspectives and be open to the holy mystery of God. Persevere then, tirelessly and with creativity and courage. I bless you and I pray for you, and I ask you, please to pray for me. Thank you.”

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.