Arts and Culture

Pope Francis on Art

by Father Robert Lauder

Fourth in a series


I ENJOY READING interviews with celebrities – at least sometimes. If the interviewee is an actor or actress whom I admire, I hope that the interview will reveal the person as someone to admire, not only on the stage or screen, but also in real life.

Even more than interviews with celebrities from the entertainment world, I enjoy reading interviews with authors. I think that I am hoping the interview will reveal a new dimension that I might have missed in something that the author wrote.

But an interview with a pope is special, and the famous interview with Pope Francis from last August is extraordinary. It can help us better understand Pope Francis and what his priorities as pope might be.

I found one section of Pope Francis’ interview especially interesting. The interviewer, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, asked the pope about his views on art and what artists and writers he prefers. I was curious to see if some of the pope’s favorites might reveal something of his personality. I was also curious to know if some of his favorites were also on my list of favorites.

The first writer that the pope mentioned was Dostoyevsky. A few years ago, I took a course at St. John’s University on the Russian novelist because I wanted to learn more about him. Next semester at the university, I plan to engage in a readings and research course with a group of students in which we will study the novel that many consider Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. I want the students to study Dostoyevsky, but I also want the opportunity to re-read and discuss the masterpiece with others.

In the interview, Father Spadaro reminds the pope that in 2006 he said that the great artists know how to present the painful and tragic realities of life with beauty. I agree completely with Pope Francis’ insight. Even a sad story can be beautiful. When I think of the filmmakers and novelists whose work I enjoy, I become very aware that often the stories they create are not very happy. For example, I think of the works of two of my favorite artists: the films of Ingmar Bergman and the novels of Graham Greene.

A friend of mine does not like to see serious films. She says she goes to the movies “to be entertained.” Of course, all moviegoers want to be entertained, but there are various ways to be entertained. Some of us find some serious films more entertaining than comedies that are poorly done and may even be dumb.

In responding to Father Spadaro, Pope Francis said the following:

“I have really loved a diverse array of authors. I love very much Dostoyevsky…

“I have read ‘The Betrothed,’ by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of ‘The Betrothed.’”

I have never read “The Betrothed,” but when I learned how much the pope liked it, I bought a copy. I am thinking that if the novel is half as good as the pope thinks it is, I will make it one of the novels in the Catholic Novel Adult Education course that I moderate. Probably those who attend the course will be especially interested in the work precisely because Pope Francis liked it.

On the topic of films, he said the following:

“We should also talk about the cinema. ‘La Strada,’ by Fellini, is the movie that perhaps I loved the most. I identify with the movie, in which there is an implicit reference to St. Francis. I also believe that I watched all of the Italian movies with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi when I was between 10 and 12 years old. Another film that I loved is ‘Rome, Open City.’ I owe my film culture especially to my parents who used to take us to the movies quite often.”

I think that if I had to guess before reading the interview what films were special to the pope, I might have said Italian neo-realist films such as “La Strada” and “Rome, Open City.”

The vision of the human mystery in “La Strada” is beautiful. The vision of the priesthood in “Rome, Open City” is marvelous and inspiring – something that I believe every seminarian should see.[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.