by Father Robert Lauder
In his wonderful talk to artists at a special conference in Rome last May, Pope Francis said the following:
“Artists are those who with their eyes both see and dream. They see in greater depth, they prophesy, they show us a different way of seeing and understanding what is before our eyes.
“Indeed, poetry does not speak about reality beginning with abstract principles, but by first listening to reality: work, love, death, and all the little things that fill our lives. In this sense, it helps us to ‘pluck the voice of God even from the voice of time.’ Yours is — to cite Paul Claudel — an ‘eye that hears.’
“Art is an antidote to the mindset of calculation and standardization; it is a challenge to our imagination, our way of seeing and understanding reality. The Gospel itself represents a challenge to art; it has a revolutionary ‘energy’ that you are called to express, thanks to your talent, with a word that protests, appeals, and cries out. Today the Church has need of your gifts, because she needs to protest, call out, and shout.”
I think I could base the entire course about film that I teach at St. John’s University on that paragraph! I have heard that because of what the Holy Father said, director Martin Scorsese, perhaps the most talented director in the United States at this time, has decided to make a film about Christ. If Scorsese follows through and makes a film about Christ, that will be a film on my must-see list.
I love Pope Francis’ encouraging us to “listen to reality.” If we “listen” to great art we can be transformed by it. I think about the great Catholic novels that I have read and the impact that they have had on my imagination. Reading them has been a great blessing in my life. Not only the impact on my imagination, which I consider a great blessing, but also on my faith.
Through the stories and characters that some Catholic novelists have created, what we believe as Catholics can be nourished and deepened. I think it was publisher Frank Sheed who said that Graham Greene wrote as though the headline on the morning paper was “Son of God died for me.”
The first time I read Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” I was a freshman in college. That was more than a few years ago. I can still recall how deeply I was moved by the deathbed scene in which Lord Marchmain gives a sign of his faith and his sorrow for his sins just a few moments before he dies.
Years later when I read the scene to a class of college students taking a course I was giving on the Catholic novel, I had to fight back tears because I was so deeply moved.
I believe that great art is a challenge to our imagination, to our way of seeing and understanding reality. Encountering great art need not be merely an enjoyable experience or a pleasant diversion.
As Andrew Greeley once pointed out, great art can stop us in our tracks and lead us to appreciate in a profound way that the mystery of God’s love surrounds us.
Reading Pope Francis’ talk I have been reflecting on how much I have benefited from reading, teaching, and writing about what I refer to as the Catholic novel. The 50 15-minute lectures on the Catholic novel that I did for NET-TV I found demanding, but they really were a labor of love.
I was hoping that viewers who chose to read the novels I spoke about might have an experience similar to mine when I read them.
Whenever someone mentions to me that they have watched one or more of the lectures, I am hoping that the lecture will motivate the viewer to read more Catholic novels. By a Catholic novel I mean one whose plot and theme are centered on some mystery of the Catholic faith.
Pope Francis said to the artists:
“This then, is your task as poets, storytellers, filmmakers, and artists: to give life, flesh, and verbal expression to all that humanity experiences, feels, dreams, and endures, thus creating harmony and beauty.
“This ‘evangelical’ task also helps us come to a deeper understanding of God, as the great poet of humanity. … Never stop being original and creative. Never lose the wonder of being alive.”
I don’t think I have ever heard of God being described as the “great poet of humanity.” I love the description. I am hoping that Pope Francis’ talk is read by many. I hope teachers of high school students and also teachers of college students call their students’ attention to it. It really is something special.
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.