Faith & Thought

Pope Francis Tells Artists They Shape Our Imagination

by Father Robert Lauder 

For the past few weeks I have been thinking about the wonderful talk that Pope Francis gave to Catholic artists last May in Rome. I keep returning to it, and each time I re-read it I feel renewed. 

There are a number of important and challenging points that Pope Francis made during his talk. Whenever I read anything that Pope Francis has written or said I am motivated to act on his words. His wisdom and vision inspire me. 

His ability to motivate me has never lessened. About two years ago when my family and I had a private audience with Pope Francis in his residence, I said to him, “Holy Father, I love everything you have written but one thing you have written has changed my life. You wrote that you were certain that God was part of everyone’s life. Because you are certain, now I am certain.” 

While I was speaking, Pope Francis was nodding and smiling. Believing that God is part of everyone’s life is very encouraging. 

Probably what I find most important in the talk that Pope Francis gave to Catholic artists is how seriously he took the place of art in our world and how important he thinks the role of the artist is. I don’t think anyone could hear or read Pope Francis’ talk without growing in appreciation of what artists can provide for others. 

I don’t disagree with any of the Holy Father’s statements, nor do I think the Holy Father was exaggerating in his emphasis on the importance of art and its potential to help us deepen our faith. Pope Francis said the following: 

“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.’ 

“Your work helps us to see Jesus, to heal our imagination of everything that disfigures his face or, worse, attempts to domesticate it. To domesticate the face of Christ, in the sense of trying to define it, and enclose it within our preconceptions, is to destroy his image. 

“Yet the Lord always surprises us: The Lord is always greater; he is always a mystery that in some way escapes us whenever we try to fit him into a frame and hang him on a wall. He always surprises us; and when we do not sense that the Lord surprises us, something is wrong: Our hearts are diminished and closed. 

“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, 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 am not an artist, but I do often write about novels, plays, and films. The Holy Father’s ideas about art and the Catholic imagination have helped me to appreciate more my vocation as a professor of philosophy. 

I did not need convincing that art is important. Nor did I need convincing that college students have a wonderful opportunity to grow and mature through the serious study of philosophy. 

Yet the pope’s excitement, enthusiasm, and insights have provided new motivation for me. In a week or two, I plan to show a feature film in class, a film that I consider a masterpiece. I think the film presents through an excellent story insights into the meaning and mystery of personal existence that I am stressing in my lectures. 

When I decided to screen the film I was not convinced this was a good idea because some of the students to whom I have shown this film in the past seemed to have difficulty focusing on a serious film. Now I am certain that showing this film to students in my class, most of whom are in their first year of college, is a very good idea. 

I will be careful to suggest before the viewing some of the reasons I think the film is a masterpiece. I will also make sure that I give the students an opportunity to offer insights into the film after they view it. I am looking forward to the screening.

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.