NAPA, Calif. — Leonardo Defilippis, the founder and director of St. Luke Productions, dreamed of bringing the story of St. Faustina Kowalska, the 20th-century Polish nun, to the stage, and he pondered how to make her message about God’s mercy relevant to young people.
In the end, Defilippis’ play, Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy, juxtaposes stage actress Mara Vargo’s visions of purgatory with filmed soliloquies by a modern woman and man who doubt they are worthy of forgiveness.
“Art should prepare us for the Passover: We are all going to die,” Defilippis told the Register during an interview at the Napa Institute’s annual conference held in northern California this summer.
“Art has to deal with good and evil and distinguish between them, as Jesus does.”
Defilippis was among a lineup of Church leaders, academics and artists at the Napa conference who acknowledged the challenge that a distracted, secular culture poses to the New Evangelization. The speakers noted that faith-inspired works of culture fueled the growth of Catholicism for two millennia and suggested that they should be at the center, rather than the periphery, of 21st-century catechetical outreach.
“Beauty creates an encounter where we experience our own humanity. But it goes beyond that,” said Defilippis.
Great works of culture bring artists and their audiences “into the deeper reality of Christ, the Incarnation,” and so into the mind and heart of the Creator, he added, reflecting on the mission of St. Luke Productions.
During an address at the Napa Institute, Cardinal William Levada, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, agreed that the modern world presented special problems for catechists, but that in every age the Church has grappled with such difficulties.
“When we talk about the New Evangelization, we should remember that, from the beginning, evangelization has always been in crisis. It has never been easy,” said Cardinal Levada, who called for a “new apologetics” to bolster the New Evangelization.
Part of an effective catechetical strategy, he said, referencing Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), was to make the faith “attractive” to a world in need of hope and starved for love.
“Evangelization is broader than just preaching,” he emphasized. It includes the witness of Christian virtue, charitable outreach and cultural works — “all ways of awakening the questions and hungers that lurk in all people by reason of their humanity.”
The Way of Beauty
Dominican Father Peter Cameron, the editor of Magnificat, the popular Catholic monthly publication that features great works of art on its cover, underscored the importance of wedding the beauty of faith with the inconvenient truths that stir up hostility in an age of relativism.
“In a world without beauty, the good also loses its attractiveness,” said Father Cameron, quoting the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Father Cameron said that Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, summoned the Church to “the way of beauty.”
“This ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith: a new esteem for beauty that serves as a means of touching the heart,” said Father Cameron, who is also a playwright.
This insight came to life, he said, in The Mission, the 1986 award-winning film that portrays the transformative ministry of 18th-century Jesuit missionaries in South America. In one scene in the film, a Jesuit priest overcomes the wariness of local Indians by playing the oboe.
“The Indians are so captivated by his music they take the priest by the hand,” Father Cameron observed.
In a similar way, he continued, “Magnificat’s evangelical use of art aims at getting people to drop their weapons and take beauty by the hand.”
Indeed, the balm of beauty heals the wounds inflicted by original sin, he said, “re-establishing the state of friendship that existed at the beginning between God and man.”
Great art and literature can also transmit complex doctrinal teachings, he said, and observed that Dante’s Purgatorio helped to secure a “consensus” on Church’s teaching on purgatory.
Telling Powerful Stories
Joseph Pearce, the author of numerous literary biographies and a writer in residence at Aquinas College in Nashville, echoed Father Cameron’s insights when he highlighted the ongoing popularity of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy that incorporated Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist, original sin and other teachings.
During an address at the Napa conference, Pearce observed that the iconic stories of the Old and New Testament offer a framework for the New Evangelization.
“How does Christ teach so many of his powerful lessons? He teaches it through story, parables, fiction,” said Pearce.
“The Prodigal Son did not exist, nor did his father, nor his brother, nor the pigs,” he added. “Yet that story is so powerful that, for 2,000 years, whenever people have heard it they see something of themselves in the son, the envious brother and the forgiving parent.”
Likewise, he suggested that Mel Gibson’s blockbuster The Passion of the Christ offered Protestants a compelling meditation on Catholicism’s deep reverence for Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
Given the compelling witness offered by faith-inspired works of art, conference speakers expressed regret that catechetical outreach in this country rarely employs excellent art, music or literature.
The problem, suggested Dana Gioia, a professor of poetry and public culture at the University of Southern California and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, partly arises from the pragmatic nature of the American experiment in ordered liberty.
“America has been a self-proclaimed ‘practical’ nation since it was settled,” observed Gioia, who is also a published poet.
“Americans believe the important things of society are best expressed in ideas and numbers. These are great abstract languages that literally move mountains and break atoms,” Gioia said.
However, human beings are composed of a body and soul and live in a “material” world. Accordingly, they are wired to seek the “totality” of human existence, and ideas and numbers cannot sate that hunger.
He clarified that beauty is a “not a synonym for pettiness.” Its potency derives from “something deeper and more comprehensive.”
When Beauty Goes Missing
However, when mainstream culture no longer reverences the kind of beauty that stirs the soul, men and women must go in search of it, and, there is no guarantee they will find the real thing.
Gioia pointed to the social revolutions that erupted in the ’60s and said the new fashions that accompanied that turbulent time reflected a generational shift that continues to shape mainstream American culture.
The irony, Gioia acknowledged, is that the post-war era was a time of unprecedented affluence but did not “prove beautiful to the young.”
They reacted by changing their “haircuts and hemlines,” reflecting a “search and a celebration of a new sense of beauty.”
Now, more than a half century later, he noted that American pragmatism has combined with more recent currents of postmodernism to foster a deep skepticism of the claims of beauty and, ultimately, of truth and goodness.
“The absence of beauty as a positive concept is the central problem in our society, our culture, our education and our Catholic Church,” in Gioia’s judgment.
Without beauty, “we have become dead to the miracle of our own existence,” he said.
In contrast, he explained, art awakens us to our lives. It enlarges our humanity and draws us to the Infinite.
The tragedy, as Gioia sees it, is that the Church in the United States has also been shaped by these cultural values, rather than effectively challenging them. Indeed, the post-war years that introduced new hemlines and hairlines also brought an era of “ugly” churches that failed to “offer a beautiful vision of God’s presence.”
Turning a Corner?
Has the Catholic Church in the 21st century learned from the missteps of the past half century? Will beauty accompany its message of truth to a confused world?
Leonardo Defilippis expressed the hope that the Church in America has turned a corner and will come to embrace and promote artistic works, like his faith-inspired vision of God’s merciful love that is anchored in hard truths.
“Christ said, ‘Everyone who has seen me has seen the Father.’ That is the ultimate goal of true art. We are in a world today that rejects God and deifies the self, but that never works, and art witnesses to that truth.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.