“It is time to return to that fruitful alliance between the Church and artists which has deeply marked the path of Christianity in the two millenniums. This presumes your ability, dear Christian artists, to live profoundly the reality of your Christian faith, so that it will give birth to culture and offer the world new ‘Epiphanies’ of the divine beauty reflected in creation.”
So said John Paul II in his year 2000 Address for the Jubilee Celebration of Artists.
The great Pope’s directive is the keynote for the artists of Franciscan Renaissance, a group inspired by newly ordained Father Paulus Tautz of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and headed by Michael and Wendy McNeill in Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
The McNeills happen to be third-order secular Franciscans and regularly help the Friars of the Renewal with hands-on work with the poor.
The goal at the heart of this small group of artists? “To help rebuild a culture of life,” says sculptor Michael McNeill. The major means is through creating sacred art and making it available through their website, Franciscanrenaissance.com.
Father Tautz, who’s also a sculptor and who designed the new chapel being built for Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., got the idea for this artists group four years ago while at a retreat center that also has a liturgical arts school. Artists he knew were all practicing Catholics, many doing daily holy hours, but he became aware that one thing was missing.
“I realized what is needed oftentimes is encouragement,” he says. The Franciscan Renaissance group formed three years ago to meet informally every couple of months for dinner and prayer at the McNeills’ or at Rosalyn School of Art in Roslyn, N.Y., plus attend a summer retreat together at Holy Apostles.
“We needed to connect spiritually,” Wendy says. According to her, encouraging each other and staying spiritually close are two things Father Tautz pushed because their faith would affect their work.
Their work they hope to bring to the public now on a broader scale as the website grows and as committed Catholic artists join them.
Already on the site are works like the “Holy Name of Jesus” plaque inspired by the Friars of the Renewal and done by Father Tautz, Michael’s relief of the Divine Mercy and Wendy McNeill’s oil painting called the “Heart of Mary.”
For the past two years the Divine Mercy relief has been sold at the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass. Michael can even do the casting because he also works for a foundry specializing in artists’ sculptures. In fact, he does the casting, patina coloring and shipping of the Holy Name plaque.
The New Evangelization underlies every step, right down to the Divine Mercy relief on the McNeills’ own front lawn. Says Michael, “I notice people walk by and make the Sign of the Cross in front of the image. That’s a total fulfillment for me for all the work that’s done to produce it.”
As for Wendy’s “Heart of Mary” oil painting, it is the icon for an upcoming pro-life tour (futuredependsonlove.com) from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., Aug. 3-11.
Newly ordained Father Lawrence Schroedel, also of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the organizer of the tour, chose Wendy’s painting of “Heart of Mary” for the official prayer card. It will also be the tour’s banner display.
He sees the image as a symbol of the triumph of the Immaculate Heart that’s going to happen for families and marriage. Printed on postcards with the prayer used for the consecration of our country to Our Lady on Nov. 11, 2006, he believes the picture will raise awareness of the tour’s focus on the family, marriage and life issues.
“It can accomplish two purposes: to pray for our country as a family and to spread good Catholic art through the mail,” says Father Schroedel.
“This is a great way to evangelize with art,” explains Michael of the overall purpose of this painting and other Franciscan Renaissance artworks. “This is for devotional purposes. We want our art to promote the glory of God, not the glory of the artist.”
Group members like Charles Pasqualina concur. He remembers that, as major changes were taking place in church art and architecture a generation ago, “a local young priest said that you can preach anything you want from the pulpit, but the artwork will be preaching something else — and the art and artifacts will always win out. They speak very profoundly. I think we have to speak profoundly again.”
Charles and his wife Lydia are not only members of Franciscan Renaissance but also teach art at the Roslyn School of Painting in Roslyn, which is on Long Island. The McNeills met as teenagers when both were taking lessons from the Pasqualinas. Michael and Wendy later graduated from college with art degrees and married.
Charles Pasqualina, who has painted portraits of John Paul II and recently Cardinal John O’Connor, and who teaches art to some Sisters of Life, describes the McNeills’ works as “prayers.”
“I hope that it will be viewed as a prayer by other people,” says Wendy, “because I intend to praise God with the work to reveal some spiritual truth with it. I want it to touch the heart of somebody even in some small way, in some way to reveal love, service, to love, to serve, and to adore God.”
Naturally, one goal for these artists is to have church commissions. Michael would like to do a life-sized Divine Mercy statue. Because many people can’t afford large original works, goals include versions affordable to the average Catholic like a smaller tabletop Divine Mercy statue, Holy Name of Jesus medallions for over doorways, and prints of Wendy’s painting of Mary now being readied.
At the same time, some of the sale proceeds go to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal’s hands-on work with the poor, such as at the Padre Pio and the St. Anthony Shelters in the South Bronx. For the friar-artists like Father Tautz and hopefully other friars to come, all proceeds will go to their work with the poor.
So it is that Franciscan Renaissance looks to bring about John Paul II’s Jubilee vision for a new artistic springtime in the Church.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.