How John Paul II’s ‘Letter to Artists’ Is Still Relevant

Movie makers look to express truth in film, follow papal inspiration.

A clip from Pablo Moreno Hernández's film, Red de Libertad, with the main actress, Assumpta Serna, playing a nun and Daughter of Charity who created a nonviolent network that rescued more than 2,000 people during World War II. 
A clip from Pablo Moreno Hernández's film, Red de Libertad, with the main actress, Assumpta Serna, playing a nun and Daughter of Charity who created a nonviolent network that rescued more than 2,000 people during World War II.  (photo: Courtesy of FV400)

Today, the Church commemorates 40 years of the beginning of St. John Paul II’s pontificate — and John Paul II’s feast day.

John Paul wrote many letters during the 27 years of his papacy, including a very specific “Letter to Artists” in 1999 addressing those searching for new “epiphanies” of beauty.

“Society needs artists …who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is ‘the art of education,’” St. John Paul II wrote. “Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place.”

The just-concluded “Finding Vince 400” (FV400) international film festival was such a gateway to many artists, filmmakers, storytellers and photographers who came from 109 countries to offer their talents to the world and stimulate creativity on the theme of “Globalizing Charity.”

Taking place Oct. 18-21 at Castel Gandolfo, a quiet town just south of Rome and the traditional summer residence to many popes, the initiative began to close the Vincentian Jubilee Year celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Vincentian charism.

In 2017, after a symposium and meeting with Pope Francis, the film festival was launched by Clarence Gilyard, an American actor best known for his role in Walker, Texas Ranger, and Father Tomaž Mavrič, superior general of the Congregation of the Mission.

Out of 3,000 submissions, 32 films shown to 500 attendees ranged from documentaries, animations and dramas to fiction and nonfiction.

The only criteria to unite the films together was to express “service to those in poverty” in an attempt to change the view of the social conditions of poverty and at the same time offer an important message through new means of communication.

The film festival also held an event in collaboration with the Synod of Bishops called “When Charity Calls You: Charity as the Privileged Place for Vocational Discernment.”

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, opened the evening with a “litany of hope” for young people.

“Do not be discouraged if you fall down. Don’t have fear; know that Jesus is with you every day, until the end,” Cardinal Baldisseri recited. “Youth who do not take risks are ‘retired’ youth. Rather, we know that you will be able to bring strength and courage to the Church, and you will be builders of peace. ... The future is all yours.”

Dancers, comedians, actors, singers and musicians came together to bear witness to the Vincentian Family charism, a growing community of more than 2 million people seeking to follow Christ in the model presented by the life of St. Vincent de Paul and his collaborator, St. Louise de Marillac.

Pablo Moreno Hernández, Spanish director of the film Red de Libertad (Network of Freedom), and Assumpta Serna, the movie’s lead actress who plays a nun who fought Nazis, sat down with the Register to give insight into what artistic responsibility looks like.


Pablo, why do artists have a responsibility?

I believe that there is a big responsibility because the media is absolutely on a global scale, and when we are sharing ideas and concepts, they should try to talk about Christianity and that the Church is involved in this discussion. I think that the responsibility comes from inside from the people that belong to the Church, and I think also that there is the responsibility to go out to reach nonbelievers, not to convince them of anything, but to manifest what we think and believe in a world that we all share. This big responsibility is to be able to tell stories that encourage everyone to fight for a better world.


What is your biggest challenge in doing this?

My challenge is to reach a lot of people with honest stories, stories that at the same time move people and also give critical thought about the world that we are all living in.


Do you find the change and growth in technology a big hurtle?

It’s inevitable that technology is going to change the attitudes of people, but I think that it is an event for us as Christians to be there inside that movement.


Do you believe Christians have done a good job thus far? What can they do better?

I think that we have the tools and opportunity to better our communication. Social media is a world of big opportunities, but I think Christians have to think hard about what we want to communicate. Not everything is valid, and we need to professionalize sectors so that our communication is effective and produces more impact. A lot of times people think that goodwill is better than actually being professionals, but in reality, we’re burning our own land and making prejudice if we are not doing it professionally.


Assumpta, what do you think, from an acting perspective?

There is always a great responsibility as an artist to tell stories that stimulate good meaning in people, that generate these questions. Actors also have this responsibility. A lot of times actors think that this is just a job, but, actually, I think that if the movie says something about something, then it’s always good to do it. Of course, you have to make a living, and you can’t always do an ideal movie for you, but I think you have to try. If there is a movie you think that says important things, then you have to be more generous with the process and give out deep thoughts about yourself and about the character.


What impact do you think film has in artistic responsibility?

What is necessary is to speak the truth and be honest with oneself and reposition yourself. You do that by listening and questioning, and I think movies are a good way for doing that. Movies are not there to tell the truth, but movies are there to generate questions in people about fundamental values in this world and how we want to proceed. This is what movies give to society: a tool to better understand ourselves and to see, as a meter, what we do.