Bella and Beyond

This Oct. 26 will see the crucial opening weekend of a new movie, Bella. The film is being celebrated as a triumph for Latino filmmakers, and for independent filmmakers. Catholics have another reason to celebrate — and support it. This movie gives us hope that Catholics can reclaim territory we used to own, but have too often ceded: The arts.

Communicating about God through art has always been a Catholic specialty.

In the Middle Ages, Catholic artists pioneered new ways of painting; in the Renaissance, other Catholic artists perfected them. There is growing scholarly consensus that the greatest playwright in history, William Shakespeare, was either a secret Catholic himself or so favorably disposed to the faith that he might as well have been. In the early 17th century, Catholic novelist Cervantes revolutionized the form of the novel, which was mastered by Catholic novelists in the 20th century. Don Quixote is listed as the best-selling novel of all time, with The Lord of the Rings trilogy not far behind.

It’s no surprise that religion has inspired art. Religion’s whole purpose is to express spiritual realities in human terms. That’s practically a definition of art. Religion also puts humanity in touch with the ultimate Creator, in whose image we are created. That can’t help but inspire our own creativity.

But sacramental Christianity — Catholicism and Orthodoxy — should have an even greater advantage when it comes to the arts. Compare Catholicism to Protestantism, for instance. The Church’s liturgy appreciates the value of sounds, sights and smells to communicate spiritual truths. The most beloved churches are those that use statues and other images to convey spiritual realities.

The Church treats the human person as an integrated whole of mind, body and spirit — and so the human person, inspired by the faith, should find that affinity for the arts comes a little easier. It is no surprise that, in the golden years of Hollywood, Catholic filmmakers like John Ford, Frank Capra, Fred Zinnemann and others dominated the new art form.

What happened after that is the surprise.

After the 1960s, art inspired by authentic Catholic faith became more scarce in bookstores, movie theaters and art galleries.

Some Catholics remained major players in the world of film — but they were known for their dissent. Others lost their faith and used art to denounce the Church. In some cases, believers were squeezed out by an insular Hollywood culture hostile to religion.

But sins of omission probably played the biggest role in leaving Hollywood bereft of Catholic influence.

After all, to draw power from a sacramental worldview, a Catholic artist first needs to have a strong relationship with the sacraments. But for decades, Catholics’ attendance at Mass and confession dropped — and religion classes de-emphasized the robust sacramental faith that is at the heart of the Church.

The pontificate of Pope John Paul II started to change that. By teaching courageously and inspiring a youth movement, John Paul quietly but surely changed the direction of the Church at its most fundamental level.

After his long pontificate, yesterday’s energetic dissenters are out of energy, and the catechism teachers who were too embarrassed to catechize are being replaced by World Youth Day veterans excited by the faith.

Best of all, even as young people are slowly becoming catechized again, they are growing up in a new cultural environment.

Our children grew up watching the excellent “Veggie Tales” Christian videos and the fine CCC of America portrayals of the saints. They found out about Eucharistic adoration proponent ----J.R.R. Tolkien because of the great success of the Lord of the Rings movies. They associate Mel Gibson with Jesus Christ and the cross, not Mad Max or Lethal Weapon. They met Christian apologist C.S. Lewis by watching the top-notch Hollywood production of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, an allegory about the death and resurrection of Christ.

The “three amigos” who made Bella are speaking in a new context to a new audience. And they are answering exactly the vision Pope Benedict called for when he met with Latin American bishops in Brazil. Noting that a new effort at catechesis is needed, he said:

“In this area, we must not limit ourselves solely to homilies, lectures, Bible courses or theology courses, but we must have recourse also to the communications media.”

Bella needs as much support as possible on its Oct. 26 opening weekend to ensure the best positioning for the movie in its future stages.

But more important than Bella is the whole project of Catholics in the arts. We need to support and encourage Catholic artists so that the Church can reclaim its place as a champion not just of the faith, but also of the arts.