Celebrating Catholicism in Nashville

Aquinas College Focuses on Link Between Arts and Faith


Think of Nashville, and the first thing that comes to mind is music.

If Aquinas College has its way, the area might also become better known for the Catholic faith — through its Center for Faith & Culture (AquinasCollege.edu/faith-and-culture/).

Founded in 2012, the center hopes to serve as a catalyst for the revival and renewal of Catholic life and culture by promoting Catholic literature, art, music and film as a means to evangelize the modern world.

While on the surface it might seem strange for a center devoted to the revival of Catholic culture to rise in the South, Joseph Pearce, the center’s director, sees it as exciting.

“The South is still conservative, in the best sense of the word, and it’s very Christian,” said Pearce, who was named to head the center last summer. “The Church is dynamic, the parishes are dynamic, the converts are dynamic, and the faith is dynamic.”

“I’ve lived in Michigan and Florida, and I find the South a dynamic place to be Catholic. The Catholics believe what the Church believes,” said Pearce. “One of the consequences of secularism and the persecution of Christians is that it has drawn Christians and Catholics together. Non-Catholic Christians are much more open to Catholicism than they would have been years ago. There’s a watershed here, and it’s encouraging.”

Pearce is no stranger to higher education. He formerly served as writer in residence and associate professor of literature at Ave Maria University in Florida and writer in residence and visiting fellow at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire.

The author of more than 20 books on a variety of literary figures — such as William Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Oscar Wilde — Pearce is no stranger to Catholic literature. Pearce also serves as editor of the St. Austin Review, an international review of Catholic culture.

“Joseph Pearce brings to Aquinas College a wide expertise in the areas of literary biography, literary criticism and Christian writers, as well as a passion for the integration of faith and culture,” said Aaron Urbanczyk, dean of Aquinas’ School of Arts and Sciences.

Pearce explained that he hopes to have two annual capstone events — one each spring and fall.

The spring event, a “Shakespeare and Christianity Celebration,” is held annually on a weekend close to Shakespeare’s April birthday.

The Nashville Shakespeare Festival, actor Kevin O’Brien and Michael Kurek of Vanderbilt University, who composed a ballet of Macbeth, participated in this spring’s event, he said. The festival presented a “Shakespeare Sampler” during the celebration, as well as a high-school essay contest on Shakespeare and Christianity.

“We have high hopes for our ‘Shakespeare & Christianity Celebration,’ and we’re planning next year’s,” said Paul Downey, director of electronic communications for the college.

The fall event, held annually in September, will be a “Tolkien, Lewis and Friends Celebration.”

In between those events, the center sponsors lectures and other art events. Robert Royal, founder of the Faith & Reason Institute and editor in chief of The Catholic Thing website, spoke on “The Threats of Secularism.” Pearce gave a presentation on poet Francis Thompson, author of The Hound of Heaven, who died in 1907.

Corey Maynord, a senior during this last spring semester, attended several of the center’s events. An English major, he particularly enjoyed the event on the poetry of Thompson.

“I love all things poetry,” said Maynord. “It was very informative, and the lecturer was very profound.”

He said that the center’s events allow people an opportunity to engage in something academic, but in a more relaxed setting than a classroom.

“The events are attracting people from outside the college to come and discuss various topics,” he added.

“They provide common ground for people to gather. The Hound of Heaven event had several Anglicans, as well as those with no faith background.”

In February, Chesterton impersonator Chuck Chalberg, who has appeared on EWTN, gave a lecture in defense of the Catholic faith 94 years after the English journalist and convert first visited Nashville as part of a speaking tour in the U.S. In March, the center hosted a documentary screening about Italian realist artist Pietro Annigoni, followed by a talk by master realist painter Igor Babailov and Pearce.

This spring, the center hosted a visual and literary panel exhibition on the life and work of Southern-Catholic author Walker Percy.

One of the center’s efforts is the launch of the first of several Aquinas Awards, with the first to be awarded for fiction.

“There has been a lot of excitement among Catholic publishers of fiction and the Catholic Writer’s Guild,” said Pearce.

In addition to the center’s activities, the college is renewing Catholic culture in other ways as well.

Pearce explained that the college is in the beginning of a six-year transition.

“Previously, most students were non-traditional and non-Catholic,” said Pearce. “The school is transitioning to a more conventional Catholic liberal arts school, with more residential students.”

Last Oct. 22, Nashville Bishop David Choby formally blessed and dedicated the school’s new Corpus Christi Eucharistic Adoration Chapel. The college renovated a campus café to create the chapel, which is available for students, faculty and staff to pray before the Blessed Sacrament 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Dominican Sister Mary Bendyna, provost and vice president for academics, said that the center has been a catalyst for the college’s transition and that it has helped people become aware of the school and the larger institution — the Dominican religious order — of which it is a part.

“The center has really taken off under Joseph’s leadership,” said Sister Bendyna. “He has so many connections that he has been able to bring in national speakers and has brought the college to the wider Nashville community. The center’s events have brought in people who have never been to our campus before.”

Tim Drake serves as the

New Evangelization coordinator

for the Holdingford Area Catholic Community

in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota.