Revisiting JPII’s ‘Letter to Artists’ Via Cinema

ON FILM: Movie-makers explore ‘new epiphanies of beauty.’

(L-R) A movie poster for a film that was part of the Catholic Art Institute's film festival. Sculptor and artist Dony MacManus in work inside his studio.
(L-R) A movie poster for a film that was part of the Catholic Art Institute's film festival. Sculptor and artist Dony MacManus in work inside his studio. (photo: Courtesy photos / Film Festival/Dony MacManus)

Beautifully shot and scored, The Space Between the Ages, written and directed by Travis Lee Ratcliff from Austin, Texas, explores the artistic process of Irish sculptor Dony MacManus as he works with clay to reveal the beauty of the human person. The stunning short film received the top award and a $500 prize at the “Letter to Artists Short Film Festival,” hosted by the Catholic Art Institute, on April 14. 

Director Ratcliff spoke about the unique sense of MacManus as an artist, noting that, in his work, he was securing a place in time: “What began to fascinate me as we worked with Dony was the role time and history, both personal and cultural, play in defining out experience of reality. Hopefully, we created a film that has a more substantive emotional core than the typical artist film.”

Twenty-five years ago this Easter, on April 4, 1999, Pope St. John Paul II issued one of the novelest and heartfelt messages of his papacy — the inspiration for this new film festival. The “Letter to Artists” was an invitation to the communities of faith and the arts to acknowledge their mutual need for each other and begin an active rapprochement for the sake of a broken world desperately in need of what the Pope called “new epiphanies of beauty.”  

Responding to the 25th anniversary year of this still-vital exhortation, the festival just wrapped its first year, with screenings of award-winning films at the historic Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse in the Washington, D.C., metro area — celebrating cinema and screenplays that explore the impulse to create and the demands of art and beauty, the particular emotional and pragmatic challenges that artists must overcome, and why art matters and how it can heal, connect and spiritually deepen us. 

Catholic Art Institute President Kathleen Carr noted that the impulse to launch the Letter to Artists Film Festival came from the organization’s mission to encourage artists to explore the sacred in many different media, but with reverence and mastery of craft. “Part of our goal was to expose today’s new generation of artists to the aspirations of St. John Paul, that the first vocation of every artist is to seek to bring what he called ‘new epiphanies of beauty’ into the world.” 

Filmmaker Molly Lewis from New York City won an award for her three-minute film In Him Together, which she described as a cinematic poem to the Mystical Body of Christ. The project realizes the Letter to Artist’s call for artists to make the invisible mysteries of faith visceral. It uses the unique power of cinema to layer and juxtapose images, according to Lewis: “I wanted to explore the connection we have through Jesus in the sacraments to each other — all of the baptized, whether we practice our faith or not. I have often wondered who, silently, without my knowing, was a part of my conversion. I wonder about the grace that first inspired me to step into a church in New York City and pray while I was waiting for a train. I believe others’ prayers, sacrifices and acts of love somewhere out there led me back into the Church.”

A second motivation behind the event was simply to get the Catholic Church officially on board in encouraging and sponsoring filmmakers in particular. A search on Film Freeway, the global aggregate site for film festivals, lists a handful of festivals that had been sponsored by Catholic entities years ago, none of which are currently active. We’re missing the boat. There are at least 75 evangelical Christian film festivals, offering money, support and visibility to young filmmakers. Is it any wonder why evangelicals make 20 films for every one that Catholics do? 

The Letters to Artists Short Film Festival was sponsored by Family Theater Productions, AWE Publicity, Guadalupe Roastery, and the Pauline Media Center in Los Angeles. Pauline Sister Nancy Michael, who directs the L.A. center, expressed great support for this new initiative, saying, “It’s crucial to support authentic storytellers who use their creativity to ponder the depths of human life and help us find grace in everything.”

Much as St. John Paul notes that artists are often driven to create as a response to suffering, the subject of The Space Between the Ages, MacManus, begins his life as an artist when he was a young boy weathering abuse because of his dyslexia. Director Ratliff noted, “Interweaving Dony’s early awakening to art from trauma with the broader themes of time and our place in it became the central mission of the film.”

Second prize, and $250, was awarded to The Beauty of Sacred Art by Chicago-area filmmaker Damian Chlanda. The piece follows two painters, Sarah Crow and Jared Seff, as they work to create works of art that will not only be beautiful, but will be means of leading souls into deeper prayer. Crow notes in the film, “There is no honor greater for me as an artist than to see someone praying in front of one of my paintings.”

Other projects screened at the festival included Heading Home: A 21st-Century Pilgrimage, about a pilgrimage of evangelical leaders to some of the greatest Catholic churches in Europe. Led by philanthropist and art scholar Roberta Ahmanson, the project was a fascinating journey that, if it sparks a movement, could lead to a healing of some of the scars of the Reformation. Then, there was the haunting This Side, filmed mainly on an iPhone by a Ugandan teenager named Faustina and directed by filmmaker Dan Tarant of Personally Catholic Films in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Faustina wants to be a nun, but she and her impoverished family are trapped in a desperate struggle just to survive. And, yet, her abiding faith in Jesus and his love and care for her is astounding. Both pieces were deeply engaging and thought-provoking.

Overall, the film festival was a success, with more than 60 filmmakers submitting scripts and screenplays to be juried. A fervent crowd of film fans attended the award screenings, and many expressed the desire to see more, already looking forward to next year. 

As Carr said, “We are hoping the ‘Letter to Artists’ becomes a personal credo for today’s new generation of Catholic filmmakers.”


The Letter to Artists Film Festival will continue next year, with submissions opening in early July. 

The winning film, The Space Between the Ages, will also be screened at the Catholic Art Institute’s annual conference at The Catholic University of America in Washington this fall. All of the award-winning films — inspiring and worth your time — can be screened on the Catholic Art Institute’s website,

This story was updated after posting.