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Michael P. MurphyJune 08, 2023
Martin Scorsese gives Pope Francis a copy of the “Our Father: written in Osage, from Scorsese’s new movie “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (Photo courtesy of Michael Murphy)Martin Scorsese gives Pope Francis a copy of the “Our Father: written in Osage, from Scorsese’s new movie “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (Photo courtesy of Michael Murphy)

Keep helping us to open wide our imagination so that it can transcend our narrow perspectives and be open to the holy mystery of God. Persevere, then, tirelessly and with creativity and courage. I bless you and I pray for you, and I ask you, please, to pray for me.

These words, spoken by Pope Francis to an audience at “The Global Aesthetics of the Catholic Imagination” conference in Rome on May 27, affirm once again a central ecclesiological vision that Francis announced early in his papacy—that “the Church is not a bureaucratic organization but a love story.” To view the church in such poetic and dramatic terms is a shorthand for the idea of a “Catholic imagination,” an approach that comes quite naturally to Pope Francis. It is also perhaps the oldest and surest way to engage the mystery of our lives in God.

After all, Jesus did not teach through bar graphs, predictive analytics and ledgers, but through image, metaphor and story. As the Rev. David Tracy observed, religion’s “closest cousin is not rigid logic, but art.” This fits the eye and fills the ear of artists of every shape and stripe from across the great, spinning globe—and perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than in the grand rooms of Villa Malta last month.

What happens when 70 artists and writers come together to discuss the Catholic imagination?

The conference took place on May 25-27, co-sponsored by the Office of Mission and Ministry of Georgetown University and the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, along with support from Fordham University’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies and Loyola University Chicago’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage. The conference is connected to the Biennial Catholic Imagination Conference, a growing ecclesial community dreamt up by the poet Dana Gioia and several associates roughly 10 years ago. There have been four iterations of this conference since 2015, and a fifth is being planned to take place at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 2024. These meetings draw hundreds of artists, writers and scholars of the highest caliber. They are a needed service to the church and a unique, ventilating way of being Catholic in the public sphere.

The Rome conference was a smaller affair than the earlier gatherings, designed both to expand audiences and to cultivate more intimate conversations in between the larger, biennial gatherings. The meeting included roughly 70 people, both creative artists and critical readers from Africa, Europe, South Asia and North America, who self-identify as Catholic or pay homage to Catholicism as a formative dimension of their artistry. Attendees were treated to readings from poets and writers and shared in discussions of the spiritual and religious dimensions that form the literary imagination, especially in the cultural contexts of each artist.

In his plenary address on Thursday, Portuguese José Cardinal Tolentino Calaça de Mendonça of Portugal, Prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, distilled the importance of such conversations—along with the imagination and the work from which they derive: “When Christianity loses all the capacity to produce new words, new images, new poetry, new music, it will be dead. You are responsible for the life of Catholicism.”

Cardinal Tolentino, a poet in his own right, knows of what he speaks; and his meditation on the shape of prayer and belief in the arid lands of late modern life describe a context precisely in which the Catholic imagination works and grows. “I have friends who pray to Simone Weil/ For many years now I’ve noticed Flannery O’Connor,” he begins in his poem “The Rubbish of St. Paul.” “Those who pray are like beggars of last resort/ deeply rummaging through the emptiness/ until that emptiness bursts/ into flame inside them.”

The coincidence of opposites contained in these lines—the fact that restorative life blooms out of the vapor and the muck—is perhaps the central attribute and machinery of any notion of a Catholic imagination. In the panel “Catholic Africa & Diaspora Writers,” the Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe (who teaches at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Ga.), took a similar tack:

I think grace is organic. It is something freely given and a thing we cannot earn. A reality of God. It is my hope that the younger people see this gift—that grace is sometimes ugly—but that our creator is benevolent

There is a Milledgeville fragrance to Professor Unigwe’s insight, one that invokes the name of the city’s most famous daughter, Flannery O’Connor. In A Prayer Journal, O’Connor expressed her desire to encounter God (that is, to “get down under things and find where You are”) precisely by forging the tools and materials of an artist, by becoming a first-class writer of fiction.

To do this well in any age, Pope Francis reminded the community of artists of the key attribute that distinguishes this kind of imagination and view of life from all others, that of navigating opposing tensions. “You know quite well that artistic inspiration is not only consoling but also disquieting, since it presents both the beautiful and the tragic realities of life,” he observed. “Art is the fertile terrain where the ‘polar oppositions’ of reality can be expressed with a language that must be creative, flexible and capable of serving as a vehicle for powerful messages and visions.”

Pope Francis: ‘You know quite well that artistic inspiration is not only consoling but also disquieting.’

Pope Francis’ insight connects a vision of human creativity and aesthetic value to the terrain of history and the habits of political power. His observation also rhymes with his own doctoral work, a well-developed (yet uncompleted) study that explores how apparent contradictions can be resolved metaphysically by reframing natural tensions as dynamic and fertile “contradistinctions” through the lens of the great 20th-century theologian and social critic Romano Guardini.

For Pope Francis, “contradistinctions,” far from being divisive, are harmonies of the Holy Spirit. His encouragement for artists (citing Paul Claudel) is to develop an “eye that hears” in order that we may apprehend what is really there. In Francis’ vision, this approach is quite literally catholic in that it truly accounts for the whole: “Art is an antidote to the mindset of calculation and standardization; it is a challenge to our imagination, our way of seeing and understanding reality.”

Opposites and Tensions

The scholars and writers on each of the conference panels were attuned to this way of seeing. In her remarks on “Africa & the Catholic Imagination,” Ugandan Sister Dominica Dipio of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church expressed an ambivalence that many African Catholics feel. On the one hand, African Catholics are grateful for the Gospel and the saving waters of faith; on the other, they are continually wounded and repulsed by the legacy of violence and colonization. “Can writing in English be neutral here?” Sister Dipio asked, adding another thread to important post-colonial conversations conducted elsewhere between Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (and other African artists and thinkers) on issues of justice involved in using the oppressor’s tongue—especially in art.

Sister Dipio’s co-panelist, Professor Antoinette Kankindi, offered a compelling response, one that captured the global—and arguably borderless anthropological—elements in play here. “Pagan cultures—their violence and oppression—prepared the West for Christianity,” she said. “For our time, it may be that the specter of colonialism may clear the path for the true arrival of the Logos.” In Catholic terms, this means that we hold up two opposing ideas or forces alongside one another—and proceed as if they are not opposite.

The pilgrimage trope, being a central feature in a Catholic way of thinking and being, appeared over and again.

If ever two artists illuminated the idea of holding opposites in tension with theological gravity, it is Dante and Flannery O’Connor. Two panels examined the fruits of these artists. In one, the Italian scholar Vittorio Montemaggi provided a deft reading of the presence of hope that is alive in Dante’s Inferno. In the rhythms of a Catholic imagination, hope presents first as a via negativa  in that long poem— a point that Pope Francis articulates beautifully as a theology of human pilgrimage in “Candor Lucis Aeternae,” his apostolic letter commemorating the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.

The pilgrimage trope itself, being a central feature in a Catholic way of thinking and being, appeared over and again at the conference. Building from her study, Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell gave an account of O’Connor’s racist tendencies, distinguishing these apparently habitual proclivities in O’Connor’s private letters from the objectively recognized culpability that O’Connor renders as a smoking iron of social sin in her fiction.

There is ample evidence that O’Connor, herself ever mindful of the pilgrim nature of life, became increasingly conscious of her own fallibilities. The notion of a cosmic “Christogenesis,” a Teilhardian theme of which she was so fond, serves as a subtext of her late masterpiece on racial blindness and human duty, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and takes sacramental root in the soil of story.

‘The challenge facing the Catholic imagination in our time is not to explain the ‘mystery’ of Christ....but to enable us to touch him, to feel his closeness.’

“The challenge facing the Catholic imagination in our time,” as Pope Francis emphasizes in his address, “is not to explain the ‘mystery’ of Christ, which is ultimately unfathomable, but to enable us to touch him, to feel his closeness.” Of all the arts, poetry may be most uniquely suited to illuminate both the interior gravity and interpersonal intimacy of this theology of encounter. In three panels of 11 poets and two scholars, attendees were treated to the intimacy of feeling and understanding that good poets can create in small spaces.

The legendary Irish poet John F. Deane read the title poem of his recent collection, Naming of the Bones, which takes up the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London in 2017. The poem conveys the fast-moving conflagration, an “inestimable furnace” that took 71 lives before the text stops to contemplate the worst kind of sorrow: “A child appears for a moment, at a window/ of the sixteenth floor, a moment only, frantic, waving:/ to a not-there-saviour; you; We hurt, my Christ, we hurt.”

We immediately think again of Pope Francis’ insight, particularly as a counsel to total accompaniment: “Artistic inspiration is not only consoling but also disquieting, since it presents both the beautiful and the tragic realities of life.”

That dynamism between beauty and tragedy could also be found in a conversation between Martin Scorsese and Antonio Spadaro, S.J., in the conference’s penultimate session. It was a true grace to encounter one of history’s great cinematic artists in such an intimate setting; but it was also a seamless integration with the rest of the conference, and the dialogue was of a piece with the larger conversation. Footage from this session is available here.

North American voices

Five North American writers drew the anchor card of the conference. Liam Callanan read an excerpt from his new novel, When in Rome, a story about an order of women religious on the verge of “completing the work,” a timely and topical plotline, to be sure. But Callanan offered a vision not of completion, but of creative expansion of the work, one that includes lay people. Alice McDermott, who read an excerpt from her new novel, Absolution, responded to Callanan, meditating out loud on the neglected, unsaid components of this powerful historical moment—of religious sisters, who educated and care for so many of us, and their “completing the work.” She put forward an objection to the process: “Do we not at least have the time or opportunity to thank these heroic women?” she asked. “To end so quickly the work and service they have given without gratitude and recognition?”

It was a true grace to encounter one of history’s great cinematic artists in such an intimate setting.

Phil Klay read from new, untitled work. His “story within a story” approach reminded all in the room of the many tools writers have to bring the mystery of memory and the hard edges of life into being. He was followed by Randy Boyagoda, who put flesh to the old Chestertonian quip, “Funny is not the opposite of serious; it is the opposite of not-funny.”

Christopher Beha closed the session with a focus on literature and the present moment. Beha cited the ascendency of autofiction as a kind of aesthetic foil to the Catholic imagination. In most autofiction, the emphasis is not so much on a healthy interiority but rather, subjectivized, private takes on reality. As a literary form it matches the most intense and detached forms of secularism and, ironically, social atomization. The Catholic imagination, however, while it honors subjective experience, encourages a decidedly intersubjective, communal reality where truth can be discerned, known and shared.

‘Woe to Us If We Ever Stop Dreaming’

Pope Francis gave the community of artists assembled at the conference an endorsement of the indispensable gifts of creativity; he also gave attendees a set marching orders: “A Latin American writer once said that we have two eyes: one of flesh and the other of glass. With the eye of flesh, we see what is in front of us; with the eye of glass, we see our dreams. Woe to us if we ever stop dreaming, woe to us!”

In his remarks of May 27, Pope Francis set the stage (I hope) for a longer address on the vocation of the artist, one that continues in the superb tradition of St. John Paul II’s excellent “Letter to Artists” from 1999.

The conference co-lead, Mark Bosco, S.J., noted that throughout the gathering (and in often humorous ways), the Holy Spirit moved the conference in ways he never expected, but that the result was also better than he “ever could have hoped.” The world is, as ever, a tense place, and there are always dragons in the path. But then there are also rose petals on Pentecost Sunday and an imagination alive in the world that sees the “dearest freshness deep down things”—and helps us to see them too.

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