To convert society, we must also capture the culture. I hope this grows and grows!
By Joseph Pearce
Something is stirring of which most of us are unaware. It is a new and vibrant revival of Catholic culture which serves as both an antidote to the poison of corruption within the Church and as a living response to the decadent death-culture with which the secular world is killing itself. This vigorous cultural revival is nothing less than the pouring forth of the goodness of truth and beauty in every area of the arts.
One scarcely knows where to begin in offering an overview of all that’s currently happening in the Catholic arts.
Beginning with music, Michael Kurek continues to blaze a trail. He is currently working on his second symphony on the theme of Fairy Tales which he describes as “a musical counterpart to the allegories of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis in the form of a purely musical fairy tale containing hidden Christian symbolism.” A recipient of the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (the Academy’s top lifetime achievement award in composition), Dr. Kurek’s music, hailed for its lush neo-romanticism, has been performed in fifteen countries on five continents. His 2017 album, The Sea Knows, was No. 1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Chart.
Another exciting contemporary composer is Frank La Rocca, whose compositions in sacred music engage with modernity without succumbing to modernism, either stylistically or theologically. Although he had been trained as an academic modernist at Yale and U.C. Berkeley, he came to see such modernism as “a barrier to free musical expression,” and sought to find his own creative language in defiance of these ideological constraints. Drawing on influences as luminous and diverse as Byrd, Mahler, Stravinsky and Arvo Pärt, it is hardly surprising that his music has been described as “a modern evocation of the radiant spirituality of ancient chant.” Dr. LaRocca sees his work in sacred choral music as "a contribution to the New Evangelization" and sees himself "as an apologist for a distinctively Christian faith – not through direct persuasion, but through the beauty of music." Several of his many compositions are available on the CD, In This Place.
Moving from music to the visual arts, Igor Babailov, a Russian-born artist based in Tennessee, has been commissioned to paint the last three popes, of which his portrait of Pope Emeritus Benedict is particularly powerful, conveying symbolism resonant of Benedict’s charism and the spirit of his pontificate. Babailov’s “Resurrection of Realism” conveys the cherubic and resurgent spirit of realism smashing through fragments of Picasso’s “Guernica”. More somberly and less triumphalistically, “My Grandmother Told Me” depicts the night on which Babailov’s grandfather was arrested by the NKVD (later known as the KGB, the Soviet secret police). Other artists deserve special attention. Matthew Brooks is a Massachusetts-based artist (not to be confused with the Canadian artist of the same name) whose glorious paintings of the saints are expressive of the Renaissance tradition of which he is an unabashed heir. Ken Jan Woo is a New York City-based iconographer and portrait painter whose work graces churches and private collections across the country. A British artist who commands respect and demands attention is James Gillick, whose truly masterful sill lifes are breathtaking. Although his work is not explicitly religious, the exhilarating beauty of the play of light in his work shines forth the grandeur of God. Finally, the new issue of the St. Austin Review, features the art of Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs whose work evokes the truths of the Faith with vividness and vivacity. We could go on. There are so many great Catholic artists that one hardly knows when or where to stop in the listing of them. It is, therefore, necessary to desist. Those seeking to know more about contemporary art, or those contemporary Catholic artists seeking communion with their peers, should contact the recently established Catholic Art Guild.
Let’s turn our attention to the dramatic arts. Preeminent among those evangelizing through the power of drama is Kevin O’Brien, founder and director of Theater of the Word Incorporated. Apart from touring the country presenting faith-based drama, including his one-man show as St. Paul and a powerful pro-life drama called “Sarah’s Secret”, Kevin has presented his own series on EWTN and he and his actors have performed in series for EWTN on Shakespeare’s Catholicism and on the Catholicism of The Lord of the Rings. Kevin’s recently published autobiography and testimony, An Actor Bows, is a candidly profound story of conversion in the midst of a life devoted to a vocation in the arts.
An especially powerful example of the new evangelization in the arts is the Flint Hills Shakespeare Festival, which combines the time-honoured format of Shakespeare in the Park with an accompanying Medieval/Renaissance Festival. Instituted by a handful of Shakespeare-loving Catholics in the rural setting of St. Mary’s in Kansas, the Festival has proved to be such an astonishing success that it now attracts thousands of people from the wider community, some of whom travel many miles, even from out of state, to experience this unique incarnation of the spirit of the Catholic Shakespeare.
Another exciting development over the past few years has been the production of award-winning audio dramas by the Augustine Institute. Written by Paul McCusker, who, prior to his conversion, was the writer of the hugely successful Adventures in Odyssey, these audio dramas have included dramatizations of the lives of St. Francis, St. Patrick, and St. Cecilia. Unlike other audio dramatizations of the lives of the saints, as noble as they might be, the Augustine Institute productions feature world-renowned actors who are able to magnificently articulate McCusker’s words.
This all too brief overview of the new Catholic revival in the arts has not even mentioned literature, even though new works of fiction and poetry, of which there are mnay, might represent the most exciting and vibrant aspect of the whole evangelical spirit of contemporary Catholic art.
Although this encouraging phenomenon bodes so portentously well for the future, it is intriguing that it is emerging, perhaps counter-intuitively, at a time when church attendance in north America appears to be in decline. The cause would appear to be that St. John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization and his active encouragement of the Catholic arts are beginning to bear fruit. The seeds that he planted, nursed and nurtured by his successor, Pope Emeritus Benedict, are now sprouting forth in multifarious ways. This is certainly a cause for great joy but there is still much that needs to be done. The problem now is the disconnect between the quality and quantity of good Catholic art being produced and the lack of knowledge of its existence by the majority of ordinary Catholics. Much needs to be done to spread the good news of this authentic and bona fide cultural renewal to those in the pews who are so much in need of its sustaining power. Let’s rejoice in this resurrection of Catholic art and culture but let’s make sure that our brothers and sisters know about it so that they can also share its joy and beauty.