The Catholic Artist & the Culture Fight: Combatting Statue Smashings & Lies with Beauty

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Yorkshire, England, June 2001

Never in my life had I seen such a massive, hulking beast of a building. The cathedral was enormous. It didn’t just tower, it loomed, its highest spires butting against the clear blue sky as if holding up the clouds. Standing in York Minster’s shadow with my tour group and our guide, I could only gape. How could anyone look at that edifice and not feel the weight of centuries pressing down on them?

I had been 18 for two weeks and a Catholic for eight, my heart full of the optimism of youth and my soul still reveling in the newfound life I had in Christ’s true Church. England to that girl was a marvel. I knew York Minster belonged to the Anglicans now, but I could love it still. I could love it for the centuries of service it had given the Church, could imagine myself back in time, on my knees behind those walls of stone.

And yet…something wasn’t quite right.

Taking a deep breath and working up some courage, I approached our tour guide. He smiled as I stood before him, and I smiled back because he was cute and British. But that wasn’t enough to distract me from my question.

I looked from our guide to the cathedral’s strangely bare walls. “Why are all the statue niches empty?”

“Good eye.” Tipping his head back, he surveyed York Minster, its surface entirely covered with bare stone niches. “It’s simple, really. During the Reformation, the Roundheads wanted to remove any trace of Catholic idolatry. So they pulled down the statues.”

“Pulled…pulled down the statues?”

“That’s right. They smashed them all.”

Those blue English skies might as well have turned their stereotypical gray for me. I turned back to those empty niches, a heavy feeling in my chest. As my gaze swept the spaces that once housed reminders of God’s most faithful servants, I had only one thought.

What ignorance! What hate!

Little did I know that nineteen years later, I would watch St. Junipero Serra’s statue fall and think the same thing.


This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

As the dust has settled in the year since protestors toppled the missionary saint’s statue from its pedestal, many of us are still reeeling, wondering why. What has inspired such anti-religious fervor? Some blame the devil and some the Democrats, but that only speculates on the who, not the why.

The why is important. The who is ever-changing in the age-old struggle between man and his Maker, but the why remains the same century after century, from the anti-Catholic Roundheads to Antifa and their ilk today. So what is the why? When push comes to shove, when you get right down to it, why do the forces opposed to truth target statues, saints, and all our treasures? Why can’t we have nice things?

The reason now is the same as ever. It can be found in the shadow of York Minster’s bare walls and in the echo of voices on a YouTube video of St. Junipero Serra’s statue’s fall.

We can’t have nice things because of ignorance. We can’t have them because of hate.

It would be nonsensical to label every man or woman who ever targeted a Catholic statue as evil without understanding their reasons why. Some, no doubt, are oblivious souls caught up in the fervor of a movement, targeting something they’ve never experienced and know nothing about. Others started out that way…and then those lies festered in their hearts, taking root and becoming vitriol and loathing, the devil’s favorite tools. Either way, ignorance stands at the center of the problem. Either way, the light of truth is the answer.

But how to shine that light?

As Catholic artists committed to the three classic transcendentals, you and I understand that the way to truth is goodness, and the way to goodness is beauty. That’s the whole reason we have statues in the first place. Their beauty points us to the saints, who are good; the saints point us to God, who is Truth. That’s simple. Basic stuff. It’s Sacred Art 101. It’s how the Church has spread the faith for untold centuries.

But what do you do in untold times? What do you do when the once-Christian culture rejects a man most humble and raises the Pride flag on high? Is art that’s beautiful, highlights the saints’ goodness, and points to truth enough anymore?

Yes. Yes, it is. But only if we do it right.

So how do we do it right? How do we battle ignorance, bring enlightenment, and put the power of beauty to work in pointing our culture to truth–even as they tear down the beautiful things we make? How do we lead our culture to the Truth that is Jesus?

How do we share the saints’ goodness with a world that only seeks to tear them down?

As always, it starts with fortifying the Church itself.

We’ve Lost Saint Anthony!

Quick–who’s the patron saint of lost things? Easy, right? Every disorganized Catholic knows St. Anthony is the one to turn to when we lose our keys…but why? What else do we know? Shouldn’t this one mundane fact point us to something more exciting?

In most of Catholic America, we’ve lost something more critical than car keys–we’ve lost our knowledge of the saints. And if you think you’re not going anywhere without keys, imagine how long we’ll languish without the saints.

The saints are some of the most powerful witnesses to God’s goodness and truth. Sadly, most  Catholics had never heard of St. Junipero Serra until he became the far-left’s favorite target. Optimists might say that at least this incident has got Catholics learning his name, but don’t be too hasty. Because the culture was the first to bring him to the world’s attention, they were the ones who got to set the narrative–for Catholics and the world. Which begs a question.

Why aren’t we doing a better job telling the world–and our own members–about the saints?

Now, I know the automatic response to this. “But we’re already promoting the saints!” And I agree, there’s plenty of saint-themed Catholic art out there in a variety of forms. Maybe the world had never heard of St. Junipero Serra until recently, but it’s not as if the Church and its members aren’t producing saint-centered media. I’d even venture to say that some of it is great. But the bulk of these saint-based works? Let’s be honest. No one–not even faithful Catholics–cares a lick about them.

Because they’re not good. They’re well-executed, but they’re not engaging.

And if people don’t care about the saint stories we tell? They won’t read or watch or listen. If they don’t read or watch or listen, they won’t learn. They won’t learn the lessons that our forefathers in the faith can teach us. They won’t be transformed–and they won’t pass these lessons on to the world.

Oh, St. Anthony. Help us find our lost saints.

Unleashing the Beauty of the Saints

If telling the saints’ stories isn’t enough to educate the faithful about the saints, then what is? Simple. We need to tell their stories in beautiful ways.

But how? Why?

Why must we tell the saints’ stories in beautiful ways? Because beauty is the soul of truth. If we were purely spiritual beings who lived outside of space and time, beauty and truth would be nearly indistinguishable, impossible to separate. But here in the material sphere, things are different. The facts by themselves aren’t enough to hold us spellbound. If they were, then any truth-filled textbook would be riveting, never mind that it’s as dull as a sack of turnips. It wouldn’t matter.

But it does matter. It matters because the truth, for mortal man, does not come alive unless we can see its beauty. Beauty is what breathes truth into life.

The saints are beautiful. The saints are fascinating! Why have we made them so boring? Why have we made them so inaccessible? Isn’t anyone tired of those trite novelizations of saints’ lives written in saccharine sweetness without an ounce of soul or heart? It’s no wonder the only time a kid touches these books is when she pulls them out of a First Communion gift bag.

And what about saint movies? Why–with a few notable exceptions–are they only in Italian? I happen to like some of them, but subtitled movies are useless in passing on the faith to my dyslexic son. Between 5 and 15 percent of the population is dyslexic, and even those who aren’t have little interest in a movie they have to read. Doesn’t anyone who speaks English know how to make movies?

If beauty is the weapon we must use in the fight for truth, and if we must keep this powerful weapon from falling into the wrong hands, we cannot let the culture tell more compelling tales about the saints than we do. No one will care that the culture’s tales are lies and ours are truths if the lies look pretty and the truth looks boring.

So how do we do it? How do we harness the power of beauty to unleash the saints’ witness on our Church–and on our broken world?

Every Catholic Artist Must Be an Iconographer

If we want to change course, make saint-based art that’s faithful and engaging, and exchange the culture’s hostile takeover for the Church’s holy one, Catholic artists cannot just be artists. They must be iconographers.

Now, I don’t mean that literally, of course. What I mean is that the mission of the icon writer is, in a sense, every Catholic creative’s mission. Why? Ironically, it’s a Loyola Press article’s explanation of what icons are that gives us the reason:

“Religious icons are…representations of a greater ‘object,’ but in this case, the ‘object’ is a person…Icons are like quick links in that they give us a kind of symbolic snapshot of holy persons who are in heaven. More than that, religious icons are a form of prayer…Icons, then, are not just art with a religious theme; rather, they are sacred art because they bring the viewer to the sacred.”

Does the Church’s current, mainstream stable of saint-based media direct viewers to the sacred? Not when we’ve gutted their stories and left out what matters. We’ve directed viewers’ eyes, all right–to saints made by our hands, not by God’s.

Do the majority of saint movies, children’s books, and curricula provide snapshots of the saints? Or do they provide Picasso-like images–distorted depictions that make it impossible to recognize the person they symbolize?

Does the current standard of Catholic media represent greater objects? Or do they represent lesser, watered-down ones?

It’s a harsh assessment, I’ll grant you that. But we as Catholics have to face the fact that what we’re doing isn’t working. We won’t win hearts in the culture or the Church if we peddle saccharine sweet saints, only promote the useful things they patronize, or just honor saint quotes that look good on social media and can be twisted to mean whatever we want.

Let’s Get Our Nice Things Back!

It makes little sense to battle the culture’s distortions of the saints with distortions of our own, but that’s exactly what we’ve been doing–and that’s why we can’t have nice things.

Or can we?

If we want to turn this ship around, it’s going to take time, but eventually, we can put an end to the culture’s attack on our saints. Probably not in our lifetime, but this is where it starts. You and I, my fellow Catholic artists, must be the founders of a movement that stretches into the ages–a movement that holds the saints up as beacons pointing the way to God Most High. That movement begins with a change in perspective.

Those who make subpar saint-based works aren’t short on talent, but on vision. Our vision must be iconographic, not propagandist. We are here to represent the saints in all their potency, not pull out the convenient bits we think people want to hear..or even just the things we want them to hear. We must use beauty when we share the saints, and we must share them in all their fullness. We must use beauty to bring knowledge of the truth.

The ignorance must stop. Only then will the hate fall. Only then will our statues live on.

Continue ReadingThe Catholic Artist & the Culture Fight: Combatting Statue Smashings & Lies with Beauty

Art Can Save Our Eucharistic Faith

Art Can Save Our Eucharistic Faith…with a Little Help from the Sacred Heart

In the Catholic Church, we have something that no one else has–we have the literal Heart of Jesus in our midst. At every visit to Adoation, every Mass, and especially every Communion, we don’t just encounter Jesus’ prophecies, teachings, or a touchy-feeling experience that can be manipulated through catchy music or spurred by an inspired message. We become one with the Maker of all things when we consume the Heart of our God.

And that’s exactly how He wants it.

Now, this isn’t the sort of wording that will bring people to our parishes in droves. The idea of eating human flesh–even Divine Flesh–tends to make people run the other way. That is, unless they understand the depth, breadth, bliss, and life that permeate this precious reality.

God Himself gives us His own body to nourish us, because without the food that is Jesus, we cannot live. You and I know that, and we see the beauty of that truth. But the rest of the world isn’t ready for that yet.

That’s where the Sacred Heart comes in.

And it’s where you come in, too.

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It

The visual image we know as the Sacred Heart of Jesus–with its flames, cross, crown, and wounded side–was given to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque by Jesus Himself precisely to make His Heart accesible to those not ready for the reality of the Eucharist. It was given to non-Catholics, yes, but it was given even more to the members of the Church. Because just being Catholic doesn’t mean we have Eucharistic faith.

We live in a time when most of the people we need to evangelize are our own. The faithful are leaving the Church en masse, and 75% of the ones still standing don’t believe in the True Presence. They don’t believe that the God of all things has plunged Himself into our messy world and scandal-ridden Church. They don’t believe He desires any part of our brokenness.

Lies. All of them.

Jesus Christ has stepped down from Heaven to walk among men of clay and turn them into Himself. It’s a truth too spectacular for many to reconcile with what we know of ourselves. The only way the Church or the world can accept the truth of the Eucharist is if someone makes it palatable for their earthly sensibilities.

Jesus did that. He gave the Church–and the world–His Sacred Heart. And…he gave the Church artists who could paint it, sing of it, write about it, and etch it in stone.

You and I, my friends, are artists. And that means we have God’s work to do. That means we must, with a zeal and devotion unsurpassed, take up the mission of the Sacred Heart.

What is the Mission of the Sacred Heart?

Before we can take up the Sacred Heart’s mission as artists, we must take it up as Catholics first and foremost. So what is the mission of the Sacred Heart?

For our purposes, the Sacred Heart’s mission has two basic parts: the 12 promises Jesus gives to those who honor his Sacred Heart, and the symbolism within the image.

The 12 Promises of the Sacred Heart

Jesus gave these promises to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque for those who practice devotion to His Sacred Heart:

  1. I will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life.
  2. I will establish peace in their homes.
  3. I will comfort them in all their afflictions.
  4. I will be their secure refuge during life and, above all, in death.
  5. I will bestow abundant blessings on all their undertakings.
  6. Sinners will find in My Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
  7. Lukewarm souls shall become fervent.
  8. Fervent souls shall quickly rise to great perfection.
  9. I will bless every place in which an image of My Heart is exposed and honored.
  10. I will give to priests the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.
  11. Those who promote this devotion shall have their names written in My Heart.
  12. I promise you in the excessive mercy of My Heart that My all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays in nine consecutive months the grace of final perseverance; they shall not die in My displeasure nor without receiving their Sacraments. My divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.

The first step in taking up the mission of the Sacred Heart is to write it on our own hearts and live it out in our everyday lives. It’s no use fretting about the Church’s lack of faith in the Eucharist when we’re not maintaining that faith in ourselves. Too often, we can develop a commonplace attitude about the Eucharist, a casual irreverence that comes when we take the True Presence for granted. Plenty of us profess belief in the True Presence but decline when we’re given the opportunity to attend daily Mass and participate in the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, to receive His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in Communion. If Christ in the Eucharist isn’t the center of our own lives, how can we be convincing when we tell others that He should be the center of theirs?

Granted, many of us aren’t able to attend Mass every day, or even every First Friday. But if we find that our own Eucharistic faith needs a shot of espresso, we can’t go wrong by starting with the final and most important Sacred Heart promise. We can’t go wrong by making every effort to come to Mass on First Fridays for the next nine months…or even beyond.

The Symbolism Within the Sacred Heart

We’ve all seen the Sacred Heart image, but have you thought about the elements that make it up? Each aspect has a specific meaning that leads to one inevitable conclusion: Jesus’ Heart burns with love for you and me.

  • Jesus’ Heart is on fire with love for all mankind, and the flames bursting from and engulfing His Heart represent His always, everlasting, and blazing love.
  • The cross reminds us of Christ’s Passion and Death–evidence of the depth of His love.
  • The crown of thorns symbolizes the injuries we inflict on the Heart of Jesus when we reject His love.
  • The wound reminds us of the moment when Jesus’ side was pierced and His Heart gushed forth Blood and Water, given for us out of love.
  • The rays radiating from His Sacred Heart stand for the graces and blessings that flow from the fire of His love.

Every part of the Sacred Heart image is meant to remind us that Jesus’ Heart is consumed with burning, searing, white-hot love for you. For me. For all of us. It is a love that cannot be put out by our rejection, by indifference, by sin, by anything.

This is the Heart we encounter at every Mass, every Communion. The more we immerse ourselves in the symbolic imagery of the Sacred Heart, the more we cannot help but face the truth–that yes, the God of all things does desire us in our brokenness. Yes, He has plunged Himself into our midst, loving us enough to save us from ourselves. Loving us enough to not only lay down His life on the Cross, but to serve it to us in a chalice of gold.

There is raw power in the image of the Sacred Heart. That’s why it’s so important for every Catholic to have and cherish Sacred Heart images of their own. The Church has lost its Eucharistic faith? Let’s find it again. Let’s find it by seeking and sharing the Sacred Heart.

What Can Artists Do to Share the Sacred Heart?

On the surface, it’s easy to name what artists can do to share the Sacred Heart. If every Catholic–and even every person–needs to have and cherish at least one image of the Sacred Heart at home, then we need to create these images, right? The artist’s role in the mission of the Sacred Heart is to paint, draw, sculpt, or otherwise render Sacred Heart images? Simple.

Well…no. It’s a little more complicated than that.

Okay, then. Let’s broaden our reach. After all, words can promote the Sacred Heart and the ideas its image symbolizes. St. John of the Cross’ poetry spoke of Jesus’ Heart as “an open wound with love” even before St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s visions. And can’t we sing about it? Write hymns devoted to the Sacred Heart? Promote it through theatre, even? Those are all good things.

But here’s the issue. There’s never been a shortage of artists who create art centered on the Sacred Heart. Sure, there may not be as many Catholic artists as there used to be, but there’s never been the potential for reaching people across the world, and even across cities, as there is today. If I want to find Catholic artists creating images of the Sacred Heart, a simple hastag search on Instagram will turn up a plethora of options. I can find handmade items with the Sacred Heart all over Etsy. My choices may be more limited if I’m looking for music or theatre centered on the Sacred Heart, and perhaps this needs to change. But that’s another issue entirely. Catholic artists in several disciplines are already making Sacred Heart images and other art forms that promote devotion to the Heart of Jesus.

And yet…the Church’s lack of Eucharistic faith remains.

The Church absolutely needs artists to create beautiful images, poems, songs, and so much more about the Sacred Heart, but consider this. Maybe, just maybe, the Church needs your creative brain even more. Maybe the Church needs creative Catholics to set aside their crafts for just a moment and put their artistic minds to work looking for ways to put the Sacred Heart–images, songs, and all–in the hands of the lukewarm, the fallen away, the poorly catechised, and the faithful who need new life breathed into that faith.

You Say You Want a Revolution

Can this work? Can a bunch of random artists scattered across the diocese start a Eucharistic revolution just by putting their right-brained minds to work on creative mission outreach? Why not? Isn’t that how the Angelico Project got started?

Stop what you’re doing right now and write down five ideas for how you could encourage devotion to the Sacred Heart within the next year at your parish. Don’t worry about whether they’re good ideas for now. Just brainstorm. What have you got?

Here’s my list:

  • Counter Pride Month in June with a program called Summer of the Sacred Heart for upper elementary and possibly junior high. These are the age groups who watch networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and are bombarded with Pride propaganda targeting kids every June. Meet every Saturday after morning Mass in June, or even the whole summer, to make Sacred Heart t-shirts, necklaces, etc.–a different project each weekend–and discuss the love of Jesus for all people as expressed in the Sacred Heart.
  • Have a painting party for the parish, similar to Painting with a Twist, and everyone can paint a Sacred Heart image to display in their homes. (This, by the way, is completely doable. I did this with two second graders a couple months ago, so adults can definitely handle it!) Even better, incorporate this into a First Friday. Hold the painting party first, then have Mass. That way, people who wouldn’t normally stay for Mass will stick around–their painting will need to dry while Mass is going on, so they can just go to Mass and pick it up after!
  • Incorporate a Sacred Heart sidewalk chalk art competition into a family parish event, and distribute holy cards with the 12 Sacred Heart promises to all participants.
  • Write a play about St. Margaret Mary Alacoque for the parish youth.
  • Have a parish or school holy card competition similar to the one just held by the Angelico Project for the Marian pilgrimage. Call for works that promote devotion to the Sacred Heart, and winners will be printed on holy cards featuring a Sacred Heart prayer and distributed to parishioners.

Your ideas are likely to be very different from mine, depending on your role in the life of your parish. That’s an awesome thing. We need Sacred Heart devotion in every corner of the Church. If all of us brainstorm, bounce ideas off each other, and place the Eucharistic Heart front and center in our own lives, there’s no telling how fast the fire of faith will spread.

But we have to do it! And we have to start now.

The Eucharistic Revolution Begins with You

Start now. But where? How?

First, we need to shore up our own Sacred Heart devotion and Eucharistic faith. Are we attending Mass on First Fridays when able? Do we display the Sacred Heart in our homes or workplaces? Do we encourage others to practice devotion to the Sacred Heart–with or without our art being involved?

Are we as reverent as possible when we genuflect? When we receive the Eucharist? No matter who we are, each of us needs to spend time simply being in awe of the Eucharistic Heart of Christ every day. Nothing else we do will matter if we don’t start with ourselves.

Second, let us again take a lesson from St. Louis de Montfort. In order to spark Eucharistic faith in mainstream Catholic culture, we need to enter it. We need faithful Catholics devoted to the Heart of Jesus in parishes where the lukewarm and heterodox congregate.

Are you in such a parish? You’ve got your work cut out for you, but take heart. You’re not alone. Are you not in such a parish but know faithful Catholics who are? Pray for them and be their sounding boards. These are the people in the trenches–America’s modern missionaries. They need to be reminded that they’re not isolated in their faith.

Third, regardless of the parishes God has placed us in as Catholics, as artists with creative, quirky minds, we need to come together to discuss ideas that might just be crazy enough to work. That list of five ways to promote the Sacred Heart you just made? Don’t keep it to yourself. Talk to other Catholic creatives. Get their feedback, give feedback of your own, and even combine your efforts and ideas to start something amazing.

Let’s band together to share with the Church–and the world–our most precious treasure, one that can be found nowhere but in the Catholic Church. Let’s unite our scattered selves and varied artistic disciplines to the Heart that lives in every tabernacle across the world. Let’s become one in our unquenchable desire to never stop promoting the Sacred Heart until every soul burns with faith in our Eucharistic Lord, who feeds us with His very Self.

Because that’s exactly how He wants it. And that’s the only thing we need to know.

Continue ReadingArt Can Save Our Eucharistic Faith

The Benefits of Having Weird Friends

Creative pursuits at God’s service can make a man’s heart sing, but they’re just as likely to make him beat his head against a wall. They’re plagued with doubts, with false starts, with curses and prayers, and with a fear and sense of failure that seldom come with secular work.

I thought God wanted me to do this. Was I wrong?

It’s enough to make a man quit in a fit of artistic pique. But Father Philip wasn’t so easily deterred.

Considering the scope of his plan, that was a miracle in and of itself.

It was a big plan for a big problem. Simple in theory, but when do simple plans ever stay that way? With God on his side, Philip had faith that things would work out, but it was comforting to know he also had earthly help.

He had a bunch of weird friends.

Rome: The Catacombs 
Unknown Artist
Rome: The Catacombs
Unknown Artist

A Strange Plan Requires Stranger Friends

Rome in 1553 was in a bad state. A Christian nation? That was a thing of the past. The city was Christian in name, but in practice, Rome had traded the Bible for Bacchus and returned to its pagan ways. Adultery ran rampant. Cardinals glutted themselves on wealth and excess. Rome took its values lightly and its vices seriously.

So Father Philip decided to do the same. Holiness, after all, was a much lighter burden to bear than sin’s chains.

Reformers who had come before Philip thought to solve the problem with fire-and-brimstone preaching, but some unexplainable glimmer in his heart told him this wasn’t quite right. He had a different idea, one that won him his share of critics. Their discouragements, plus the creative turmoil that surrounds innovation, might have stopped him…if he didn’t have friends.

Because his friends? They were just as crazy as he was. And together, they would make sure his hare-brained scheme got off the ground.

Or went underground, as the case turned out to be.

His idea? Counter one of Rome’s most popular entertainments with a city-wide pilgrimage that started in the catacombs. This might sound eerily entertaining to today’s crowds, but the Renaissance Romans were more interested in living it up with the, well, living than in chilling with the dead. It was an ironic place to begin his pilgrimage, but the irony didn’t stop there. After the catacombs? They would start singing.

As they walked to the next stop on the road. But still.

After that? They’d watch a performance and eat lunch before heading for another church. They’d sing some more along the way, and someone would tell a joke or two. (It would probably be Philip; he carried a book of jokes everywhere he went.) All in all, they’d visit seven churches. And sermons denouncing vice? They wouldn’t hear one.

It was a weird way to combat hedonism and bring souls to Christ.

But it worked.

The first ragtag pilgrimage boasted about 20 companions, but as time passed, Father Philip’s pilgrimages amassed thousands. Forget mocking music and bawdy ballads on the streets. When the pilgrims went by, their deafening songs and laughter rattled through every alley and byway. Bystanders would cry out in greeting and wave as they went past. The same Romans who sneered at sermonizing priests adored Father Philip–and many of them abandoned the path of sin to follow in his footsteps instead.

All because of one man’s idea…and because of the support of his friends.

Who were these friends of Father Philip’s who helped him put on those pilgrimages and encouraged his plans? Who were these crazy men who saw the world and God’s truth in the same light and mirth and color he did?

And what do they have to say to us today?

Something about art’s power to evangelize, yes. But also something about the power of friends.

St. Philip Neri Praying
by Giovanni Battista Piazetta

Holy Pranksters

The world today knows Father Philip as St. Philip Neri, “Second Apostle to Rome,” founder of the Oratorians, and patron of humor and joy. But to that small group of friends who helped Philip create a pilgrimage and then the Oratory, he was the guy who once showed up to a party with half his beard and moustache shaved.

To his friends, Philip Neri wasn’t a lofty saint in the sky. He was a man like them–eating with them, praying with them, debating with them, and getting one of them nearly thrown out of a wine shop by sending him on a prank-filled wild goose chase. They wanted to throttle him half the time, but they couldn’t. They were too busy laughing.

St. Philip Neri and his friends saw the world in a different light. They saw truths about God that others did not, and they wondered about truths that no one else thought mattered. That, after all, is what it means to be friends–according to C.S. Lewis, at least. If men are made in God’s image and likeness, we resemble each other because we resemble our Creator. But we will resemble a friend because we were formed not just of God’s own life, but breathed into existence–so it seems–within the very same breath.

What is a Friend?

To find a friend is to find someone who sees a truth you can see which others can’t. It’s like seeing the color blue together when the rest of the world only sees red. When you find that friend, you’re speechless. It’s nearly impossible to believe, and the experience is as euphoric as discovering chocolate cake when you bite into what looks like liverwurst. It’s a shock to the system, an impossibility of delights. You might not need blue, friendship, or chocolate cake, but they make everything as bright as diamonds, like when Dorothy leaves her tornado-wrecked, black-and-white world and steps into Oz with all its color and life.

“Friendship,” says C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves, “is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survivial value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

Necessary? Maybe not. But beautiful? A treasure ten thousand-fold? Yes.

But a treasure for whom?


St. Philip Neri 
by Giandomenico Tiepolo
St. Philip Neri
by Giandomenico Tiepolo

Pious Pursuits and Wild Goose Chases

Baronius should have known better than to take advice from his mentor and friend Father Philip. (Let us not forget the debacle he endured in the wine shop.) But he did know better than to ignore Philip’s advice about the work he should pursue. Because Philip had a knack for being right.

As friends, Baronius and Father Philip saw God and the world He made in a way others did not, but only Philip had an eye for how each friend’s gifts fit into the service of the truths that bonded them. Baronius wanted to light Rome on fire with his lectures on morality, but Father Philip set him to lecture on Church history instead.

And to teach the same series of lectures seven times.

It doesn’t sound very creative. But there was a method to Father Philip’s madness–and a surprising level of insight about editing’s importance for a man who wrote so little himself. When you teach and write the same material seven times, you get pretty good at it. You know it well enough to pick out where your research has holes, where your logic needs to be shored up, and what you need to do better to make your audience understand.

Baronius’ wild goose chase in the wine shop was more than a riotously good story. It was a training ground for the chase after forgotten history that he would follow for the next twenty-three years. Though he originally had no interest in history, it soon became his passion, because Father Philip’s wisdom in choosing history as Baronius’ quest illuminated more clearly the truth they both sought. Rome and indeed the world needed virtue’s lightness–and needed to cast off vice’s chains. Baronius’ Church history lectures were to be the weapon for breaking those chains.

But what was the sin he would battle? It was the scourge of the Renaissance and the divide that still separates Christ’s people today. The battle was with Protestantism itself.

This battle that Father Philip provoked for the young Baronius would follow him through his pre-ordination years, his time building up the Oratory, and his own elevation–following Philip’s death–to head of the Oratory, Confessor to the Pope, and Cardinal of the Church. Those lectures would become a book that went head-to-head with the propaganda-riddled Church histories Protestants peddled throughout Europe. From the wine shop to the podium to the pen and the page, Father Philip’s friendship not only made Baronius a better man–one worthy of the title Venerable he bears now–but it gave the world the first great history of the Church, one that’s still relevant today.

What Makes Friendship a Treasure?

Friendship is a treasure, yes. It’s a treasure to those who find themselves within that friendship, but it’s also a treasure to the world in the good that it fosters for all mankind.

Only virtuous friendships do this. Friendships can affect society for good or bad. When a friendship is rooted in God? It may not have survival value, Lewis says–not in the physical sense. But it can help souls survive this world’s attempts to kill them. Its fruits can help others–and the friends themselves–live not for this world, but for the one to come.

But that’s not all virtuous friendships can do.

A Quirky Communion of Friends

Palestrina was born to lead the Church’s finest choirs, whether he was too modest to say it or not. His musical pursuits brought polyphonic music to its loftiest height, making it less earthly and more divine–the stuff of angels. Even in his lifetime, his name was legend. He wrote over 100 Mass settings, leading Rome’s greatest voices in song, and even–so some would claim–influencing the Council of Trent’s directives about music in the liturgy.

So what was he doing leading music at a hot, sweaty picnic between stops on a pilgrimage in Rome?

Father Philip. It always came back to Philip and his crazy schemes.

If we could see into Palestrina’s head, we’d probably discover that he didn’t mind this humble task. In fact, the arrogant couldn’t abide Philip for long. Despite his talent and renown, then, Palestrina must have been a humility-seeking man. If not, he wouldn’t go on to be friends with Father Philip for over 40 years–a friendship that only ended when he received Last Rites from Philip and then died in his arms.

That day in the park, though, neither knew what the future would hold.

When the picnic concert ended and the pilgrimage drew to a close, a handful of men retreated not to their homes, but to Father Philip’s cramped quarters above St. Jerome’s. Their purpose was to read, talk, and pray–to honor God for the goodness He possessed in a light only they could see.

Palestrina, Father Philip, Baronius, and the others who assembled in that room found themselves in the company of kindred souls–men with different vocations, gifts, and insights whose sheer variety couldn’t help but increase the others’ faith and demonstrate God’s wonders. From Philip’s gift of gab and mischief to Palestrina’s leadership and ear for beauty to Baronius’ combined passion and obedient heart, the foundations that would become the Oratory were a reflection of Heaven itself–as all good friendships are.

And the more friends in the friendship, the greater the reflection.

How is Friendship a Reflection of Heaven?

C.S. Lewis, who was no stranger to friendship or strangeness–he and Tolkien once showed up to a party dressed as polar bears–says in The Four Loves, “Of course the scarcity of kindred souls–not to mention practical considerations about the size of rooms and the audibility of voices–set limits to the enlargement of the circle; but within these limits we possess each friend not less but more as the number of those with whom we share him increases. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest.”

Palestrina’s music has been called heavenly, but was it the notes themselves, or the many voices bringing out the beauty of the others, that makes his music so divine? Was Philip’s Oratory magnetic because it brought men together in faith and fellowship, or because the act of bringing them together brought each man’s essence more clearly into light–revealing God’s essence in the process?

And what about our friendships? Are they treasures because we value them on earth, or because they give us a foretaste of the treasures of Heaven’s own communal life?

Friendship as a taste of Heaven’s own communion. What are we to make of that?

Vision of St. Philip Neri 
by Giuseppe Passeri
Vision of St. Philip Neri
by Giuseppe Passeri

The Link Between Art and Friendship

Creative pursuits at God’s service can make a man’s heart sing, yes. There’s something to be said for the beauty of a lone voice rising in song.

But there’s a reason Palestrina’s multi-part compositions, with their throngs of soaring voices blending in pursuit of one song, are considered a jewel of the Church and are still used today. It’s because two voices are better than one, three are better than two, and a heavenly host better than a single baritone. We were meant for communion, to sing Holy, holy, holy as one–and our communion is meant to invite others to join the eternal song.

It’s not about extrovertedness or introvertedness. Friendship isn’t about sharing words, space, or time together so much as it’s about sharing a vision. Yes, togetherness is part of friendship. But your friends don’t cease to be your friends when they’re out of sight. They haunt your solitary moments, their voices echoing in your head when you imagine their reaction to the news story you’re reading, their smiles flashing through your memory when you hear a joke you can’t wait to tell them. You are joined in this communion of souls, this communion of thought and truth, for as long as you both see that same truth and go after it.

If a) virtuous friendship is a sharing of truth, b) God is truth, and c) we can only see truth if God reveals it to us Himself, then we must concede that we do not make friends. Friends are given to us. They are a gift from God–completely superfluous, “like art,” as Lewis says.

And yet to artists, art doesn’t feel superfluous. When we make music, bring characters to life, or put an idea on a page, we feel most like ourselves. The same goes for the times when we are with our friends.

No, art and friendship don’t feel superfluous. But they also don’t feel as earthy as life’s necessities–not when they’re rightly ordered. Virtuous art and virtuous friendships are imminently spiritual. They’re different than food, drink, and shelter. They’re not basics. They’re too exquisite to be classified as needs.

So what are they?

Art and friendship aren’t necessities but a sign of privilege–an indication of the lofty place God gave to man when He made us in His image. They set us apart from mere creatures. Beavers build dams and gorillas use tools. Dolphins have a sophisticated language. But their structures, tools, and communications are utility, not art. They likewise have companions, but they do not have friends.

To taste friendship is to taste, in a very small way, the splendor of love that awaits us in Heaven, just as art gives us an infintessimal glimpse of the beauty of the world to come. And that makes friendship a treasure.

It makes friendship an art–God’s art. It’s the picture he’s painted of the communal love we are meant to share. It’s the way he draws even those outside the friendship to turn their eyes toward the friendship’s Artist and Creator Himself.

The Friend I Am

So what do St. Philip Neri and his friends have to say to us today? About friendship? Creative pursuits? What can they tell us about art’s power to evangelize and how it’s enhanced by the power of friends?

In all likelihood? Nothing. They would probably look at each other, shrug their shoulders, and say, “I don’t know. We just like each other, I suppose.” (To which Baronius would add, “But I only like Philip if he promises never to mention the wine shop again.”)

No, if we want answers on friendship, we’d do better to turn to Lewis in The Four Loves, or to search for records of such a conversation between him and his friend Tolkien, for that’s the sort of discussion they could very well have had. But it’s no use asking the first Oratorians. They were captured by a different truth.

Perhaps there’s nothing more to say. Perhaps it’s already been said, hidden between the lines of our real-life characters’ stories. Perhaps all this time, as you read these words and I wrote them, we’ve been on a pilgrimage of our own.

And what have we discovered? The evangelizing power of the art we make with friends? New friends in Heaven (for who wouldn’t want to call St. Philip Neri a friend)?

For me, I have discovered that friendship is more than a taste of the heavely communion I will one day share with my fellow man. It’s a sign of the Friend that’s waiting for all of us there, waiting for us at every Mass. It’s a sign of the one Who doesn’t ask, “Do you see the truth that I see?” but, “Do you see the truth that I AM?”


Continue ReadingThe Benefits of Having Weird Friends

The Catholic Artist’s Guide to Evangelizing the Church

“No one, after lighting a lamp, hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that all who enter may see the light.”   
–Luke 8:16

The Church’s destiny is to shine.

From ages past, reaching through the centuries to her founding by Christ Himself, the Catholic Church has been the shining city on a hill, a beacon for the world to see. She gets her light from the Spirit’s life within its members–within you and me.

But is your light in hiding?

The Church will always be the city on a hill, but she’s shining less and less these days. Too many of us burn lukewarm and dim. Others conceal the Spirit’s fire beneath isolation, timidness, or pride.

As the Angelico Catholic Arts Guild’s earliest members, you’re fired up and ready to ignite the world for Christ. Lukewarmness isn’t a problem. You know the world needs the Church. You know the critical damage the Church is taking. We’re losing our own by the thousands, and the only thing that can save them is the Spirit’s light burning…in you.

While all Catholics are called to uncover their lamps and spread their fire, Catholic artists have a third mission. We’re here to make the fuel that keeps the fire burning. To inspire faith with our stanzas, sculptures, and songs. Our works are the kindling, oil, wicks, and wax that feed the Church’s flames. But they’re only effective if we don’t isolate ourselves, steal the glory, or shy away.

The good news is that we have a guide in our efforts to evangelize the Church with art. All we need to do is follow St. Louis de Montfort.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Catholic Artist Edition

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Calvary was built in a year–or at least St. Louis de Montfort’s was. Though he’s best known today for his Marian writings, rural France knew him as “the oddball priest” who dreamed of a larger-than-life Calvary scene that would spark a nation’s faith.

A Calvary scene built in the French countryside was a pipe dream, but Louis had the spunk to get it done. St. Louis de Montfort was a bulldog for Christ. He was doggedly determined, fiery in his preaching, fierce in his devotion, and built like an ox. He’s even rumored to have started a few brawls when someone insulted Jesus or Mary–not the best approach, but it sure got people talking! He was too passionate, his fire too bright, for the sparks that flew from his faith not to ignite and start new flames.

If we want our city on a hill to shine as it was meant to shine–if we want to rekindle the Church and set the world ablaze–there are worse shoes to walk in than St. Louis de Montfort’s. His life is a Catholic artist’s roadmap, and we can save the Church one soul at a time if we follow where it leads..

Evangelizing Mainstream Catholic Culture by Entering It

Pontchateau, France was hardly a center of Catholic devotion in St. Louis de Montfort’s day. It was sparsely-populated, oft-overlooked, and lacked religious and resources. Its priests were overworked from shepherding multiple parishes while city parishes had plenty on hand.

Building a religious monument in rural France, where priests were scarce and faith scarcer yet, made as much sense as putting one in a cornfield. But Louis lived for places like this. He never set out to serve the devout or comfortable. His passion was for the poor, the downtrodden–people whose lives held more darkness than light. He knew the Spirit’s fire in his heart did these poor souls no good unless he brought it into their midst. 

So that’s what he did.

When Louis de Montfort entered a town, it was never the same. Maybe it was because his first stops were at hospitals or prisons. Maybe it was because watching him spend hours on his knees in Adoration was a novelty few had seen. Maybe it was his poverty, his tattered clothes. The fact that he begged for his food the same way their lowest citizens did. Or that any money he was given, he gave to someone else. Most likely, it was a combination of these.

Louis lived his faith out loud in mainstream Catholic culture. In a lukewarm France, he refused to cling to the center. Instead, he sought the margins–and he didn’t let the culture change him. He was a rebel, an eccentric, and his presence worked inescapable questions in people’s hearts. No doubt about it, Catholics who witnessed his ways were curious about Louis de Montfort. So when he said he needed help with his Calvary?

They were curious enough to say yes.

But that was just the start of Louis’ plans.

Winning Lukewarm Hearts by Serving Them

St. Louis de Montfort’s Calvary project was unlike other monument constructions–and not just by scale or subject matter, though these were impressive enough. You might even be tempted to label Louis attention-seeking, so grandiose was his scheme. A living rosary circle of 165 trees? Statues, chapels, and grottos in a sprawling Passion tableau? A towering Cross that made it clear for miles around in whose name this land had been claimed? Who was he trying to impress?

The better question is what was he trying to impress–and upon whom.

Louis’ Calvary wasn’t about beauty wrought by human hands. It was about beauty wrought in human hearts. Each evening as the sun sank low, Louis’ volunteer army quit their labors–but they didn’t leave. With aching backs and feet, with arms they could barely lift, the men trudged to the grotto housing the statues. And there they would pray.

After a day’s labor that made it impossible to forget the Cross, they stopped to remember the Cross once more.

Louis did more than shed light over these men. Somewhere between his example, his idea, and recreating Calvary, the light from Louis’ lamp set their own hearts ablaze. And that had been the plan all along.

The Calvary at Pontchateau was never about Louis himself. It was about the poor and forgotten of rural France. He wasn’t an artist. He was a servant. He fed the poor, visited the sick, and built Calvary for those with a faith gone lame. His art was a way to be at the joyful, bold, attentive service of the people Christ came to save.

It takes a supernatural love to sacrifice yourself like St. Louis de Montfort. How did he do it? What gave him the strength? It came from the usual source–from Christ Himself. Specifically, it came from knowing who he was through the lens of Jesus.

Changing the World by Staying True to His Identity in Christ

In just over a year, Louis’ faith had moved mountains–or built one outside an unassuming town in Brittany. It was meant to be a monument for the ages, the Holy Land of western France. Alas. Such was not to be.

Days before the bishop was to bless the Calvary, the government got involved. Louis’ adversaries had informed authorities that the monument was meant to hide English soldiers. The best course, the government decided, was to demand that Calvary be destroyed–by the men who’d built it with their own hands.

The grief must have been excruciating. Blood, sweat, tears, heart, and soul had gone into this work. Louis was well-known for his short fuse, and this was sure to set him off.

Or so you might think.

On the would-be blessing day, a crowd of thousands gathered at the Calvary. The bishop never came. Only Louis addressed the throng. “We had hoped to build a Calvary here,” he said simply. “Let us build it in our hearts. Praise God.”

Calvary was never about man’s glory. And Louis’ Calvary was no vain tribute to his genius. Its purpose was solely to bring and keep people in Christ’s light. With complete docility to God’s will, Louis accepted that his art was kindling. His monument was burned away so Calvary could burn in faithful hearts instead.

Free of pride and pretense, Louis knew who he was. He was God’s instrument. Nothing more…but nothing less. If Louis wanted to evangelize the Church, he had to make art…but he also had to let go of the art he made.

Fortunately, he did. He let go. Moved on. He created new art–new buildings, new sculptures, new writings. And through those writings–possible because he accepted that his work was kindling–a young Polish man fell in love with Mary, became Pope, and unleashed Calvary on the world.

A 3-Step Fire Starter for Catholic Artists

From writers to dancers to graphic designers, we are artists and we are Catholics–and that means we are art evangelists. Most of us won’t build a massive Calvary outside the city limits, but every Catholic artist is called to uncover his lamp, spread his fire, and add fuel to the blaze. These three steps are the secret to building a fire that will burn to Kingdom come.

And given the state of the Church these days, it’s long past time to start.

Uncover Your Lamp

Beauty will save the world. It’s the Catholic artist’s rallying cry. As one of these artists, you’re ready to save the world with beauty…but where are you willing to go?

Rural France? Communist China? To the land of drug cartels?

How about your average American parish?

We know the world needs the Church, but what does the Church need? Holiness. It needs role models where the lukewarm and heterodox congregate. Will you shine your light in the dark spaces where the lukewarm await the Spirit’s flame?

It’s tempting for devout Catholics to cling to each other, but does that uncover our lamps? Or does it just bring other lights into hiding with ours? Yes, we need fellowship with faithful Catholics, but that can’t be the end. How much have we unwittingly covered our lamps?

Do we attend small groups with lifelong Catholics ignorant of Church teaching? Enjoy fellowship with parishioners who don’t value Adoration? Do we attend Mass at a parish whose priest longs to ignite his people’s faith, but who doesn’t have enough “good” Catholics to set an example–because they all attend the devout parish down the way?

The man behind France’s Calvary was an architect, painter, writer, and sculptor, but most of all, he was present to the people he aimed to change. He inspired the farmers in and around Pontchateau to take up his crazy scheme and the faith that inspired it. He set rural France on fire, but only because he refused to hole up in a Catholic haven, ministering to those who already had faith.

He was there. In the dark. Lamp uncovered. Showing others the way. Let’s follow in St. Louis de Montfort’s footsteps. Let’s step into mainstream Catholic culture and watch hearts and lives change.

Spread Your Fire

St. Louis de Montfort had a servant’s heart. What does a servant’s heart look like? It looks like a campfire, actually. Warm, strong, and focused in a central place, a campfire draws everyone into the glow of its flames.

The biggest draw of a campfire is its warmth–particularly in a dark, chill place. We talk about the Spirit’s fire, but often, our artistic “service” runs cold. We look more to our grievances than to the people we serve. The congregation won’t sing the parts of the Mass! Doesn’t anyone care that this is the Eucharist? Why do we work so hard if no one’s going to participate?

We say these things all the time, don’t we? It’s easy to get frustrated, but no one will want to come close enough to catch our fire if we act like we’re made of ice. The Bible tells us that God loves a cheerful giver. He desires joyful servants–servants like St. Louis de Montfort.

What if, instead of griping, we focused on the people who need us? Why won’t the congregation sing? Let’s find out. How can I help them follow along? Adjusting our art to meet actual, not perceived, needs requires an observant heart. When we love someone, we pay attention to them. And what’s evangelization without love?

St. Louis de Montfort loved his people enough to pay attention to their needs–and to act boldly. There was nothing timid about his Calvary. Timid strikes don’t spark a flame. To make sparks, you strike firmly, not with half-hearted force, too afraid of getting burned to give it all your strength.

Warmth and joy. Attention built on love. Boldness and strength. That’s how we build the campfire of evangelization. That’s how an uncovered lamp spreads its flames. Are you ready to spread yours?

Be bold. Make a plan. Enact it with joy. The lukewarm are waiting to catch your flame.

Add Fuel to the Blaze

You can uncover your lamp and spread your fire all you want, but without fuel, that blaze won’t burn for long. How do you keep it burning? What sort of fuel do you make? Do you make art–or does your fire run on vanity?

Ecclesiastes tells us that all things are vanity. Unfortunately, we know all about that. Artistic pride–that possessive passion for glory, acclaim, or control of our work–is a monster that stalks every artist. As people whose work falls into the public eye–and as fallen human beings–we’re easy prey.

But we’re not alone! Even St. Louis de Montfort wasn’t immune to vanity. In a letter discussing his good works, Louis wrote:

“This is why I am so highly praised by nearly everyone in town, which, incidentally, can be a very great danger for my own salvation.”

St. Louis de Montfort knew he needed to keep his ego in check. His salvation depended on it–and so did his power to fuel other’s faith.

As artists, we spend a lot of time, care, and effort on our craft. It helps us do better work, but it can also lead to snobbery, an artistic pride that makes us look down on “lesser” achievements. In turn, we may reject projects that benefit our fellow Catholics just because they offend our artistic sensibilities. Worse, we may agree to help, but end up taking over, showing off as we belittle everyone else.

We’d like to think we’re immune to such boorish behavior, but it’s too great a danger to ignore. Be vigilant! Cultivate humility. True art is unpretentious. True art fuels the Church’s blaze. Art that elevates our self-importance, on the other hand, leaves us cold, putting out our flames.

Forget about changing the world. Let Christ change the world through you–through you and the art you make. Then you’ll be working for His glory, not your own–just like St. Louis de Montfort did.

This Little Light of Mine

Somewhere in the Church’s darkest corner, a wayward or lukewarm Catholic’s light is flickering. But you have the power to set it ablaze.

On Easter Vigil, each of us receives a candle–fuel that can feed a flame. It’s a humble candle. Slender, brittle, circled with a cheap paper disc. But when it’s lit by the Easter fire and held aloft, everyone can see its light. And if you use it to ignite the wicks around you? Pretty soon, the sanctuary gleams with a hundred flames.

In our pandemic times, most of us were deprived of candles for the Easter Vigil flame. But no pandemic can put out the faithful’s light. Only we can do that–by refusing to uncover our lamps and spread the flame.

Candles aren’t a problem. You know what you long to make. St. Louis de Montfort’s dream was a Calvary. Maybe yours is a song.

But evangelization, even through the arts, is about more than the means. It’s about our attitudes, our openness, our hearts. It’s about rejecting isolation, uncovering our lamps, and stepping into the dark. It’s about refusing to be timid, about paying attention, reaching out with joy, and boldly lighting someone else’s flame. And yes, it’s about making art–making the candles that fuel the flame…but doing so without an ounce of pride. It’s about replacing pride and pretense with humility and faith. It’s about remembering that when all is said and done, our work is but a slender, brittle candle with a paper disc. But it’s exactly what God needs.

A single candle. A humble, bold, artist standing in the dark. But with that one light, the entire city on the hill will shine.

Continue ReadingThe Catholic Artist’s Guide to Evangelizing the Church

Meet the Author

Introducing writer, blogger Katie Lovett!

Katie is a Catholic wife and mother of 4 children. She is a visual artist with lifelong involvement in community theater.  Katie homeschooled her children for many years and is currently a Youth Ministry Coordinator for her three-parish community in southern Brown County.  She has worked as a freelance writer for a number of blogs. 

Katie has been a fervent supporter of The Angelico Project since its beginning, as she has seen the need for its mission and impact, both for the sake of transforming the culture and also from the perspective of a working, Catholic artist with a heart for evangelization.

We are pleased to have Katie Lovett’s work for you, to inspire, encourage and challenge you!

Continue ReadingMeet the Author

Meet Our Co-Founder

Nancy-Carolyn Smith is a Catholic wife, mother of 4, grandmother to 12 sparkling grandchildren, Third Order Franciscan, and co-founder of the Angelico Catholic Arts Guild.

Nancy-Carolyn graduated with a BFA from the Art Academy of Cincinnati and is a working sculptor with work at libraries, in churches, schools and in private collections. She has taught studio art and art history for the last 30 years. The projects dearest to her heart are the pewter Stations of the Cross cast for the cloistered Dominican Sisters at St. Jude Monastery in Alabama and, of course, the Angelico Catholic Arts Guild.  

Continue ReadingMeet Our Co-Founder

The World Needs St. Joseph–and Artists Must Lead the Way!

For the past 2,000 years of Church history, there’s been an elephant in the room, and his name is St. Joseph.

St. Joseph, an elephant in the room? But we talk about him all the time!

Do we? How well does the average practicing Catholic know St. Joseph? Most regard him and elephants in much the same way: as pleasant, benign, and cuddly figures that cast a large shadow but have little to do with our everyday lives. And why should they? They’re quiet and harmless. Never mind those sharp-tipped tusks.

But in ancient India, kings had a very different idea about elephants. Elephants were animals of war. Their massive presence cut a swath through enemy lines, tusks impaling attackers as their feet crushed oncoming ranks. This is exactly the role St. Joseph was made for, but tenfold! He’s the Guardian of Virgins. The Terror of Demons. He’s God’s highest-ranking general. And we’ve put him in a corner.

A pity, since St. Joseph is the key to the battle for marriage and the post-Christian world.

If you’ve relegated St. Joseph to the corner of your life and artistic work, you have a critical mission. The world needs St. Joseph, and Catholic artists are uniquely equipped to lead the charge!

Are you ready to be a warrior for St. Joseph? Here’s what you need to know.

The Hidden Truth About St. Joseph

When you think of a warrior general, what do you imagine? Someone strong? A man in his prime? A leader more than capable of defending women and children from the enemies surrounding them?

More importantly…do you picture that man as St. Joseph?

Artistic tradition and stories passed through the ages hardly render St. Joseph worthy of the title Terror of Demons. He looks more like Mary’s great-grandfather than the stalwart defender who led his family through blistering deserts to escape a homicidal king.

But why does it matter? Does it truly make a difference whether St. Joseph is depicted as young or old?

Definitely. The hidden truth about St. Joseph speaks volumes to our culture about fatherhood, masculine virtue, and the role of the family. The lies we believe about St. Joseph speak to those things, too–and those lies have put us in chains. We as Catholic artists claim to uphold beauty, goodness, and truth, don’t we? If the truth matters, then we’ve got to set the record straight.

Especially since Catholic artists spread the lies in the first place.

3 Lies Catholics Believe About St. Joseph–and How Artists Helped to Spread Them

So what are the lies, how did Catholic artists spread them, and how bad are the consequences?

Lie #1: “St. Joseph was too old to be a protector for Jesus and Mary.”

Although the Church has never ruled on St. Joseph’s age, evidence places him in his late teens or early twenties at his marriage. St. Joseph led Mary and Jesus 65 miles into Egypt, then back–and he did it all on foot. He worked day after day as a carpenter. He provided for his family long before modern conveniences made it easy.

St. Joseph was well-acquainted with sweaty, back-breaking work. That, after all, is what it took to be the head of the Holy Family.

It’s a job only a young man could do.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with being elderly, but when we cast an old man in a young man’s role, we miss the message God has for us. In the Holy Family, God gave us a physical representation of the spiritual realities in human relationships. Fathers aren’t merely for decorative purposes. We can’t just trot St. Joseph out at Christmas for the Nativity scene. We always need his protection, and families always need protective fathers.

More and more, society would like us to imagine fathers as nice but unnecessary members of the family–or if we must have fathers, then we must strip them of everything that makes them fatherly. The devil tells us we don’t need a protective male presence in our lives. Protective men are toxic men. We need weak men. Weak men or none at all. Strong women and weak men are what it takes to run a family.

Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s why St. Joseph’s age–his ability to be a protector–matters.

So where does this lie come from, and why have we clung to it through the centuries? Believe it or not, the story of St. Joseph as an old, widowed groom comes from early apocryphal literature. It has as much respectability as the story about Jesus having a wife, but the legend refuses to die for one simple, misguided reason: It was a convenient way to defend Mary’s perpetual virginity.

But at a terrible cost.

Lie #2: “St. Joseph was only chaste because he was too old to be anything else.”

Have you ever noticed that lies tend to snowball? Every child on earth figures this out eventually. One little untruth leads to a tide of misunderstandings, and in order to save face, you have to keep lying. Sooner or later, though, things get out of control, and you need a snow plow to get to the truth again.

The apocryphal St. Joseph story is like that. It snowballed. Before long, generations of artists took up the cry of the old St. Joseph. Gray-bearded, crinkle-eyed St. Josephs abound in church frescoes from one side of Europe to the other. For most of Church history, few gave them a second glance.

But if anyone could see the disconcerting effects of these artistic renderings, it was Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, as he expressed in The World’s First Love. He knew what these artists hoped to accomplish, but he also knew that they had unconsciously stripped St. Joseph of his greatest strength:

Somehow, the assumption had crept in that senility was a better protector of virginity than adolescence. Art thus unconsciously made Joseph a spouse chaste and pure by age rather than by virtue. But this is like assuming that the best way to show that a man would never steal is to picture him without hands…

But more than that, to make Joseph out as old portrays for us a man who had little vital energy left, rather than one who, having it, kept it in chains for God’s sake and for his holy purposes. To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried.

Are we really telling our sons that the only way God could ensure that Mary’s husband be chaste was not to give the role to a young man? Are we saying that men don’t have the willpower to be chaste?

For that matter, what are we saying to our daughters? Are we really telling them that Mary could only be chaste if she was married to someone she wouldn’t find attractive? Are we saying that women don’t have the strength to be chaste?

Our country has a serious chastity crisis, and if we think Catholics fare better than the general population, we’re not looking at the facts. The data is out there. We’re losing this war. But what can we expect when we insinuate that the Holy Family itself couldn’t be virtuous in our shoes? If that’s true, why bother trying? Even the Holy Family couldn’t be chaste? What hope do the rest of us have?

But…What do you think could happen in our Church and our world if Catholics knew the real St. Joseph–a young man who loved his Lord and his lady enough to exercise restraint?

Lie #3: “St. Joseph’s marriage to Mary was nothing more than a legal contract.”

We know that apocrypha and art inadvertently marred St. Joseph’s image and put a wedge between society, marriage, and the family. But there’s something else–something we haven’t talked about–that has everything to do with Mary and Joseph.

That thing is love.

If you want art that shows the love between Mary and Joseph, you won’t find it in religious tradition. When you look at those old frescoes, do you get the sense that there was love in their marriage? You’d do better to look at Pre-Raphaelite paintings inspired by Arthurian legends if you want the truth. Knights gazing raptly on their lady loves. Kings bending the knee to the queen of their hearts. Men baring their souls for the women they’d give their lives to save.

Most of us eschew this image of Mary and Joseph because it’s too romantic for our tastes. We’ve bought into the culture too much. St. Joseph couldn’t have loved Mary with such passion and had a virginal marriage, we say.

Nonsense. Of any saint who lived, of any man who looked upon the Virgin’s face, none loved her as deeply as St. Joseph. Mary was the most beautiful woman in creation because she was God’s perfect specimen–she was Woman as God intended women to be. She was pure, unadulterated perfection, Eden personified, and St. Joseph lived with her side-by-side. Hers was the last face he saw before sleeping and the first when he opened his eyes. How could we believe he didn’t fall head over heels in love? That he didn’t love her the way a husband loves a wife–regardless of their lack of physical union?

As St. Josemaria Escriva says, “Anyone who cannot understand a love like that knows very little of true love and is a complete stranger to the Christian meaning of chastity.”

When we reduce Mary and Joseph’s marriage to the status of a legal contract, we forget that their marriage is a mirror of Christ’s love for his Church. Are you willing to accept that Jesus sees you as nothing more than a party in a legal document? 

The definition of marriage is more than a legal dispute. It’s a battle in history’s oldest war. According to Fatima visionary Sr. Lucia, “The final battle between the Lord and the kingdom of Satan will be about marriage and the family.”

We have to show the world what marriage is about. If marriage is just a legal contract, it’s meaningless. If marriage is meaningless, so is gender. If marriage and gender are meaningless, they can mean anything we want…and Satan can strip every reminder of Christ’s love from the face of the earth.

That’s exactly what’s happening. For most of modern society, marriage and gender are about unvirtuous desires and imagined identities. The world has no idea that marriage points to freedom from vice’s chains–to our truest selves.

The World Needs St. Joseph!

The lies are many and mighty. The consequences are devastating. In this Year of St. Joseph, we need Mary’s Most Chaste Spouse–not as we’ve never needed him before, but as we’ve needed him all along. Terror of Demons. Guardian of Virgins. Patron of the Church.

Coincidentally, St. Joseph has another title that’s of interest to Catholic artists. And since the call to arms begins by turning our own hearts to St. Joseph, let’s commit ourselves to his patronage now.

St. Joseph, Model of Artisans, pray for us.

Catholic Artists are St. Joseph’s Standard Bearers

St. Joseph is God’s greatest general, but most of us dismiss him in the post-Christian world’s war for souls. This tactical error has cost us massive ground in the fields of marriage, fatherhood, and the family–and the casualties are all one-sided.

If St. Joseph is going to get anywhere on this battlefield, someone has to blaze a trail, and that someone is us. Catholic artists are St. Joseph’s standard bearers, leading the charge across a ravaged landscape. Our culture is so entrenched in lies that concepts such as truth and even goodness mean nothing to the people who’ve bought into the deceit. The only way to put St. Joseph front and center–with no chance that he’ll be ignored–is to do it with beauty.

Fortunately, that’s our specialty.

Misleading literature and art paved the way for the world’s dismissal of St. Joseph. These attempts at beauty missed the mark and led to the errors we see today. But hope is within grasp–in fact, it looks at you from the mirror every day. It’s you, Catholic artist. If artists got us into this mess, artists can get us out again.

So put on your armor! You’ve been drafted into St. Joseph’s army!

The Single-Most Neglected Weapon in St. Joseph’s Arsenal

As warriors of St. Joseph, we need to emulate his virtues and strengths in order to avoid past mistakes and reclaim our territory. St. Joseph was a holy man. A humble man. A man opposite the devil in every way. If we want to defeat Satan, we need to take up St. Joseph’s weapons. Are you ready to grasp the greatest one of all? First, we have to know what it is.

St. Joseph’s most effective weapon against Satan’s pride is humility.

It’s also the most neglected, which explains why we’re in such bad shape.

The most important thing we can do as Catholic artists is recognize that our ideas, our compositions, our craft, our work–all of it is subject to a power higher than our own passions, self-expression, or creative whims. The definition of art today is nearly as meaningless as definitions of gender, but this must not be true for Catholic artists. If art is the force that shapes the culture, then Catholic art cannot say whatever its creators please. Our messages must be cut from the tapestry of the Church–and we’d better make sure it’s not a knock-off copy of the real thing.

More than paint, piano, pen, or proscenium, the Catholic artist needs humility and obedience to the faith we profess. We cannot be so arrogant as to think we’re immune to error just because we go to Mass regularly and say the Rosary every day. Likewise, we can’t be so arrogant as to think we’re immune to even the temptation to error. I’m not immune. You’re not immune. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI isn’t immune. We live in a fallen world, and we must be vigilant against pride–artistic and otherwise.

The apocryphal St. Joseph story’s writer probably had no idea that his work would contribute to such confusion. The artists who followed in his wake wanted to evangelize Europe, not mislead it. They might not have known that Catholic art comes with increased responsibility, but we do. We can learn from their mistakes. We must. Too much is at stake.

Spiritual Treasures Guaranteed or Your Money Back

So how do Catholic artists ensure that their art accurately represents spiritual truths? They do it by thinking inside the Church’s box. They draw inspiration from sources steeped in authentic Catholic teaching.

If we want our art to be faithful, we have to be faithful. We must cultivate truth in our spiritual lives as diligently as we develop our crafts. Read the saints. Go to Mass. Use the sacramentals. Pray. To God. To Mary. To St. Joseph.

Mary leads us to Jesus. St. Joseph leads us to Mary. That’s why we’ve got to lean on St. Joseph. If we do, we cannot fail to draw closer to the treasures of Heaven…or to drag the culture with us on the way.

St. Joseph Devotions the Devil Doesn’t Want You to Know

By now, you might be convinced that St. Joseph is what this world and your soul need…but just because you’re convinced doesn’t mean you know where to start. Where do you start your devotion to St. Joseph?

Prayers to St. Joseph

The best place to start anything is with prayer, and you can begin right this very minute! Stop reading this post and say the Litany of St. Joseph. (But please, come back when you’re done!) The Litany was written by Pope St. Pius X and comes with a plenary indulgence during the Year of St. Joseph, so you can’t go wrong with this one.

If you’re ready to make a deeper commitment, grab a copy of this month’s Magnificat, where you’ll find a lovely St. Joseph devotion from Fr. Jonah Teller, O.P.

Then there’s the mother (father?) of all St. Joseph devotions–consecration to St. Joseph.

Consecration to St. Joseph

You’d think that after 2,000 years, a consecration to St. Joseph would be old news. But that’s not so. Until last year, no such consecration existed.

So how did it come about? When Fr. Don Calloway, MIC learned that a total consecration to St. Joseph didn’t exist, he got permission to create one. His Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father is the product of three years’ research and is chock full of wisdom from the saints, along with reflections that will have you running, not walking, into St. Joseph’s arms.

If you’ve been through 33 Days to Morning Glory by Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, you’ll find Fr. Calloway’s consecration very similar. It, too, is a 33-day program, a model inspired by St. Louis de Montfort’s 33-day consecration to Mary. (For more about that, come back next month!)

Are You Ready to Be a Warrior for St. Joseph?

There’s a rumble in the distance. It’s quiet, but it quivers in the ground and rattles the trees. Do you feel it? That’s the rumble of a war elephant. That’s the rumble of St. Joseph.

We might have neglected to mention the elephant in the room in the past, but this is the Year of St. Joseph. We’re not silent anymore.

The truth about St. Joseph is out, and not a moment too soon. But it’s not enough to tell his story in fleeting soundbites and passing posts like this. We have to blaze a trail for him as only Catholic artists can do.

It’s time to paint St. Joseph’s heart on canvas. To extol his goodness in song. To write his name on the page and on our hearts. Because when we honor the earthly father of Christ, we honor Christ himself. When we honor Christ, we honor the Father we were made to love.

You know how to paint the things, sing the things, make the things. You don’t need suggestions from anyone, least of all me. You’re a Catholic artist, a child of the Father, a child of St. Joseph. So go forth! Give yourself to St. Joseph! Gain ground in the battle for marriage, family, and souls!

Go forth…and evangelize the world.

Continue ReadingThe World Needs St. Joseph–and Artists Must Lead the Way!