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?”


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