Lifting up the arts

Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., emphasizes the arts as a way to make education and lives richer. Photo courtesy of Assumption College

“Beauty,” said Fr. Michael Burbeck, “is like a love note from God.” It was the beauty of Renaissance sacred art that led him to God, the Catholic Church, and his ministry. Like many young students, he took a trip to Europe, envisioning a kind of grand tour, in 2002. Though he wasn’t Catholic, he visited churches and cathedrals, drawn to the beauty and power of sacred works of art. 

“Pope Emeritus Benedict said that beauty is like an arrow that wounds the heart and then truth enters through that opening. That’s my experience,” Fr. Burbeck said. “It was beauty that opened me, and then once I was open, God came in.” 

With a firm belief in the evangelizing power of art, in 2017 Fr. Burbeck, by then a priest and the pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in North Carolina, founded the nonprofit John Paul II Foundation for the Sacred Arts to help fund contemporary artists whose work has the power to touch souls. 

His is a moving, affirming, and inspiring story, but it’s not unique. Catholic nonprofit organizations around the country are supporting artists, building community through creativity, and harnessing the power of art. In painting, sculpture, music, the written word, theater, and more, today’s Catholic artists are using their talents for God, and organizations large and small are backing them and their output. 

“The Church needs art,” wrote St. John Paul II in his 1999 Letter to Artists. 

Musicians and composers lead voices. Writers and poets pen stories that open hearts. Painters and sculptors create images that give sacred mysteries a palpable presence. Architects build chapels, churches, and cathedrals. At the same time, artists need the Church. 

Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things. … Is it not perhaps within the realm of religion that the most vital personal questions are posed, and answers both concrete and definitive are sought? (Letter to Artists, 13) 

On a practical level, artists also need to make a living. They need spaces to create and present their work. They need audiences. Catholic Digest looks at three nonprofit organizations — one small, one medium, and one large; one in a rural community, one in a small city, and one in the heart of New York — to see how they help make sure beautiful messages from God are delivered.

Actor/director Mel Gibson discusses his film “Hacksaw Ridge” with screenwriter/author Robert Schenkkan at the Sheen Center in 2016. Photo courtesy of the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture

Supporting creativity

Recognizing that the Catholic Church’s patronage has produced some of the greatest works of art of all time, yet also cognizant of his limited resources, Fr. Burbeck set out to do something steeped in tradition, but in a completely new way. He describes the John Paul II Foundation for the Sacred Arts, which he directs, as akin to venture capital for sacred artists. Artists apply, and the board of directors discusses whether a project meets their criteria.

“In the Catholic tradition we have a sense of an objective standard of beauty that certainly includes an emotional reaction but is not limited to that,” Fr. Burbeck said. “A truly beautiful work should have a kind of integrity to it. It should have a sort of radiance.” 

The first project that was approved is a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe by artist Cameron Smith. After an initial grant, the foundation set up a platform for crowdfunding to cover Smith’s time and materials. When the painting is complete, Smith, of Wilmington, North Carolina, will offer prints for sale, and a portion of those sales will go back to the foundation. 

Cameron Smith’s painting, “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” the first project of the John Paul II Foundation for the Sacred Arts. Photo courtesy of Cameron Smith and the John Paul II Foundation for the Sacred Arts

Fr. Burbeck has introduced Smith and the painting at local parishes. 

“I think that’s a great part of people’s interest. How often do you get the opportunity to not just see an original work of art, but to talk to the artist and hear about their process and their thinking in making it?” 

It also, he said, gives supporters, even those who may only be able to donate modest amounts, a sense of ownership and pride. 

Fr. Burbeck’s hope is that completed works will find a home in a church.

“It’s a bit risky for a pastor to commission a work of art that he’s not seen, and I think many are reluctant to do that. The hope is that by supporting artists to produce the work, once it’s actually out there, and you have complete confidence of what it is, then it would be purchased and displayed in the church.” 

The foundation has also provided a grant to composer Mark Nowakowski to film a performance of his chorale “Tu Autem Domine,” which can be seen on the foundation’s website. 

“Beauty is one of the ways that we show love,” Fr. Burbeck said. “I hope that the art we produce, and the beauty that we help contribute to, is received as a sign of love from all of those involved in the foundation, and more importantly from God.” 

Higher learning

Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, has a particularly rich program of arts education and offerings. From lectures and classes to gallery exhibitions and concerts both on and off campus, something is always happening in the arts, said Toby Norris, chair of the college’s art, music, and theater department, and an associate professor of art history. 

“A fundamental goal of Catholic education,” he said, “is informing the human being more completely. To have a chance to practice, or learn about, or experience the arts is part of that transformation we hope to affect in our students and make their lives fuller.” 

Assumption College students experience sacred art as part of their education. Photo: Mike Kire

Aside from teaching and preparing students for careers in art, design, theater, and music, the college uses the arts as a bridge between students and faculty and the world beyond. Its Ecumenical Institute brings the arts and scholarship together for the entire community. Additionally, about once a month, there’s some kind of an event sponsored by its HumanArts program. 

“We’ll have poets and writers come to campus and read, and there are a lot of musical events and concerts,” Norris said. “We also have our own jazz ensemble and our own chorale. We have a chapel choir for liturgical music that sings independently, and we have an a cappella group, as well.” 

All of those are within the college’s Worcester campus. The college also has a campus in Rome. 

“We are a Catholic school with a tremendous emphasis on the Catholic intellectual tradition,” Norris said, noting that the arts and the Church are inseparable. 

Whether teaching students or bringing artists, musicians, and writers to campus, the college’s programs try to get across the understanding, he said, “that the arts were not designed as something to be seen in isolation in an art museum or to be experienced in a concert. Most of the art and music of the Western tradition was produced with a fundamentally religious purpose.” 

He added, “Art and beauty provide a route to truth.”

The student choir at Assumption College brings music to the community. Photo courtesy of Assumption College

Global reach 

“What I like to do more than anything is to bring [together] people who are sitting on the fence, who are unsure about their faith, or maybe have been lapsed, and surprise them about the genius of Catholicism. To do that through the arts is something we’ve begun to do very effectively. If I could put our mission in a succinct way,” said William Spencer Reilly, executive director of New York’s Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, “it’s to push people to the light, and the true, and the good, and the beautiful. It’s really that simple.” 

The brainchild of Cardinal Timothy Dolan who is frequently in attendance, the Sheen Center, a program of the Archdiocese of New York, is now in its fourth year. It’s a state-of-the-art facility with two theaters, livestreaming and video production facilities, an art gallery, a recording studio, and living spaces for Catholic artist residencies. The Sheen Center’s 21st-century equipment, hundreds of productions, and $3.5 million annual budget, along with its presence in Manhattan, online, and on the Catholic Faith television network give it a global reach. 

A recent production, All Our Children, about Bishop Clemens von Galen’s work to halt the extermination of disabled children by the Nazis, is an example of the Sheen Center’s programming. 

“It’s about the sanctity of life,” Reilly said. 

John Glover, Jennifer Dundas, and Karl Kenzler in “All Our Children” at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture. Photo: Maria Baranova

All of the arts get the spotlight at the Sheen Center. It presents feature film previews, author discussions, plays, dance, conversations with actors and directors, and concerts from classical to jazz, folk, and pop, often co-hosted by WFUV from Fordham University in New York. It’s all designed to bring souls together. 

“One of the things Cardinal Dolan was very keen on when he set up the Sheen Center was that we should be very much about building bridges with people of different faiths. It’s a welcoming place to nonbelievers, as well,” Reilly said. “Loving your neighbor is at the core of what we do.” 

Reilly said he hopes that parishes across the country would avail themselves of the center’s services. For example, if the center shows a film, parishioners could be watching in the church hall simultaneously whether it be a potluck dinner with 10 people or a gathering with 200 people. With the internet and livestreaming, parishioners could ask questions during the center’s conversation on stage, he said. 

“Any pastor or any parish can send us an email or give us a call,” Reilly said. “The arts are a way that’s very inviting to people. When they come to the Sheen Center, they may see something that might change their mind, their heart, and their soul about an important issue that might bring them closer to the Church. That’s our method of evangelizing, by bringing people to Christ through the arts.” 

He added, “The Holy Spirit does this, not us.” 

To learn more: 

The John Paul II Foundation for the Sacred Arts

Assumption College

The Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought & Culture

Lake Street Dive performs at the Sheen Center in 2018. The concert was co-hosted with Fordham University’s radio station, WFUV. Photo: Gus Philippas/WFUV

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