‘The role of art is to put a thorn in the heart,’ Pope Francis said recently at the Vatican’s first-ever Vitae Summit. This thorn ‘moves us to contemplation, and contemplation puts us on a path.’ Our journey towards the Lord is a kind of quest, and art has the capacity to inspire people along that quest, he said.

From 31 August to 1 September, the non-profit organisation Vitae Global Foundation held its first summit at the Vatican, attended by the Holy Father, to discuss how they might ‘leverage the arts, media, and entertainment to trigger a cultural transformation that promotes the common good, universal values, and encounter between people,’ according to a press statement.

In attendance were many well-known artists and celebrities, including, reportedly, Denzel Washington, David Oyelowo, Patricia Heaton, Marcus Mumford and Jonathan Roumie, who stars as Jesus in The Chosen.

Ahead of the event, the founder of Vitae Global, Luis Quinelli, said that ‘we are constantly receiving negative messages and stimuli via social media and our culture that can end up filling our minds and spirits with hate, frustration and division …

Artists have a key responsibility to elevate the culture and that’s what the Vitae Summit aspires to do.

This summit was a chance to bring people together to strategise, find inspiration and ‘turn people toward content that is deeply meaningful.’

Pope Francis has previously told artists that they are ‘guardians of beauty in this world’, and during his address he reflected on the importance of beauty for the human soul: ‘Beauty is good for us; beauty heals; beauty helps us go forward on our journey.’

The themes of this event reflect a continuing emphasis within the Church on the idea that art and beauty matter in human life: for human culture, for the human heart and for the human soul.

The Church speaking to artists

Previously, in 1999, St Pope John Paul II released his famous Letter to Artists, in which he encouraged artists of all kinds to receive and develop their creative gifts.

All people are called to be artists in a sense, he said: called to receive the gift of their life and turn it into a masterpiece that honours the God who made us. But he also said that artists more specifically have an invaluable and unique place in society, ‘reaching beneath reality’s surface’ and striving to ‘interpret its hidden mystery’ (§6).

Not only does the Church need art and artists, but art also needs the Church, he said, since religion is the great ‘homeland of the soul’, posing the deepest, most meaningful questions. To forsake religion would be detrimental to art, and vice versa.

Ten years later, in honour of this letter, Pope Benedict XVI met with artists at the Sistine Chapel to speak of the via pulchritudinis, the ‘way of beauty’ that is so important in the Church’s work. Beauty is not secondary to human life, he said, and therefore it is not secondary to the Church:

Dear friends, as artists you know well that the experience of beauty, beauty that is authentic, not merely transient or artificial, is by no means a supplementary or secondary factor in our search for meaning and happiness; the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.

Identifying a ‘weakening of hope’ in our time, he suggested that we need great art now more than ever.

A call to artists

Melbourne’s very first bishop, James Alipius Goold, knew the importance of art in the work of evangelisation, in the work of building the Church, the culture and the future.

During the days of the Gold Rush, he devoted considerable resources to securing a cultural legacy for future generations. This included the commissioning of St Patrick’s Cathedral, the finest example of neo-Gothic architecture in the southern hemisphere, the detail and beauty of which continues to astound and uplift.

He believed his role, and that of his contemporaries, was to ‘create a Christian world’, as Archbishop Polding once wrote, and art was indispensable to this. In the 19th century, of course, the Church was still a significant patron of the arts.

Melbourne remains a home to artists and creatives of every kind. Perhaps, taking the words of Pope Francis and his predecessors to heart, we might look for ways to support and foster the arts, and to prioritise beauty. The Church’s history is filled with creative souls who can serve as examples and inspiration, and who move us to ask: how can we contribute to a Catholic artistic renaissance in our own time and place?