St. John Paul II, family life, and a Wyoming ranch

Jared Staudt

Twenty-five  years ago, St. John Paul II released his Letter to Families, Gratissimam Sane, on Feb. 2, 1994. The letter is known for the arresting claim that “the history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family…. I have tried to show how the family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love. To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good, the source of which is found in Christ the Redeemer of man.”

John Paul rightly pointed to the battle surrounding the family today. We have seen a dramatic decline in the number of marriages and children born in our country and we now must fight for the integrity of education in order to keep our children rooted in the truth. Despite the fact that John Paul recognized the enormous importance of family for society and the Church, we do not see enough emphasis placed on supporting families. We now realize, and studies bear it out, that families provide the most effective means of forming children in the faith, preparing them to become the next generation of disciples. Parents have more influence on the faith of their children than anyone else.

In light of John Paul’s teaching on the family, the Archdiocese of Denver is working to build up family culture. The great pope taught that the faith must be lived as a culture, a way of life, and that the best way to form Christian culture is in the home. Following upon the archdiocese’s move to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation, moving confirmation back to its historic place before first Communion, we have been emphasizing the necessary role of the family in catechesis. To support this needed emphasis on families, the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries has begun offering one-day Building Family Culture retreats at parishes to help families grow in prayer and to learn how to live faith more in the home.

In addition to these one-day retreats in parishes, we are partnering with Cor Ministries of Wyoming Catholic College this summer to offer a five-day Family Ranch Retreat from July 5-10. The extended time at the ranch will give families the chance to get away and bond while horseback riding, rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, and spending evenings around the campfire. Kids will have activity time each day while parents explore the spiritual life in relation to family culture. Find more information at corexpeditions.org/family-ranch-retreat.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Church’s beautiful vision of family life, in addition to John Paul’s letter, a new book may also be helpful, A Catechism for Family Life: Insights from Catholic Teaching on Love, Marriage, Sex, and Parenting (Catholic University of America Press, 2018). The editors, Sarah Bartel and John Grabowski, follow the traditional catechism question and answer format, proposing key questions related to marriage, vocational discernment, sexuality, parenting, and challenges facing the family. They select the answers from Church documents, such as papal encyclicals and other writings from the popes, Vatican offices, and the Second Vatican Council.

Here’s one question Bartel and Grabowski ask, and which I hear often: “It feels so hard to manage all of the electronic media in our home. Should we just get rid of our television?” Although they don’t provide a black and white answer, the editors share wisdom from two popes, first from Francis: “In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances …. New patterns of behavior are emerging as a result of over-exposure to the media. As a result, the negative aspects of the media and entertainment industries are threatening traditional values, and in particular the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family” (169). And from John Paul II: “Parents … must actively ensure the moderate, critical, watchful and prudent use of the media, by discovering what effect they have on their children and by controlling the use of the media in such a way as to ‘train the conscience of their children to express calm and objective judgements, which will then guide them in the choice or rejection of programs available’” (171).

As parents, we must embrace our role as disciple makers, forming our children in faith and guiding them through the pitfalls of our culture.

COMING UP: Art: A needed sacrament of faith

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A sacrament is an outward, material sign of an inward, spiritual reality. The seven sacraments are signs instituted by Jesus to communicate his grace to us. In addition, we have sacramentals, signs and practices that draw us more deeply into our faith. We do not have an abstract faith; it is sacramental and incarnational, centered on the coming into the flesh of the Son of God and his continued presence in the Church through the Eucharist.
Art, following this sacramental identity, expresses our faith, draws us into prayer, and mediates divine realities. In a time of relativism, which shuns proposals of truth and goodness, we need to rely more upon the witness of beauty. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this opportunity and need: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

Does this approach actually work for evangelization? Elizabeth Lev details one example, the crucial role of art at a time of crisis in the Church, in her book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Sophia, 2018). As core Catholic doctrines faced opposition from Protestants, the Council of Trent called for the creation of art to assist in renewal. The Council said that art should instruct, help to remember and meditate divine realities, admonish, provide examples, and to inspire the faithful to order their lives in imitation of the saints (4). Lev adds her own synthesis of how art assists the Church, asserting that “art is useful in evangelization…. can bring clarity…. [and] is uplifting” (6). The Catholic Reformation and Baroque periods, particularly in central Italy, were ages “of unprecedented art patronage from the top down, effectively a very expensive PR campaign meant to awaken the hearts and minds of millions of pilgrims who were making their way to the Eternal City” (5).

And it worked. It was not art for art’s sake that led Catholics to stay true to the faith, but art’s ability to express the deep spiritual vision of the Church as articulated by the great Catholic reformers. Lev lists the main protagonists of this cooperative work:  “The spiritual insight of Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, Federico Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, and Paleotti fused with the creative talents of Caravaggio, Barocci, the Carracci School, Lavinia Fontana, and Guido Reni, making for a heady cocktail designed to entice the faithful into experiencing mystery” (16). Lev provides a masterful overview of the key theological issues at stake and how artists were commissioned to visualize the faith in these areas, including the sacraments, mediation of the saints, purgatory, and practices such as pilgrimage.

Developments in technique enabled art to come alive, actively mediating faith, by using theatrical characteristics that invited the viewer into the drama of the scene. Altar pieces beckoned down to the action of the altar, pointing to the reality occurring there, such as Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ (37), and others drew the viewer into the scene, as with Frederico Barocci’s extended hand of St. Francis bearing the stigmata, inviting an imitation of Christ (145). Other paintings inspired religious sentiments such as contrition, as found in Reni’s St. Peter Penitent, who models how to weep for one’s sins and to beat one’s chest in repentance (45), and Titian’s good thief who reaches out to Christ as one would do in confession (52). The book beautifully presents the artwork, and Lev seamlessly combines art criticism and religious commentary.

The time period of Lev’s book bears some striking similarities to contemporary struggles. Many Catholics continue to question the faith, and we have experienced a return to iconoclasm in the last fifty years, bent on the destruction of the Church’s sacramental vision. We, too, need the inspiration of art, which calls us to renew our faith: “Art no longer allow[s] the viewer to stand at a safe distance, as a passive recipient of grace, but exhort[s] everyone to act” (180). For the success of the New Evangelization, we need a return to beauty. This will require us to invest in a renaissance of the arts, knowing that this investment will support the Church’s efforts to communicate the truth of our faith, for the salvation of souls.