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Pope’s letter to artists boosts search for Jesus at 2000

Last issue we announced an international art competition to find a contemporary Jesus for the new millennium. The reaction has been remarkable, as if the idea ignited some spark of recognition in people tired of hearing how their computers may revolt next Jan. 1.

One reason for launching the Jesus 2000 project is the perception of benign neglect of art and artists by the Catholic church in our time. Church officials are prepared to wrestle every suspect theological jot and tittle to the ground and squeeze the daylights out of it in the cause of orthodoxy. There has been no comparable concern to encourage artists in the various media to bring such crucial doctrines and divine truths to sensual life and aesthetic enjoyment. So the artists have turned elsewhere in search of significance for these tempestuous times.

It would be unfair to write off the dedicated artists who have struggled to be creative in their various genres. But their recent fortunes have been akin to wandering in a desert.

Then along comes the pope with a welcome “Letter to Artists.” A poet and playwright himself, John Paul makes a rousing appeal to creators of all hues to pledge themselves to the service of beauty. “Society needs artists,” he writes. “Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place.” He writes of an “ethic” and a “spirituality” of artistic service that “contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.”

The bond between Christianity and art started early. John Paul describes the early symbolic art, a code forged out of need; the grandeur that followed the edict of Constantine. He even mentions the iconoclast controversy, resolved in 787 at the Council of Nicea, which gave the green light to art again: “The icon is venerated not for its own sake but points beyond to the subject which it represents,” he writes.

The pope calls for a new dialogue with artists. He appeals to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, quotes the council fathers: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time.”

The pope ends with an impassioned appeal to working artists: “I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of humanity.”

John Paul is on such an enthusiastic roll that it’s hard to stop quoting him. It must warm the cockles of artists’ hearts to read words like these: “Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny.”

Those who jump to the conclusion that John Paul wrote his letter to endorse NCR’s Search for a Contemporary Jesus would be wrong. I think.

For those who foolishly lost their July 30 NCR and now regret it, here again are the pertinent data.

We invite works of art in all visual media, such as painting, drawing, mixed media, sculpture, photography, stained glass, computer art, silk screen, ceramic or other. The image may be in whatever genre or style. So the first obvious requirement is that it not be a repetition of any of yesterday’s images.

There will be a first prize of $2,000 and three further prizes of $200 each, though we believe the distinction of creating an image of Jesus at this pivotal moment, and the acclaim that will go with this, is more important than a monetary prize. Even in this depleted and weary culture there remains a hunger for the divine and an urge to transcendence, and the artist who can seize the moment will be making a significant impact.

We will accept slides only, at least in the initial phase. Deadline for receipt of slides is Oct. 18. The winners will be announced and featured in the Christmas issue (Dec. 24) of NCR. A special issue of the paper will feature 30 to 50 of the top entries.

There will be a nonrefundable entry fee of $20 for up to three slides/works, the maximum allowed per artist. Checks and money orders should be made payable to National Catholic Reporter. Judging will be by a jury of professionals in art and religion, to be announced soon.

Entry in the competition implies submission to the rules and decisions of the judges and NCR, and includes permission to use the artists’ names and art in NCR and permission for NCR to reproduce the art for publicity purposes, or for related publication or exhibition. Copyright remains with the artist.

Entries should include slide(s); attached to each slide a label with title of the work, date of work, precise dimensions and description of work, top of slide/work should be clearly marked; no glass-mounted slides, please; artist’s name, address, daytime phone number and/or e-mail address; and check. We will acknowledge receipt only of those entries that include a stamped, self-addressed card. For eventual return of slide(s), please enclose stamped, self-addressed envelope. While NCR will take maximum care of artists’ work, we cannot be responsible for lost, late or damaged slides.

Please send entries to ArtSearch, National Catholic Reporter, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City MO 64111.

The striking photo of Sr. Suzanne Golas and audience discussing cosmology by the Atlantic Ocean on page 14 of our July 30 issue was used with permission of the Asbury Park Press. We were grateful to have the picture and regret omission of the credit.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999