Footnote leads to rediscovering future pope’s ’62 retreat for artists
A footnote led to the rediscovery of a retreat for artists led by then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla, the future pope and saint, and to the Theology of the Body Institute’s first book produced by its new publishing arm.
“God Is Beauty: A Retreat on the Gospel and Art” is comprised of the retreat, given during Holy Week 1962, an introduction and commentary by Christopher West, the institute’s president, and reflections by various contributors.
Bill Donaghy, a senior lecturer at the institute, hopes readers will come away with an understanding of “the incredible and essential importance of beauty in our lives. Capital ‘B’ … Beauty!” he told Catholic News Service.
Donaghy contributed one of the reflections and interviewed Irish sculptor and teacher Dony MacManus for the book.
“The pope actually says God himself is beauty. It’s not a kind of ornamental or extravagant concept (only) if you have time for it, or if you’re an artistic person,” he said.
“We need to be as receptive to beauty in our lives and all of its forms as it comes to us in the same way that Mary, the sister of Martha, was receptive to Jesus, just resting at his feet, drinking in his beauty and his words,” he said. “Jesus said she chose the better part. We have to do that as well. We have to waste time with beauty.”
A second major “takeaway from this wonderful retreat would be our recognizing the place art holds in the contemporary world. Cinema has become such a powerful art form today. What does it say?” Donaghy said. “What does the power of movies in people’s lives have to say to us?
“There’s a powerful scene in the retreat where the Holy Father (then a young bishop) walks through pagan sculptures near the Diocletian baths in Rome. He said this exposure to their art opened his eyes to the Gospel in a profoundly new way. He said he came to understand the Gospel anew.”
Art also can be a way to evangelize, Donaghy remarked.
“Is there a song, a piece of music or film that has captured you and brought you closer to God?” he asked. “St. John Paul II later writes in his ‘Letter to Artists’ (in 1999) that this can be a bridge to religious experience. Evangelization can happen here. We share this experience with others and listen to their experience of how beauty through art touched them.”
“Artists contribute to the work of evangelization by first allowing themselves to be touched by the God who is beauty and truth and goodness,” Donaghy continued. “Their art has to be a translation into their own medium of this encounter with God. This way their art becomes real, authentic, even vulnerable.
“We need art like this in the church today so desperately. Not something cranked out on an assembly line, or produced in a non-personalistic way. Art is the fruit of our encounter with God. In this sense, this retreat is just as much for non-artists as it is for artists.”
West found the footnote about the Holy Week retreat that led to publication of “God Is Beauty.” The footnote was in a book about St. John Paul by Polish theologian Stanislaw Grygiel. West had the retreat material translated from Polish to English and obtained the needed permissions for the institute to publish it, making it available for the first time in English.
Grygiel, a close friend of the pope, saw this retreat “as inextricably linked to St. John Paul II catechesis that became known as the theology of the body,” said Donaghy.
This theology refers to the teaching the pope gave in weekly lectures between Sept. 5, 1979, and Nov. 28, 1984, and published together under the title “The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan.
The pope proclaimed human bodies to be vehicles of union and communion among people and with God, and said the best reflection of divine love was the love between a husband and wife.
Readers of “God Is Beauty” do not have to be familiar with this theology because the retreat was given “before the pope began writing his catechesis on human love and the sacramentality of reality,” according to Donaghy.
“I would say the knowledge and practice of our faith gives you the grammar to understand his reflections,” he said.
Bishop Wojtyla gave the retreat when he was auxiliary bishop of Krakow, Poland. He was named Krakow’s archbishop in 1964, made a cardinal in 1967 and elected pope in 1978.
“For 60 years this retreat has remained mostly hidden, and TOBI Press is blessed to finally shine a light on it,” Donaghy said, and its rediscovery coinciding with the institute’s launch of its publishing arm was “providential.”
“Beauty has been part of the ethos of our institute in every class that we teach,” he told CNS. “An encounter with God this way — with our intellect and our heart through a kind of way of beauty — has only been confirmed beautifully by this pre-papal book.”
The Theology of the Body Institute, based near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, “is dedicated to making the profound riches of St. John Paul II’s theology of the body accessible and applicable in the lives of men and women around the world,” Donaghy said.
It offers in-person and online courses, live events, clergy enrichment and parish programs, and pilgrimages. It has a master’s degree program in theology of the body in collaboration with Pontifex University.
There also is an institute YouTube channel; an “Ask Christopher West” podcast, with nearly 1.5 million downloads; and a “patron community” for those who want to be members. The community numbers several thousand.
“God Is Beauty” is a major theme of the institute’s upcoming event, “REVEALED Experience,” May 13-15. It is being held online and in person; attendees can sign up for free at RevealedExperience.com. Among the topics “viewed with the Theology of the Body lens will be gender, art and beauty, suffering and talking to teens about navigating the current climate of sexual chaos.”
Bishop Wojtyla’s retreat “is just as much for non-artists as it is for artists,” Donaghy noted, because everyone can make their life “a work of art.”
“There’s a whole section in the retreat on, you might say, the art of virtue. This is where we can become this masterpiece of God,” he explained. “Like the paint or the wood or the clay in the hand of an artist, our task is to surrender to his hands. It’s a life of receptivity and vulnerability and openness to the movement of God’s creative spirit.”
Beauty “is so important for our own spiritual growth and maturation,” Donaghy added. “Beauty sneaks under the radar of our reason. Beauty grasps our imagination and it touches our hearts. It’s this rapturous encounter with God as beauty that begins the work of our sanctification.”
— Julie Asher