PROVIDENCE — “What are some of the traits that make up Catholic literature? What does it mean to be a Catholic writer?”
These were among the questions Father Thomas More Garrett, associate pastor of St. Pius V Parish and chaplain of its young adult group, asked his audience during a recent presentation on Catholic literature in the parish hall. The presentation took place during a weekly meeting of the young adult group, which includes participants from both St. Pius V and other parishes throughout the state.
In order to begin defining two millennia-worth of Catholic literature, Father Garrett turned first to the Bible, pointing out its literary as well as religious merit for both early readers and those interacting with the book today. Even those books of the Bible which we do not normally think of as poetic, he said, use many of the same literary devices often found in secular verse.
“Much of that is lost to us in English translation,” he explained.
Following the Bible, Father Garrett divided Catholic literary history into four distinct periods, discussing the writers of Christian antiquity before moving onto the Renaissance, American Catholic Renaissance and contemporary period. The earliest major period of Catholic writing followed the legalization of Christianity by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D., when Church fathers used literature as a way of discussing theological disagreements.
“Literature as artistic expression was one of the modes through which these debates were eventually settled,” said Father Garrett.
In addition to engaging in theological discussions, early Christian writers sought to establish a literary tradition comparable to those of the Greeks and Romans by imitating classics like the “Odyssey” and the “Aeneid” to form their own Christian epics. This period also gave rise to one of the most well-known books of Catholic literature, and the first of what Father Garrett referred to as a “spiritual memoir,” Saint Augustine’s “Confessions.”
“If you read one thing on this list, read Augustine’s ‘Confessions,’” Father Garrett told his audience. “Make a careful and contemplative reading of the work for your Lenten practice.”
The discussion resumed with the Christian writings of the European Renaissance. Father Garrett named Dante Alighieri, Erasmus and Thomas More as some of the most important Catholic writers of the cultural revival. While not always on the best of terms with the powerful of their day – Thomas More is best known for his martyrdom after refusing to abandon Catholicism for the Anglican Church, while Erasmus used satire to criticize corruption within the papacy – their works have been accepted as great books of the Western tradition by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In 1921, Pope Benedict XV made Dante the only writer to have an encyclical promulgated for him, naming him “among the many celebrated geniuses of whom the Catholic faith can boast.”
Following the Renaissance, a period of hostility toward Catholicism in the West stalled the Catholic literary movement for some time. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the lifting of stereotypes and discrimination toward Catholics in the United States opened the way for the American Catholic Renaissance, as well as parallel movements in Europe. Father Garrett compared this literary revival with the earlier revival following the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
“It had become more acceptable throughout the nation as a whole to be Catholic,” he said. “Catholicism was suppressed, but once lifted, was allowed to flourish in the arts and leisure of the period.”
Among the famous Catholic writers of this period were Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, both of whom received praise from Pope Francis during his speech before the U.S. Congress in September. Merton, a Trappist monk, recounted the journey to his vocation in his bestseller, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” while Dorothy Day wrote about her conversion to Catholicism in “The Long Loneliness.” Both works follow the model of a “spiritual memoir” first set by Augustine’s “Confessions.”
Father Garrett also counted Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and J.F. Powers among the writers of the American Catholic Renaissance, while he mentioned Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott and Mary Karr as examples of contemporary Catholic writers. However, as Father Garrett pointed out, interest in Catholic literature has waned in the past few decades. Citing literary scholar Gregory Wolfe, he attributed this to a politicization of religion that has replaced the arts with politics as the main avenue most Catholics use to engage with their faith.
“The talent is there; people just aren’t tapping into it,” said Father Garrett. “And that, I think, is a kind of spiritual tragedy, because the arts, Wolfe argues, is a better medium of Catholic expression and frankly a better tool for spiritual growth.”
Father Garrett concluded by encouraging his audience to reengage with their Catholic faith through literature and other art forms, suggesting this approach could be more spiritually fulfilling than simply engaging through the political arena.
Peter Foley, a member of the St. Pius V young adult group, said he enjoyed the talk. A professional editor who studied English in college, Foley said he was familiar with some, but not all, of the writers discussed.
“Having already been a fan of the works of Flannery O’Connor and Dante, it was great getting some more exposure to early Christian antiquity,” he said.
Glenn Dupont, one of the group’s coordinators and a parishioner of St. Ambrose Parish, Lincoln, also found the talk engaging.
“Overall, it was good to be exposed to all these Catholic luminaries,” he said.