It is an unsavory fact that many people do not know or understand the Catholic Church. Just as Blessed Bishop Fulton Sheen once commented, he probably could not find a hundred people in the country who really hated the Catholic Church “but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” Much of the public rejects the Church without understanding the Eucharist, Mass, Confession, pro-life positions, sacramental marriage or the Church’s respect for homosexual persons while rejecting same-sex conduct.
Catholic laypeople need to supplement the Church’s mission and respond to these misunderstandings. Prayer is not enough. New approaches are needed. Christian messaging has made significant artistic strides, in movies, blogs, and songwriting but its audiences are mostly people who are already believers. We should be reaching out for the lost sheep. We need something more to aid God’s mission in the modern world, to reach the minds and souls of the wanderers. I firmly believe a burgeoning of high-quality Catholic fiction can help solve the problem.
Catholic Fiction is Simply New Parables
Enter the concept of the updated parable. Most people — even the non-religious — know the great fictional bible stories, the Good Samaritan, The Sower, and the Prodigal Son. These parables have attained the classical literary status and they show moral principles. Good Catholic fiction could gently and artfully explain many things about the faith, doctrines, the Church’s history, cultures, structure, and struggles. Catholic novels and stories offer opportunities to speak directly to readers, outside of the noise of the pop culture and ranting social media naysayers. In the form of a story, the secular public may read a novel without someone having dismissed it upfront as preachy. Well written books with entertaining characters and plots will command readers’ attention. Catholic fiction has receded for more than half a century. We need more modern Catholic parables, i.e., new stories and novels that engage people’s emotions and along the way, teach the faith as Jesus did, within the context of gripping and memorable tales.
The disciples approached him and asked, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them, it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” Matthew 13:10-14.
New compelling works of fiction can show readers the kingdom, the Church, the faith. Fiction writing is one of many kinds of art. Saint Pope John Paul II addressed his 1999 Letter to Artists, which included writers, with this encouragement:
To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new “epiphanies” of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world.
The Steve Jobs doctrine works well to highlight the situation we find ourselves in. Paraphrasing and inserting his idea into a literature environment: people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. I think the reading public subconsciously wants Catholic fiction. I have a theory about the rise in popularity of “paranormal” fiction. I believe the strong interest in these types of stories comes from the soul’s thirst for spiritual transcendence. The secular world, however, has clouded over and confused readers’ hearts. Paranormal dramas are a secular substitute for stories about the truly supernatural and deeply meaningful.
Catholic Fiction Content
People will enjoy new epiphanies revealing authentic Catholicism within beloved characters and dramas. The success of one Christian (but non-Catholic) novel proves my point. Who would have guessed that fifteen million readers would have wanted to read a spiritual novel about a man haunted by the murder of his child who sought spiritual comfort, (The Shack) until they actually read it? Indeed, publishers thought readers would have no interest in it and the author self-published the book. I feel confident that Catholic writers could create stories and novels which show an understanding and foster appreciation of the Church through great characters and plot lines. Although it takes time for great works to make their way to the forefront, the next Judah Ben Hur or Frodo Baggins needs only to be imagined and written.
The Catholic faith is almost limitless on subject matter to infuse into fictional characters, settings, and storylines. There are the highly controversial moral issues of the day to weave into stories. And there is a wealth of history, foreign lands, lives of saints, artistic expression, science, modern-day troubles of every sort to mold into ‘unputdownable’ stories of life and death. Just try to keep a dry eye and listen to the call-in prayer requests from the problems of real people at 3 p.m. daily. That is when Relevant Radio stations broadcast praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. There lie a plethora of fantastic idea story starters.
I acknowledge that there are worthwhile Catholic fictional works being published. I do not intend to diminish those. Rather, I seek to encourage more of it. No Catholic novels have truly broken out to blockbuster status since the mid-twentieth century, except for one anti-Catholic unmentionable thriller. It’s been a long time since readers had great bestselling Catholic literature to devour. J.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings’ trilogy came out in 1937 and 1949. Tolkien’s writing is the Olympic champion of symbolism, allegory and moral teaching hidden in a dramatic fantasy. Brideshead Revisited considered a masterpiece Catholic novel was published in 1945. Novelist and short story author Flannery O’Connor, who died in 1964, is often cited as a great American Catholic writer. Her style has been described as Southern Gothic and darkly comic. These are models of great Catholic writing and excellent training grounds for new writers.
Writing the Beautiful and the Gritty
Bishop Robert Barron says that Brideshead Revisited intrigued and influenced readers because it drew them into the beauty of a fictitious mansion filled with great art. The mansion functioned as a symbol of the Church. Barron commented that beauty is captivating to everyone. The author lured the readers in and then transported them into good and truth.
Today’s secular world of readers, however, is steeped in movies and videos with gratuitous sex, bad language, and violence. A writer may have to meet people where they are and dip into unpleasant environs to seize the attention and hearts of people. After that, an author can lead readers into a beautiful moral story which shows them something surprising and amazing about the true Church. As Dana Gioia noted in her First Things 2013 article referenced above, Catholic literature is rarely pious and instead tends to view humanity struggling in a fallen world. She says Catholic writers “combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin.”
As there is no current widely read Catholic novel, I offer the screenplay and movie, Gran Torino from 2008 to illustrate my point and Gioia’s. Although considerably gritty, I think it is an example of good Catholic literature. In the movie, Clint Eastwood plays a crusty old Korean War veteran who begrudgingly tries to help out his Hmong teenage neighbors. The kids are trying to avoid harassment by an Asian gang. The dialogue includes a lot of bad language and racial slurs. Although the viewer winces at this, it is taken as an authentic depiction of the setting and it is so prolific it lightens the story with humor. The story ends with the old man confronting the gang members, pretending to be armed for a public showdown. When he taunts the gang members and pulls out a lighter instead of a gun, they shoot him many times in front of many witnesses. The old man falls with his arms out, just enough to imply similarity to Christ’s crucifixion, a man who sacrificed himself for his neighbors. The screenplay text enters into the gritty world of inner-city teen gangs to reach people who are like the teens in the movie. In Gran Torino, the old man returns to the Church, goes to confession, acknowledges the young priest he previously mocked. He freed his neighbors from the gang and left his vintage car to his Hmong neighbor. Different from Bishop Barron’s observed enticement of readers with beauty, I would say Gran Torino began with the audience rubbernecking at the ugly and later being drawn into the good. Both methods work. Both demonstrate ways to reach people, who otherwise would not see, listen, or understand the kingdom.
Writing Craft and Catholic Novel Resources
Fiction writing fiction is not for everyone but it is something a person can try without any adverse recourse if it does not work out. All you need is a laptop or a pen and paper and an imagination. There are books and web sites and videos galore on the craft of writing. There are online writers groups that can be tried. For those who want to dabble in writing, there is always the universal appetizer, simple nonfiction journaling that need not be shown to anyone. A few initial resources are noteworthy. One is a Catholic novel lecture series with Fr. Robert Lauder at https://netny.tv/shows/the-
catholic-novel/. Some other starter informational links for writing Catholic fiction are an online ebook, How to be a Catholic Author, and an interview on EWTN Catholic TV with the president of The Catholic Writers Guild provides another overview of this activity.
Personal Benefits of Writing
Journal writing is often the beginning for published authors. It is well known that for people who have an interest and talent, writing is a very enjoyable experience. It is a stress reducer and has been known to alleviate depression. Writing helps increase one’s vocabulary. Because writing is slower than talking, it often helps one learn more about what they think and believe in greater detail. Any parent knows that making a kid draft an apology letter for some transgression often yields surprising insights and moral growth. Writing can be art and evangelization. It spurs research and further learning into a multitude of Catholic topics.
While millions of people are practicing self-isolating and social distancing in efforts to prevent infection from the coronavirus, why not take up a long term Catholic mission project, some fiction writing? It’s good for the soul and it’s free.