Thursday, April 27, 2006

Hollywood: Mission Field or Mission Impossible?

Our inaugural Spring Catholic Culture Series was devoted to the art of cinema and the renewal of culture. Entitled “Hollywood: Mission Field or Mission Impossible?,” this inaugural series featured three prominent Catholic speakers who each took a different angle on the question of how Catholics and their fellow Christians might positively engage the film industry in Hollywood in order to revivify the art of the cinema in the light of the Gospel.

The first of the three speakers in the series was Rev. Willy Raymond, CSC, who since September 2000 has served as the national director of Family Theater Productions in Hollywood. The mission of Family Theater, which was founded in Hollywood in 1947 by Father Patrick Peyton, CSC, now a sainthood candidate, is to evangelize culture by using mass media to entertain, inspire and educate families. Family Theater’s famous slogan is “The family that prays together, stays together.”

On Tuesday evening, April 4, Fr. Raymond kicked off the series by giving a talk in Hayes-Healy entitled “Young Catholic Hollywood.” Fr. Raymond’s central point was the encouraging news that already there are many devoted and talented Catholics, especially young Catholics, doing good things in the film industry in Hollywood. After showing the audience a short promotional film on the mission of Family Theater, Fr. Willy then exemplified his point by showing a short film entitled Christmas Wish List, one of the finalists in the annual Angelus Awards, a film festival for student filmmakers started by Family Theater in 1996. Christmas Wish List—in which a self-absorbed lawyer finds himself the unwitting accomplice in a doctor’s efforts to fulfill the wish list of a child cancer patient, and in the process finds his own heart softened by the act of giving—delighted the audience and demonstrated the promise of young Catholic filmmakers in Hollywood.

Fr. Raymond also pointed out the various pastoral initiatives sponsored by Family Theater, which give Catholics in Hollywood a place to gather with their fellows in the industry who are also fellow believers. Family Theater sponsors an RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), a monthly open house called Prayer and Pasta to welcome newcomers to Hollywood, a course of studies on Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, and a weekly occasion for reflection and discussion of the faith called “Going Deeper.”

The second speaker in the series was wellknown Catholic writer, speaker and blogger, Amy Welborn. Ms. Welborn is the author of several books, but is perhaps best known for her De-Coding Da Vinci (Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2004), which debunks the many myths masquerading as truth in Dan Brown’s best-selling thriller, now a movie. Her blog, “Open Book,” also serves as a virtual meeting place for those interested in a wide variety of issues affecting the Church and culture.

On Monday evening April 10, in DeBartolo Hall, Ms. Welborn spoke on “De-Coding Da Vinci: The Facts Behind the Fiction of The Da Vinci Code.” She explained the worldwide phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code in terms of the eternal return of gnosticism, which ultimately comes down to human pride in being singled out to share in a very special secret. And what is the secret The Da Vinci Code wants to share with us? The absurdities of its plot aside, The Da Vinci Code seeks to tell us, ultimately, that Christianity is the enemy of truth. Instead of witnessing to the truth, and indeed to the One who is Truth, the topsy-turvydom of Dan Brown’s mythical world sees “official” Christianity as something that must be exposed as a fraud if the real truth about Jesus is to be brought to light. Given not only the enormous success of the novel, but also the premiere of the The Da Vinci Code film directed by one of Hollywood’s most esteemed directors (Ron Howard) and starring one of its most celebrated actors (Tom Hanks), Ms. Welborn underscored the grave threat that certain segments of popular culture pose for a truly Christian evangelization of culture.

To help counter that threat, our third and last speaker in the series, Barbara Nicolosi, founded Act One, Inc., a nonprofit organization located in Hollywood that trains people of faith for careers in mainstream film & TV. Stressing artistry, excellence, professionalism, and spirituality, Act One prepares students to be “salt and light” in writers’ rooms, on sets, and in studio and network offices. Act One’s goal is not to produce explicitly “religious” entertainment, but movies and TV programs that combine “mastery of craft with an unusual quality of depth.”

On Thursday evening April 26, in DeBartolo Hall, Ms. Nicolosi offered a lecture entitled, “Why God Cares About Hollywood: The Role of Entertainment in Human Life.” In her lecture Ms. Nicolosi argued that the Church has always been a patron of the arts because the Church has always situated the arts within what Josef Pieper calls “festivity,” that praise of God that affirms the beauty of God’s creation. The art form that characterizes our moment in history, Ms. Nicolosi stressed, is the cinema; the “Abel’s lamb” of our time. For the cinema to serve as a source of festivity, however, as a manifestation of the beauty that involves a love and longing for God, it must seek to be truly excellent in terms of the three components of beauty: integrity, harmony, and radiance. In particular, Ms. Nicolosi urged Christian writers to follow the example of Flannery O’Connor and seek to tell stories that, even in the midst of suffering, show that grace is being offered to mankind.

This inaugural spring Catholic Culture Series on cinema and the renewal of culture turned out to be a big success, and we now look forward to this spring series being the annual counterpart to our fall Catholic Culture Series on Catholic literature. We are deeply grateful to our three speakers. A special word of thanks goes out to Fr. Raymond and Barbara Nicolosi, who before their talks shared a meal with Notre Dame undergraduates thinking about a career in the film industry. Finally, we acknowledge our happy debt to our friends, Clarence and Frieda Bayer of Arlington, Texas, whose generosity to the Center made this series possible.

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