Catholic imaginations ‘vigorous and flourishing,’ conferencegoers say

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Writer Alice McDermott addresses participants at the Catholic Imagination Conference at Loyola University Chicago Sept. 12, 2019. This international biennial conference, hosted by Loyola’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage, featured over 80 writers, poets, filmmakers, playwrights, journalists, editors, publishers, students, and critics who explored a variety of questions surrounding the Catholic imagination in literature and the arts. (Photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

Hundreds of writers, poets, filmmakers and other artists gathered at Loyola University Chicago Sept. 19-21 for the third biennial Catholic Imagination Conference, on the future of the Catholic literary tradition.

It featured speakers such as Paul Mariani, Alice McDermott, Richard Rodriguez, Paul Scharder and Tobias Wolff.

The conference, over its three sessions, has aimed to create a community of Catholic writers as well as enhance the appreciation of their contributions to the literary world.

At least, that was the goal of Dana Gioia, a poet who has an MBA from Stanford and worked in the business world before quitting at age 41 to devote himself to his writing. Gioia, a professor of poetry and public culture at the University of Southern California, hosted the first conference in 2015.

He was motivated, he said, by two sets of interactions with students. The first happened after he gave a reading in Houston, and, during the question-and-answer session, one of the guests commented on how he was writing as an “ex-Catholic.”

“I said, ‘I’m a practicing Catholic,’ and a hush fell over the room,” he said. When the formal event was over, four students approached and said, “We thought you really couldn’t be a writer or a literary person if you believed in Christ.”

The second group were Muslim students who took his undergraduate poetry classes at USC. They came up to him after class and said, “You are the only professor we’ve had here at USC who believes that faith is important to forming people’s lives.”

“I decided we needed to have a conference for all the people who felt isolated and alienated,” Gioia said. “For most of them, they’re the only Catholic in the humanities department.”

That first conference, hosted by the Center for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC, drew 200 registered participants, plus students who were free to attend the sessions. The second, hosted by the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in the spring of 2017, drew 400 participants, said Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, associate director of the center.

The event at Loyola had 468 registered participants, plus students, said Michael Murphy, director of Catholic studies and the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University.

It was appropriate that the conference was held in the Midwest after being on both coasts, organizers said. Having it in Chicago provided “an embarrassment of riches” for the Archdiocese of Chicago’s 2.2 million Catholics, Murphy said.

O’Donnell said she is struck by the generosity of the enterprise. At all three conferences, registration and food are free, and, she said, most of the people she invited to the New York conference were willing to share their time.

“If this is a ‘state of the Catholic imagination’ talk, I’m happy to say the Catholic imagination is vigorous and flourishing.”

More writers, especially young writers, self-identify as members of the Catholic writers community, and more Catholic artists have been seen to be relevant, she said.

“We can be Catholic and good at our art at the same time,” said O’Donnell, a poet. “Granted, it’s ridiculous to have to prove this.”

The community of Catholic writers includes not only practicing Catholics, though there are many, she said. It also includes cultural Catholics who were formed in the faith and whose art reflects a Catholic worldview and those who have left the church but are focused on its missteps and shortcomings.

Those shortcomings are many, as all Catholics know, O’Donnell said.

“It takes nerves of steel to belong to this church, a strong belief in sin and a strong belief in mercy,” she said.

The church also has a longstanding, deep connection with beauty, he said, even if that connection has become strained or broken over recent years.

“If the church is going to reconnect with beauty, it’s not going to be the clergy who does it,” Gioia said. “They’re worried about making the mortgage payment, keeping the school open, keeping the hospital open. They don’t have the time or the energy to do it. If anyone is going to do it, it’s going to be us.”

Gioia argued that literary society and academia itself can learn much from the church.

“We have in the United States an extraordinary university culture,” he said. “It is staffed by people who are tremendously expert in talking to one another. The church, for all of its faults, has never forgotten it’s talking to everybody.”


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