The director of the Vatican Museums' art patrons program has authored "Meditations on Vatican Art," a collection of images of beautiful works accompanying the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

"Obviously you can't exhaust the richness of the Spiritual Exercises in this book, because his was 30 days in silence, with one on one preaching, but you always can get a first step into the mystery of the retreat through the window of the art" found in the book, Fr. Mark Haydu told CNA.

"It's really meant to be a tool, either personally or in groups, with questions and reflections, and spiritual exercises for each day, and a resolution, that can make the prayer practical."

Fr. Haydu, a Legionary of Christ, explained that much of the order's spirituality is Ignatian, noting that he goes on an eight-day retreat using St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises annually.

"In the Ignatian method of meditation, there's a step called composition of place: once you place yourself in God's presence, the composition of place is to use your imagination to enter into the scene, whether it be the Gospel, or an idea, or the life of a saint that you're meditating on: and art facilitates that imagination, and reflection."

Beauty, he said, "has a role of inspiration, and projecting us into the eternal and transcendent, as well as healing and soothing the soul," just as prayer has. "On a different level maybe, in that beauty is a reaching out to us, so to speak, and prayer is our reaching out to God. So both are complimentary, but beauty is a great medium" to foster prayer.

The book, produced by Liguori Publications, presents meditations from the 28 days of the Spiritual Exercises, each with a work of art found in the Vatican Museums reflecting the theme; a text from Scripture; commentary from Fr. Haydu; points for prayer and reflection; and a resolution or exercise with which to put the meditation into practice.

For the creation of man, he said, "I was almost obliged to go to Michelangelo's scene of creation from the Sistine Ceiling; talking about the flight into Egypt, well Barocci is again a must, as is The Transfiguration of Raphael."

"So a lot of them were clear, and for other meditations, I used my own inspiration, what I like. When I came to, for example, meditating on time and creatures, which can be kind of an abstract meditation for Ignatius, I used a St. Francis, who is a good symbol of someone who places little focus on the treasures of this world and focuses his treasure on God, so I thought that was appropriate."

Fr. Haydu added that another concern was to include a variety of pieces from across the 12 Vatican Museums: "Many people think of the Vatican as just Raphael, Michelangelo, and don't realize that our largest collection is our Missionary Museum, or that we have an incredible collection of 1st-4th century sarcophagi of the Christians. So I tried to pull from the modern collection as well, to give people a sense of the breadth of the Vatican tradition of patronage and collection."

"Meditations on Vatican Art" includes art ranging from the fourth century to a portrait of Bl. John Paul II produced in 1980, and the majority of pieces presented for meditation are from the Renaissance era.

As director of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, Fr. Haydu is charged with connecting those who support the restoration of art held by the Vatican the museums' curators and restoration labs. The Vatican Museums are the "breadwinner" for the Vatican City State. "So much of what the Pope and the Vatican does, the services, the daily Masses, the plaza, some 100,000 people come, and its all free, but it does have its cost."

In addition, the Vatican operates a radio station and a newspapers, "so the Vatican Museums support all those initiatives. Thus the Patrons pay for the restoration" of the collections, "so it's a way for art lovers and faith lovers to be part of the Vatican family, the Vatican Museums, in a real direct way, and help the Pope preserve the collection that the Church has patronized over the years."

Individuals can join the Patrons of the Arts for a donation of 600 U.S. dollars  a year, or 1,200 for families, and 250 for under-35s.

"We want to bring in as many people as can be connected to the art as possible … it's certainly not just for the ultra-rich," Fr. Haydu explained. "At the same time, it allows for someone who is coming to Rome to do it as a special experience for their families, and build up their faith."

When visiting Rome, the Patrons of the Arts are given private tours of the Vatican Museums, and are allowed into the restoration labs to see the work for which they donated.

Fr. Haydu related that "Pope Francis told me recently when we had lunch together, that no-one needs beauty more than the poor."

"So keeping it open to the world and to those who can't access it as easily, that's really what the Patrons are about. Those who have the capacity to come and to see and preserve, do it not only for themselves … but they do it out of a sense of service."

Patronage of the Vatican Museums' art is important because as the marketplace has become the primary patron of artists, "the whole sense of art as a service to the common good, has lost a bit of traction"; becoming patrons of art through the Church helps to restore the role of art as what is offered for the edification of all, including particularly the poor.

"Art is a great way, especially with Pope Francis' focus on the peripheries, and on people who aren't as connected to the faith, to reach out to them … and to those who wouldn't be in the pews on Sunday."

"So the book presents itself in a beautiful manner … it can be given as a gift" to those not in the Church – its format is that of a coffee table book – "so it's a tool for evangelization, for reaching out."

Fr. Haydu said "Meditations on Vatican Art" could be used either on a daily basis, even to go through Advent for example, or Lent, or one's own spiritual preparation for a decision you need to make, or for small groups" such as Bible studies or prayer groups.