“So much of (scripture) is poetry but I think we kind of race through it sometimes and we don't really kind of appreciate it for being poetry,” he said.
“In my mind, one of the reasons that there's so much poetry in there is it's so difficult to define who God is, and God is so much greater than any author can put down on paper, but poetry...it provides a different type of truth.”
Bete added that poetry is often the fruit of silence and prayer, and vice versa - one can lead into the other. An example of this in scripture, he said, is the Canticle of Mary, when the pregnant Blessed Virgin Mary is visiting her cousin Elizabeth and bursts into poetic song about how God has blessed her by calling her to be the mother of Jesus.
“When Mary really has to explain to Elizabeth what is going on, what does she do? She speaks in poetry. It's very powerful...and so one of my hopes is that if people read current poetry, it trains them to look at things differently and will translate back to scripture and really help to bring the scripture alive for them,” Bete said.
Pearce said another reason Catholics should engage with poetry is because God himself is a poet.
“The word ‘poet’ comes from the word ‘poesis’ which means to make or to create,” he said.
“So when we are being poets in that broader sense of the word of being creative...it’s God’s creative presence in us, so we’re actually partaking in the divine when we write poetry or read it and appreciate it.”
Many great works of literature, from Beowulf to The Divine Comedy to The Canterbury Tales and the works of Shakespeare, are works of Christian and Catholic poetry, Pearce said.
Many saints, too, have written great works of poetry, Pearce said, such as St. Patrick’s breastplate poem or St. Francis of Assissi’s Canticle of Brother Sun.
Bete, a secular Carmelite, said he loves to read poetry by Carmelite saints - “it's actually hard to find one who was not a poet,” he said.
“Elizabeth of the Trinity, Therese the Little Flower, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, they all wrote poetry,” Bete said, including some that was prayerful and some that was more lighthearted.
“Almost always it came out of their prayer life,” Bete added. “I think it has to do with the closer that you get to God, especially if you're a writer, I think it just comes out.”
“I would say poetry is like going to Mass or saying your prayers,” Pearce said. “The writing of it and the reading of it is time taken and not time wasted, its something which is worth doing in its own right, as is prayer.”
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Pearce has made it easy for Catholics who are looking for an introduction to Catholic poetry, with his book “Poems Every Catholic Should Know.”
“That book is very popular, and I think it’s popular because people are very aware that they don’t know poetry very well, because they haven’t really been taught it, and they are perhaps intimidated by it or they have misconceptions about it,” he said.
“So they see a book called ‘Poems Every Catholic Should Know’ and they think well, I should at least own one book of poetry and perhaps this is it,” he added.
The book goes through 1,000 years of Christian poetry, from the year 1,000-2,000, Pearce said, from both well-known and lesser-known poets, and it includes short biographies of each poet and how they fit into the broader context of the Christian poetry and literary world.
“A personal favorite of mine is a 20th century war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who was a convert to the Catholic faith, so we published some of his post-conversion poetry in the book which I’m very fond of,” Pearce noted.
It was because of the sharp decline in the reading and writing of poetry that Bete pitched the idea for Integrated Catholic Life to start publishing poetry, to provide a new opportunity for visitors to the site to once again “bump into” poetry.
“The response has been great,” he said. “I think it just goes to show that when people see...beauty, and they see something that is of interest to them,” they respond, he said. “It doesn't take a huge time commitment. It's not like reading War and Peace or anything.”
Bete said he thinks it’s important for Catholics to come up with new and creative ways to reintroduce people to Catholic poetry.
“On Instagram where you're seeing some of these Instagram poets who are up and coming, and I haven't seen any Catholic ones yet, but I think what they're doing is they're putting poetry where people already are,” Bete said.
Another innovative concept that brings poetry to the people is the “Raining Poetry” project in Boston, Bete said, which paints poetry on the sidewalk with clear paint so that it only shows up when it rains.
“And I love that as a concept. Where are people, and then how do we find ways to get poetry in front of them? And I don't think we've been very good or innovative at that.”
Gioia said the most important thing Catholic creatives can do is to create communities for Catholic artists.
“This country is full of Catholic writers and artists who feel isolated,” Gioia said. “If we can create communities for them, they will understand their own art and its possibilities much better. We are stronger together than we are alone.”
Pearce, Bete and Gioia all said they have been heartened by what seems to be the start of a Catholic cultural revival, in which Catholics are talking more about the need for the Church to reconnect with beauty and the arts and to create great Catholic art again.
“I find this very encouraging,” Pearce said. “One of the things I’m doing with ‘Faith and Culture’ at the Augustine Institute and with the magazine The Austin Review...is to try to engage this new Catholic revival in the arts that we see going on. Certainly there’s a Catholic literary revival going on, so there’s an increase not just in the quantity, but more importantly in the quality with Catholic literature written today in the 21st century.”
Gioia said that while he’s encouraged by these movements, he would also caution against the notion of “homemade” culture.
“I worry that they sometimes have a kind of homemade version of culture that needs a shot of energy and perspective you only get by studying masterpieces, especially contemporary masterpieces,” he said. “Any serious writer must engage with the broader literary culture.”
“So I think one of the things to do is we need to identify the very best contemporary writers. What that doesn’t mean is saying here’s a list of 65 writers. It’s - who are the three or four best fiction writers? Who are the three or four best poets?”
“If we had a (Catholic literary) community, we’d invite everyone in, because that’s the right thing to do,” he said. “But when we write about literature we have to be ruthlessly discriminating, because the best work is what will speak most loudly. That’s what a critic does, that’s what an editor does, that’s what an anthologist does. Right now we do not have enough anthologies, or magazines; we do not have enough Catholic writers conferences. We need to build the infrastructure.”
Gioia started the first Catholic Imagination Conference for this reason - to bring together serious Catholic writers as a community.
“Four hundred people came, and they looked around and they were astonished and heartened by how many serious writers they saw in the same room,” he said. “Each one is bigger than the one before, and some of the people who came to the first conference created magazines, book clubs, discussion groups, and so once again, we’re stronger as a community than we are separately.”
The third such conference was held at Loyola University this past fall.
Ultimately, Gioia said, while he is concerned about the state of Catholic poetry and literature in the U.S., he has hope.
“I believe that our Church and our tradition embodies in it a great central truth of existence. And so if you believe that, how could you not be optimistic?”
This article was originally published on CNA April 25, 2019.