Sunday, March 14, 2010

Che Gioia: For 2010 Laetare, Poetry Trumps Politics

Topping the news on this Laetare Sunday, the winner of the Stateside church's most prestigious prize is a first: an American Catholic poet.

And an appointee of the last administration, to boot.

This morning, the University of Notre Dame announced that Dana Gioia will receive the Laetare Medal at the Golden Dome's 16 May commencement. Instituted in 1883, the medal's next honoree is traditionally revealed on this "Rose Sunday" of Lent.

From the beginning, the Laetare was envisioned as an American answer to the Golden Rose -- the venerable honor given by the Popes to Marian sanctuaries and Catholic queens for the better part of the last millennium. Reserved to the laity alone until 1968, the Medal's recipients have come from practically every walk of the nation's ecclesial life, from the prolific church-builder Patrick Keely (1884) to the nation's first Catholic president (1961) and his successor on TV (2008), the novelist Walker Percy (1989) and pro-life activist Sr Helen Prejean (1996) to Dorothy Day (1973) and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (2005). Amid the heated controversy over last year's choice of commencement speaker by the Fighting Irish, the 2009 Laetare Laureate -- former US ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon -- declined the prize a month after being announced as its recipient, three weeks before the mid-May graduation.

For his part, the 59 year-old 2010 Laureate -- a Californian of Italian-Mexican descent with degrees from Stanford and Harvard -- worked as a marketing executive at General Foods until resigning in 1992 to devote himself full-time to the craft. A Republican of working-class roots who once told the New York Daily News that he was "enough of an environmentalist" to donate to the Green Party, in 2003 former President George W Bush named Gioia to chair the National Endowment of the Arts, with the poet pledging to remove the oft-controversial agency "from the culture wars" and "restore the endowment to its rightful place as one of the premier institutions in the United States." Midway through his second four-year term, Gioia left the NEA chair early last year to return to California and writing verses.

Comprised of a gold medal with aspects unique to the profession of the recipient, the Laetare is bordered by the traditional inscription Magna est veritas et praevalebit ("Truth is mighty, and will prevail").

Following the medal's presentation, its recipient traditionally offers an address alongside the commencement's main speaker -- an honor that, this time around, falls to to Brian Williams, anchor of the NBC Nightly News.

* * *
Nearly two years since B16 sounded a call on these shores "for cultivating a mindset, an intellectual 'culture,' which is genuinely Catholic, confident in the profound harmony of faith and reason, and prepared to bring the richness of faith’s vision to bear on the urgent issues which affect the future of American society," the interview-friendly Laetare winner had long been on-record with his thoughts on the topic.

Among other examples, here's Gioia from a 2003 interview with Commonweal:
He speaks about how the chasm between art and religion in contemporary culture has impoverished both. “Art is one of the ways we can call people back into the church.” He says that the arts have always been congenial to the Catholic worldview, because Catholicism is a faith which believes that transcendent truths are incarnated. “The sacraments are models of this. They are outward signs that symbolize an inward turn of grace. The Catholic, literally from birth, when he or she is baptized, is raised in a culture that understands symbols and signs. And it also trains you in understanding the relationship between the visible and the invisible. Consequently, allegory finds its greatest realization in Catholic artists like Dante.”

At the June 2000 Pew conference, Gioia spoke of the Catholic aesthetic. “The U.S. church has never quite known what to do with the human hunger for beauty,” he said, “but I would maintain that the arts have always been a vital part of the Catholic identity and that Beethoven and Mozart, Michelangelo and El Greco, Dante and Saint John of the Cross, Bernanos and Mauriac, the anonymous architects of Chartres and Notre Dame, have awakened more souls to the divine than all the papal encyclicals.”

So how do we go about fostering a Catholic intellectual community? At the conference, Gioia suggested that Jewish intellectuals provide a model. Catholics need to focus on what unites them, “not only by religious belief, but also by cultural, artistic, and intellectual identity.”

“We need a big tent,” he explains, but “it will only happen if the Catholic artists and intellectuals allow it to happen. I think American culture, in the broadest sense, is very open-minded and understanding. But American intellectual culture remains unconsciously anti-Catholic. Catholic artists and intellectuals soon realize that they will be dismissed or condescended to if they exhibit their faith or cultural background.”
...and here, the Laetare honoree's answer on "What does it mean to be Catholic?":

PHOTO: LA Cicero/Stanford University(1); University of Notre Dame(2)