CHICAGO — Catholic fiction, poetry and drama are poised for a Renaissance of sorts, according to participants of this year’s Catholic Imagination Conference Sept. 19-21 at Loyola University Chicago.

Organized under the theme “The Future of the Catholic Literary Tradition,” the event attracted nearly 500 writers, poets, educators, graduate students and journalists to an examination of the significance of the “Catholic voice” in contemporary fiction and fine art.

Michael Murphy, director of the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University, was host for this year’s biannual conference. Previous conferences took place in 2015 in Los Angeles and in 2017 at Fordham University in New York.

The Hank Center was founded in 2006 to investigate Catholic thought and its links to all academic disciplines. But it was the literary arts, particularly fiction, poetry, drama and film that dominated discussion at the 2019 event.

“What is the state of discourses in faith and Christian humanism in a world increasingly described as postmodern, post-Christian, post-religious,” Murphy asked in describing some of the inspiration for the conference. “How is Catholic thought and practice represented in literature, poetry and cinema?”

Interest in the Catholic voice in art surged ahead in 2004 with the appearance of essays in Catholic periodicals bemoaning the lack of meaningful faith-based content in contemporary fiction. Except for small religious publishing houses, Catholic-themed material has had few outlets, especially since the passing of celebrated Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor in 1964.

In a December 2013 essay, U.S. poet Dana Gioia wrote that the Catholic voice is heard less often in public conversations informing American culture.

“Catholics have lost the power to bring their own best writers to the attention of a broader audience,” Gioia said. “Today if any living Catholic novelist or poet has a major reputation, that reputation has not been made by Catholic critics but by the secular literary world, often in spite of their religious identity.”

The former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia was one of the driving forces in looking to stem the decline of Catholicism in American letters. He hosted the first Catholic Imagination Conference and was one of the main speakers at this year’s affair.

“The Catholic voice in literature matters in two important ways,” Gioia told Catholic News Service. “First, it allows Catholics to hear their experience and worldview articulated from their own perspective. Second, it enriches and enlarges American literature by reflecting the lives of its largest religious group. Without a vital Catholic presence, American literature is not merely diminished, but incomplete.”

Gioia is excited by the growing interest and enthusiasm for similar Catholic-themed conferences.

“Without any doubt, there has been a growing interest and confidence among Catholic writers over the four years since our first conference,” he added. “They have gradually realized how large and talented their own community is. They no longer feel so isolated and alone.

“The energy, intelligence and talent present at this conference left everyone but the hardcore cynics full of optimism for the future of Catholic literature.”

Other conference delegates agreed with the need to emphasize the Catholic voice in American fine arts. Robin Hart-Winter, director of the St. Catherine of Siena Center at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, said it was refreshing to hear from so many scholars, authors, poets and “dreamers” at the event.

“The Siena Center examines critical issues of church and society in light of faith and scholarship, so the Catholic Imagination Conference is a place I go for inspiration both personally and professionally,” Hart-Winter said.

For his part, Murphy believes the Catholic imagination conferences serve as a valuable resource for those concerned with bringing the authentic Catholic voice to fiction and other fine art.

“It matters deeply that we keep this alive,” he said. “In many ways, we are emulating and participating in the precise way that Jesus taught. His was a Catholic imagination if there ever was one. But to teach about the uniqueness of our lives in God precisely through story, narrative art and public oratory is the clue to how important all of this is.”

In addition to poetry and fiction readings from authors, the conference featured the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Paul Mariani, the chair of English studies at Boston College. Mariani is a poet, educator and author of authoritative biographies of several poets including Jesuit Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Lowell and John Berryman.

The conference also included the presentation of the Hunt Prize for excellence in journalism, arts and letters to poet Mary Szybist, associate professor of English at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

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Mastromatteo, a Toronto-based writer and editor, writes regularly about Catholic writers for an ongoing CNS series.

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