Spirit Day Message
On the first Friday of each month, Fr. George McDaniel provides the campus community with a small history lesson based on his research for "A Great and Lasting Beginning, The First 125 Years of St. Ambrose University."
April Spirit Day Message
The conference last month celebrating the tenth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis brought many first-time visitors to our campus. There was a great deal of interest in the Stations of the Cross created by Fr. Edward Catich which are in our chapel. I enjoyed explaining Catich's ideas about religious art to them and it occurred to me that I have never had a Spirit Day Message about Fr. Catich. I knew Fr. Catich. When I was an undergraduate there was a two-hour course, the Appreciation of Art, that was required of all students for graduation and I had Fr. Catich as the instructor in that course. Later when I returned to the staff in 1974 I knew Fr. Catich as a colleague.
Catich was born in 1906 in Stevensville, Montana. His mother died when he was two-years-old and when he was twelve his father died. Catich and his four brothers were sent to Mooseheart near Aurora, Illinois, a home for children whose parent was a member of the Loyal Order of Moose. There he was apprenticed to a sign-writer and played in the band. Later he went to Chicago, studied at the Art Institute, made a living as a sign painter, and played in bands in local clubs. He came to St. Ambrose and following graduation in 1935 he went to Rome and studied for the priesthood. Following his ordination in 1938 he returned to the art faculty at St. Ambrose.
Catich had an international reputation as a calligrapher, one professor who taught calligraphy said he was "beyond compare in the field of Roman letters." He published two works on the subject, Letters Redrawn from the Trajan Inscription in Rome and The Origin of the Serif: Brush Writing and Roman Letters, on his own Catfish Press located in his studio on campus. You can find examples of his calligraphy on slate plaques around campus.
In the years after World War II, Catholic musicians and liturgists were asking Catholics to think differently about their role as members of the Christian community and their place in its worship life. I wrote about Fr. Cletus Madsen's role in revising liturgical practices and music in the February Spirit Day Message. At the same time Fr. Catich was also challenging people to look at religious art in new ways. Catich believed that religious art should "express religious truths in contemporary terms" and so the artist must use images "proper" to his own age. I remember in class one day he told us that in religious art from the Renaissance the people are often dressed in clothes from the sixteenth century, not the first century of Jesus' time. Thus religious art should use clothing that would be contemporary so that viewers could understand that the religious message applied to them.
Catich's contemporary images of familiar religious themes generated controversy far beyond the campus. In 1950 one of his works, a contemporary icon, "Theophora," was accepted for a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It portrayed a white Madonna holding a black Jesus that also contained various images, including a mouse trap, an apple, a beaker of water, a snake, and sharks. Catich reportedly received a letter from the apostolic delegate (the pope's ambassador to the United States) telling him to withdraw the painting from exhibition. The painting now hangs in our chapel.
Judgments about Catich's early work were done in the context of a 1952 document, Instruction on Sacred Art, issued by the Congregation of the Holy Office in Rome. It cited earlier church pronouncements that bishops should be vigilant that art not be "foreign to the faith" or not in "harmony" with tradition.
The 1952 statement made it very clear that the church, through the local bishop, would be the arbiter of sacred art. Catich's bishop, Ralph L. Hayes, was generally supportive of Catich's work, at least to the Roman authorities. In 1955, when Hayes received his copy of a letter from the apostolic delegate to the bishops of the United States regarding "aberrations in vogue today" in sacred art, the bishop quickly replied that his diocese would "cooperate in fulfilling the desires of the Holy See on the subject of religious art. So far, no problems have arisen in the Diocese of Davenport in the matter of distortions which offend against the mind of the Church in this field, not do I anticipate any problems in the future."
In 1961 Catich's art once more came to the attention of Rome. The apostolic delegate wrote Bishop Hayes about a series of holy cards showing images of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and various saints in Catich's typical modern style. Hayes was told to "caution the priest in question that in his artistic activity he exercise more discipline in accord with the norms of the Holy Office" and "observe the precepts" of the Instruction on Holy Art. The bishop told the delegate that Fr. Catich had "promised to observe the precept set forth . .. and in proof of his sincerity he is withdrawing from circulation the series of holy cards."
Later that year the apostolic delegate discovered that The Catholic Messenger had used images similar to the holy cards to illustrate an article and he wrote the bishop about it. Hayes responded that, "The illustrations in question are indeed modern, but, in my opinion, they are not undignified nor grotesque; neither do they tend to diminish the piety and the devotion of the faithful. I have talked with many of our priests regarding this type of illustration produced by Father Catich. Some do not agree with his basic ideas of art; but I have met none who considered the illustrations a source of scandal." The Catholic Messenger still uses Catich images to illustrate articles, most recently the March 30, 2023 issue had his image of the risen Christ on the page that listed Holy Week services around the diocese.
Because of the controversy over his liturgical art, Fr. Catich's stations were not installed when the chapel was built in 1953. However, by the mid-1970s the controversy was old news and his fourteen stations were finally placed in the chapel. The images on some of the stations indicate that he likely created them in the 1950s and he had them in storage. Still there is a timeless quality to the images that still speak to us.
One of our guests last month was especially delighted to see the third station, Jesus falls the first time, where Catich portrayed a photographer capturing the event. Although his speed graphic camera is many generations older than an iPhone, in our generation few things happen that are not recorded on camera.
In the tenth station, Jesus is stripped of his garments. In the past it was not unusual for an artist to send a personal message through his art. Perhaps in an image with a large group of people, one of them would be a self-portrait. Or one of the artist's opponents would represent the villain in an image. Fr. Catich had earned a master of arts degree from the University of Iowa. However, for reasons lost to us he and the art faculty at Iowa did not get along. So in the tenth station Catich has a professor stripping the garments from Jesus. But before he began his work, the professor had put his books on the ground, and if you look closely at the cover of the book on the top of the pile it has a large letter I, for Iowa.
The original Catich twelfth station, Jesus dies on the cross, is now in the reconciliation room on the east side of the chapel. The large cross you see now had been in storage for a long time but when the chapel was renovated in 2006, it seemed a good time to use it. Its large size and central placement behind the altar remind us of the central importance of Jesus' sacrifice for us.
In the 1950s Catich wrote that, "It is dogma that our sins, in 1956, help crucify Christ. But it is difficult, indeed, to feel the force of this truth when we view Crucifixion scenes which, by freezing the meaning of the Crucifixion as a first-century event, encourage us to believe that the guilt belongs exclusively" to those who were present then. Christ should be portrayed "as a member of our household and our city, a person of our land and language." Hence the professor on a university chapel strips Jesus of his garments. In a set of stations he created for Regina High School in Iowa City, it is two students who strip Jesus of his garments.
We speak of the prayer these stations illustrate as the Way of the Cross. In Matthew's gospel Jesus said, "Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross, and follow me." Fr. Catich hoped that seeing ourselves in his contemporary images, we will understand better Jesus' call to discipleship and join Him on his Way of the Cross.