Continuing the History of Jesuit Artists in the 21st Century

By PJ Williams

  The Miracles of St Ignatius of Loyola, circa 1617/18      By Peter Paul Rubens
Since the early days of the Society of Jesus, art has played an integral role, not only in classrooms in Jesuit schools throughout the world, but also as a medium through which Jesuit artists themselves could grow closer to God.

“By the late 16th century, the Jesuits became the most prolific patrons and producers of arts in the world,” said Fr. John O’Malley, SJ, co-editor of The Jesuits and the Arts 1540-1773 and author of The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present. This was a major accomplishment for a religious order that was only 50 years old. So, how did a group of men set on bringing people closer to God become leaders in the arts? 

“By building new churches, they became involved with architecture and painting. By building schools, they became involved in theater, music and dance. Through the missions in places like Spanish America, they started to use music as a tool to help spread the Gospel,” explained Fr. O’Malley. “The Jesuits were pastoral pragmatists, ready to respond to circumstances and meet people where they were.” 

Over the course of nearly 500 years, Jesuits have used a wide range of artistic platforms to reach out to people seeking God and to express themselves and their relationship with the Lord. For the past few months, the USA Northeast Province has been highlighting the work of Jesuit artists from different disciplines through a three-part series entitled Jesuit and the Arts. “The response of those who have attended each Jesuits and the Arts event has been very enthusiastic,” said Fr. Dennis Yesalonia, SJ, executive director for advancement for the USA Northeast Province and creator of the series.  “Jesuits have long used artistic media to enhance the liturgical life of the Church to reveal in human form what is also sacred.”

The events offered three featured Jesuit artists the chance to share their talents with friends of the province and to discuss ways that the arts have informed their spirituality. 

Ryan Duns, SJ: The Musician

Ryan Duns, SJ, and Irish Harpist Máiréad Loughnane Doherty
While teaching the catechism to students in Spain, St. Juan de Avila would add a singing component to make learning more enjoyable. When the early Jesuits heard about this, they quickly followed suit and started to use music in their ministry as well.   

“Like dancing, once you lock into the rhythm and you follow the music itself, it unlocks something within us. The power of the beat is a language beyond words - you surrender to something that you didn’t create, and that’s what you do in prayer,” explained Jesuit scholastic Ryan Duns.

Duns, who has been playing the Irish tin whistle since the age of eight, kicked off the Jesuits and the Arts series along with renowned Irish Harpist Máiréad Loughnane Doherty. Together they shared the history of the Celtic people of Ireland. 

Like St. Avila, Ryan has amassed a following due to his skill as a musician. But instead of singing to teach the catechism, he teaches people how to play the tin whistle with a series of videos on YouTube.  “Back in 2006 I was at Fordham teaching a class on the intro to the tin whistle,” said Ryan. “We met once a week but there were an enormous number of students that signed up. I couldn’t give every student the individual attention they needed so I turned to YouTube.” Since 2006 he has shot and uploaded dozens of videos teaching viewers how to play the tin whistle, while showing his skill with the instrument. Ryan wishes to show people that religious life does not always have to be dour and serious, but can instead be lively and creative.

“I pray as I play,” Duns said. “Ultimately in my life the two are synonymous. Playing music reflects my interiority, a route of access to the sacred, where I’m completely present. Music speaks for me, and I give up control and let it do the work spiritually.” 

Fr. Robert VerEecke, SJ: The Dancer

Dancer and choreographer
Fr. Robert VerEecke, SJ
It is rare in Western Christianity for people to associate dancing with spirituality. For many, the unification of the two might seem out of place. “The irony is that Catholic liturgy has so much choreography - the dance of the Mass,” said dancer and choreographer Fr. Robert VerEecke, SJ. Fr. VerEecke teaches homiletics and liturgical practices to seminarians, and part of that, he explained, is, “how to move during the liturgy.” 

Fr. VerEecke does not see the marriage of spirituality and dancing to be odd at all, pointing to Psalm 150, where believers are encouraged to, “praise God with timbrel and dance.” Like Ryan Duns, his spirituality intersects with rhythm - he has been dancing since he was a child because it was something that he loved, and he did not get any formal training until later in life, after he entered the Society.

In 1971 Fr. VerEecke was able to take a ballet class while studying at the University of Santa Clara. The instructor of the class was going through a personal loss at the time and expressed many of her emotions through dance. It did not take much for Fr. VerEecke to connect this with spirituality. “I noticed a similarity with the language of prayer and movement and dance. In prayer, the orientation is an openness and a sense of longing for God. There’s also a sense of winding down, an extension and contraction similar to the movement of dance. I took that and, today, I describe it as my epiphany moment,” recalled Fr. VerEecke.

Fr. VerEecke has used this correlation to produce pieces such as For the Greater Glory of God, a dance where he takes on the role of the Society’s founder St. Ignatius Loyola, who was known to dance from time to time. Additionally, in 1978 Fr. VerEecke started the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble, a nonprofit which works to integrate dance with religious expression in a way that is accessible to everyone.

Fr. Sammy Chong, SJ: The Painter

Fr. Sammy Chong, SJ
In the history of the Church, art has been used to illustrate complex concepts and tell stories in a visual manner. Works like the Sistine Chapel, however, were made possible thanks to religious patrons who sponsored artists that made vast religious concepts into a reality. This relationship has sometimes been a cause of tension between artists and their religious patrons. Artists would have one vision for what they wanted to produce, while patrons would have another. Fr. Sammy Chong, SJ, has been able to circumvent this by being a painter who also happens to be a Jesuit priest.  

Coming from an artistic family, he did some painting but, like Fr. VerEecke, Fr. Chong did not pursue any formal training for his art until he entered the Society. “I knew conceptually that the Society of Jesus, since its foundation, supported the arts, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I could pursue this path.” Thanks to the encouragement of his Jesuit provincial, Fr. Chong was able to dive deeper into the history and training involved in painting and eventually continue his education at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Fr. Chong sees his painting as something spiritual, almost like a retreat. “I slow down, I get silent within, and at that moment I can reflect upon life in general, world happenings, my relationship with God and others, the Gospel, any homilies I am working on, and so forth,” says Fr. Chong. “In other words, practicing my art keeps me spiritually grounded and engaged.”

While painting helps him with his spirituality, the reverse is true as well. “I always invite God to the contemplation stage of my artistic process,” explained Fr. Chong. “I ask God for His thoughts about the contents, colors, composition of the piece, about my intentions in making what I am doing, etc. In many ways, these moments are very prayerful.” 

Fr. Chong finished the Jesuits and the Arts series on Wednesday, April 22, with an exhibition of some of his works. While not all of his pieces are overtly religious, Fr. Chong still includes a religious connection. “Finding God in all things is at the core of the Ignatian spirituality,” he explains. “The challenge is to actually unveil God’s presence in our human endeavors.” 

Above: Golden Calf, 2012 by Fr. Sammy Chong, SJ. Mixed media on plexiglass, three panels 20” x 24” x 9” Fr. Chong describes the work as, “part of a body of wall installations that explores the social, physical, and spiritual phenomena of disengagement in public places. In it I addressed the impact of anonymity, pleasure, and consumerism in our human identity."

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