About a decade ago, a debate occurred in the public intellectual sphere between Dana Gioia, Paul Elie, Gregory Wolfe, and Randy Boyagoda on whether the Catholic imagination that so dominated the previous century was still active and alive. This good-natured internet dispute led Gioia, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, to gather his Catholic literary friends together at the University of Southern California to show the vitality of this seemingly absent, or at least hidden, imagination.
The inaugural “Future of the Catholic Imagination Conference” led to two further iterations. From these events, new journals have been established, such as Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, and new Catholic publishers, such as Wiseblood Books, have thrived. The Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola founded a graduate summer institute on “the Catholic imagination,” and even an MFA dedicated to the Catholic tradition was founded at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. All came from assembling these faithful literati at biennial meet-ups.
The fourth Catholic Imagination Conference will be held at the University of Dallas, from September 30 until October 1. It has been a staple of this event to bring back together friends from previous years, such as Gioia, Sarah Cortez, Phil Klay, Philip Metres, Sally Thomas, and others, while also introducing new writers each time. The 2022 Conference will feature Christopher Beha, Gloria Purvis, Uwem Akpan, Haley Stewart, Tsh Oxenreider, and a host of other notable Catholic luminaries, while recognizing that there is a lengthy list of those who could have also been invited. It is a beautiful problem to have too many worthy Catholic writers to invite and not enough space and time to hear from all of them.
In the interest of investing in the future of the Catholic imagination, current St. Thomas MFA students and University of Dallas undergraduate poets will read and share their work. There will also be open workshops led by James Matthew Wilson, Cynthia Haven, Uwem Akpan, and Joshua Hren. Additionally, a number of events will be available to watch and listen to online, such as a theater performance led by Renee Darline Roden and Brett Robinson (Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life); a live podcast recording by Jennifer Frey of Sacred and Profane Love, sponsored by the Institute for Human Ecology; a concert by award-winning pianist Helen Sung; and an interview with Chris Beha by Image’s James K. A. Smith. The interview will be printed in a future issue.
While the conference may begin with the future, the opening banquet will show gratitude to those who came before us. On the first evening of the conference, the Flannery O’Connor Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Barbara and Al Gelpi. The previous recipient was Paul Mariani.
The grand finale of the event is a stage reading of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, an award-winning play by Will Arbery, held at Irving Arts Center. The reading will be followed by a talk-back session with the director and cast, as well as Glenn Arbery, the president of Wyoming Catholic College and a Catholic writer.
Unlike other conferences, the forty-plus keynotes are merely accepting costs to cover travel and are foregoing their usual honorariums to be at this event. I mention such a detail not only to emphasize the humility of this group of devoted writers but also to demonstrate that these authors desire to be in community with one another, celebrating one another’s gifts and sharing the literature they love. Without the sponsorship of a half-dozen universities, magazines, independent presses (Angelico Books, Ignatius Press, and Slant Books, to name a few), and organizations (Catholic Culture Podcast, Collegium Institute, and Well-Read Moms—again, the list goes on!), we could not have organized this magnificent event.
Is the Catholic imagination alive and well? It sure seems to be the case.
Jessica Hooten Wilson is the inaugural Visiting Scholar of Liberal Arts at Pepperdine University and formerly Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas.
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