Bringing the Pope to Your Child's 1st Communion

Illustrator Speaks of Transmitting Benedict XVI's Words in a Children's Book

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By Kathleen Naab

SAN FRANCISCO, California, MAY 4, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI himself has noted that it is the season for First Communions, and has given advice for making it a faith-filled celebration.

Those looking to follow his advice might consider a gift that will help young First Communicants to grow in their appreciation of the Eucharist.

Amy Welborn and illustrator Ann Kissane Engelhart have created a children's book using the Pope's own words as he spoke with a group of children in Rome who had recently made their First Communion. "Friendship With Jesus" is a large-size, 25-page book, with a simple question and answer on each page, accompanied by Kissane Engelhart's watercolor drawings.

ZENIT spoke with Kissane Engelhart about the project, and also about her perspectives on Christian art in our day.

ZENIT: Your illustrations and this book have attempted to make a pope's words accessible to children. How possible is this venture? 

Kissane Engelhart: It was possible due to Pope Benedict’s sensitivity to the pastoral needs of his audience. The book is based on his answers to children’s questions about the Eucharist. His responses were profound, but in words that children can understand. The simplicity of his language and the imagery of his examples spoke to me as well, and thereby made my job as an illustrator easier. 

ZENIT: As an artist, how do you see your role in making something as mysterious as the Eucharist understandable for a child? 

Kissane Engelhart: I feel a responsibility to reflect the Pope’s words clearly and accurately through my paintings, while capturing something of the mystery and beauty of the sacrament. Watercolor, the medium that I work in, has an ethereal quality well-suited to the subject matter, and enabled me to describe the ephemeral character of rising incense, the sun setting over St. Peter’s Square as well as the innocence of a child preparing for First Holy Communion, in a way that captures a child's imagination.

ZENIT: You speak of being fascinated with Benedict's writings. What is it about him that has most caught your attention? 

Kissane Engelhart: My theological background was virtually nonexistent before I began reading Pope Benedict’s books and papal writings. I found his perspective to contain fresh, new ways of looking at Scripture and Church teaching, as it relates to our daily life, opening windows of understanding. His clever use of metaphors is surprising and provocative. I am also continually struck by the humble, kindly and authentic way he interacts with the faithful ... particularly young people. He radiates a joyful yet quiet charisma.

ZENIT: This Pope is a great advocate of "beauty" and is constantly encouraging the arts -- whether in sacred music, or in liturgy, or in other areas. From an artist's perspective, is there hope that Christian art can again regain some of the glory it had in past centuries? 

Kissane Engelhart: I just returned from a trip to Italy. With that in mind, frankly, it is difficult to imagine how we could ever reproduce the extraordinary influence the Church had on the culture, particularly in the areas of art and architecture as is reflected in the glorious churches of Europe. But there is hope! In recent centuries, art has been associated with rebellion, especially against institutions, so many of the important artists had complicated relationships with the Church. But now, paradoxically, I can see many artists, especially writers, musicians and filmmakers who are rebelling from the banality of the present culture, and who are inspired by their faith to reflect something of the beauty and richness of the Gospel.

Today, the great challenge for artists is not a lack of inspiration, but a lack of funding. It is essential for the Church and for individual Catholics to appreciate, as Pope Benedict does, the importance of “beauty” in evangelization and to support and encourage its expression in the practice of their faith.

ZENIT: Do you have a sequel planned for "Friendship With Jesus"? 

Kissane Engelhart: Catholic Truth Society recently published our new book, "Be Saints! An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI," which is based on the wonderful talk he gave to students in the United Kingdom on his pastoral visit. It will be available in the U.S. soon through Ignatius Press. Amy Welborn and I also have other faith inspired projects that we are working on, some of which I researched while traveling in Italy.

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On the Net:
Friendship With Jesus (for sale only in the US and Canada): www.ignatius.com/Products/FWJ-H/friendship-with-jesus.aspx