Stand-up Apologist; Best of the 1800s

John Zmirak Called to Be Church’s Comedian

By Elizabeth Lev

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 23, 2008 ( In his 1980 novel “The Name of the Rose,” Umberto Eco dedicated a lengthy erudite section to the question, “Did Jesus Laugh?” Reading the works of Catholic author John Zmirak, he probably laughs a lot.

John Zmirak, a Queens-born author, journalist and apologist, regaled students and adults alike last week in Rome during the launch of his new book “The Grand Inquisitor.”

I spoke to Zmirak about how he reconciled a rapier wit with an ironclad faith, and was fascinated to hear the story of how this prickly pear of piety sprouted in the heart of 1970s Queens.

While other adolescents challenged authority by flaunting curfews or smoking, Zmirak was a youthful rebel for God. During his sophomore year, his religion teachers at his local Catholic high school began teaching notions contrary to the faith. Not being particularly well formed, Zmirak absorbed the doubts and contradictions until one day he was told that the transubstantiation — the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ — wasn’t real.

The 15-year-old student balked, remembering vividly his mother explaining that when the bells rang “the bread turns into God.” (This by the way, is a reminder of the centrality of the role of parents in the formation of children.)

Zmirak found a Catechism and read the Church’s teaching for himself. Outraged, the teenager began a letter-writing campaign to his local bishop, persevering in the face of indifference and even hostility. One can almost imagine Zmirak as an early Christian martyr, proclaiming his faith and poking fun at his persecutors even as he faced the lions in the arena.

Zmirak’s unique perspectives and fine mind won him a scholarship at Yale, where he faced the full gale of secular intelligentsia. But he soon realized that it wasn’t the finely reasoned arguments against the tenets of Catholicism that were weakening the faithful, but ridicule.

Zmirak has an unusual take on what undermined the faith of Catholics in America. “It wasn’t eroded by earnest atheists and intellectual attacks,” he states. “What broke down ordinary people was a thousand clever comedic skits.”

So George Carlin and Saturday Night Live’s Father Guido Sarducci are responsible for the rise of the “cafeteria Catholics?” Zmirak says yes. “If you get people laughing, whatever your message is, it slides in unnoticed under the door.”

And thus Zmirak found his vocation. He thought that if humor could be used against the Church, then it could be used for it.

Two of the author’s most popular books are “The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living” and “The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey and Song.” Like handbooks for fraternity boys, these books dream up parties, games and drinking activities, all laced with good humor and anchored in Catholic belief.

The good-living guide is dedicated to the fine sense of humor of the Pope John Paul II. Zmirak points out that the Pope not only brought down the Iron Curtain, but also won hearts with his refreshing comedic moments. Even a generation raised on Seinfeld and Monty Python found him accessible.

His guide follows the liturgical calendar with hilarious takes on the individual feasts and recipes and party ideas to celebrate them. In the pages of his book, every day is a reason to make merry in the Catholic world.

The “Guide to Wine, Whiskey and Song” is the rarest of things — a successful sequel. From A to Z, Zmirak runs through the most well-stocked liquor cabinet imaginable, tracing every form of spirit and elixir back to its Christian origin. In the finest of traditions, he also provides drinking songs, the funniest being Monty Python’s “Philosopher Song” reworked to feature heretics.

Zmirak’s latest effort, “The Grand Inquisitor” is a different genre for him, a graphic novel. Dubbed the anti-“Angels and Demons,” the story is set during a conclave, involves kidnapped cardinals, but champions the cause of orthodoxy and fidelity to the magisterium.

“The Grand Inquisitor” features all the staples of a good noir thriller — dark, graphic design, striking portraits and flashes of razor sharp wit — but contrary to genre which invariably transmits an anti-Christian message, Zmirak’s story is rooted in love for the Church.

After several days with John Zmirak, it became clear that a deep faith and great intelligence provide ballast for what seems to be Christendom’s first stand-up comic. A refreshing reminder of how it takes all kinds to make the Catholic Church.

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Pride in Being Italian

While universally acknowledged as the historical epicenter of many artistic movements, Italy seems to have fallen off the map during the modern age. But a new exhibition at the former papal stables aims to prove that the Italian artists of the 19th century had nothing to fear from their northern European counterparts.

The exhibit, titled ‘800, the Italian expression for the 1800s, explores the century that saw Italy become a unified nation. About 75 works produced from the northernmost regions down to the furthest reaches of Sicily, proudly display the best Italy had to offer in this era.

With so many beautiful works by the most famous artists of the age, it becomes difficult to select which to mention. The Italians visiting the exhibit gasped as they turned each corner, amazed at the array of chef d’oeuvres assembled for this event.

The first sign that this was going to be a spectacular show came as we reached the top of the stairs, only to see dozens of people gaping in awe at the huge canvass hanging over the ramp. “The Fourth Estate” by Pelizza da Volpedo, one of the most emblematic images of its age, had been brought to the exhibition.

An enormous eight by 15 feet, this dramatic canvas represents the workers of Italy marching into the future. They leave the darkness of a troubled century behind, striding, some confidently, some with diffidence, into the light.

Pelizza used a technique called divisionism, an Italian version of impressionism to paint this work, capturing the beautiful light effects of the French while remaining faithful to the strong Italian figurative tradition.

Italy began the 19th century laboring under Napoleon’s yoke. The self-styled emperor had carved Italy up among his family members, giving Florence to his sister, the Kingdom of Naples to his brother and making his stepson Eugène Beauharnais the king of Italy, a state formed from Venice and Milan.

After looting every collection and church in Italy, Napoleon sniffed at Italy’s greatest sculptor Antonio Canova, proclaiming that no good painters were left in Italy, all the talent was now possessed by France.

Canova, who had not only replaced the lost statues, but had also been funding Italian painters out of his own resources, was quick to retort, “We too still have valiant men in art.”

Andrea Appiani, the Italian response to Jean Louis David, Napoleon’s favorite painter, demonstrates the Italian skill in drawing combined with the rich color effects associated with Venice in everything from his portraits to his mythological scenes. In his portrait of Napoleon, the Milanese Appiani masterfully uses the gold trim in Napoleon’s cuffs and lapels to imbue conqueror’s face with a warm glow.

The Congress of Vienna in 1814 brought an end to the French domination of Italy and a restoration of the monarchies. Italy, however, found itself with a new foreign master, Austria, which either directly controlled or strongly influenced every territory on the peninsula.

Enter the Italian Romantics. As Italy began to formulate dreams of independence, stories of old heroes and dramatic insurrections became the new targets for the painter’s brush. After the first rebellions against Austria were brutally suppressed, Alessandro Manzoni wrote his masterpiece “The Betrothed,” a tale of love amid foreign occupation and persecution in 17th-century Milan, intended to mirror his own times.

Francesco Hayez, Italy’s greatest contribution to 19th-century art began his career in these years painting the “Lampugnani Conspiracy,” which depicts the assassination of the tyrannical duke of Milan in 1476.

Hayez’ career would span the whole century and his precise brushstroke and vivid colors would illustrate its greatest events and personages. His searching portrait of Alessandro Manzoni is one of the highlights of the show, while his most famous work, “The Kiss,” documents the alliance between Victor Emmanuel II and Napoleon III, king of France.

As Italy claimed a national identity, an interest in painting the unique beauty of the Italian landscape grew proportionately. The finest exponents of this genre were the Macchiaoli. Mostly based in Florence, these painters captured the bright sunlight illuminating patches of villages or rolling hills, a sight that still inebriates visitors to Italy today.

But the 19th century was a time of revolution and bloodshed. The hardworking Italians who loved their land and their history were fighting against their common enemy of Austria as well among themselves. Secret sects such as the Carbonari fomented rebellion, while Statesman Giuseppe Mazzini tried to convince the Italians to publicly unite and fight their battle for unification in daylight.

Giuseppe Garibaldi emerged as a popular hero all the Italians could warm to. Several different masters capture the various facets of Garibaldi’s appeal in the show, from Odoardo Borrani‘s peaceful image of bourgeois ladies sewing the red shirts of the rebels, to Domenico Induno’s broad cast of disillusioned Italians reading the Bulletin of the Peace of Villafranca.

The melancholy nature of the age was best expressed by Silvestro Lega, in the “Death of Mazzini” as the one of the protagonists of Italy’s unification lies weak and alone in his checked bathrobe and humble surroundings.

As someone well outfitted with anti-papal radar, I was surprised and delighted to find no undertone of hostility, no stories of Church tyranny. The exhibit focuses on positives not negatives, perhaps due to the president of the show’s scientific committee, Antonio Paolucci, the new director of Vatican museums.

The backdrop of the 18th-century unification of Italy was the gradual dissolution of the Papal States. Anti-clerical sentiment ran high during the age as Garibaldi vowed “or Rome or Death,” determined to wrest Rome from the Popes who had governed it for over a millennium.

Watching the Italians at the show only added to the enjoyment. As they revisited their own history, studied their heroes and admired works that had been staples in their grade school books, they swelled with pride recognizing their role in the great historical happenings of the age.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Italian Constitution. Fittingly, this nation which led in visual culture for centuries, uses beautiful art to underscore the unification of the Italian people.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].

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