It should be no surprise that Catholicism, the faith of hundreds of millions of people, claims adherents with a wide variety of exceptional talents—scientists, artists, authors, athletes, business giants and movie and television celebrities. A number of these men and women and have forged lives and careers that reflect their God-centered view of the world and their determination to use their gifts to make a difference.
Here are a few examples from the past century.
What is now widely known as the Big Bang theory of the birth of the universe some 13.8 billion years ago was first proposed in 1927 by a Belgian priest, Monseigneur Georges Lemaitre, an astronomer and cosmologist.
Lemaitre, who lived from 1894 to 1966, suggested that the universe began to expand to what it is today in a cataclysmic explosion of a small, primeval “super atom.” Lemaitre’s theory was compatible with the Theory of General Relativity by Albert Einstein, who called it “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”
Lemaitre was not pleased when Pope Pius XII embraced his theory as scientific validation for the existence of God. He insisted on keeping separate science and religion as equally valid but distinct ways of interpreting the world, both of which he believed in.
“As far as I can see, such a theory remains outside any metaphysical or religious question,” Lemaitre said. “ It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God…It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”
Pop artist Andy Warhol, who died in 1987, is famous for his canvasses of Campbell’s soup cans and the varied shaded likenesses of actress Marilyn Monroe. He also was an ardently practicing Byzantine Catholic, according to a profile of him that Catholic News Agency ran in August. The story said Warhol’s art is “best understood through the lens of faith and iconography” that is a form of worship in the Byzantine Church.
Born in 1928 to Catholic immigrants from an area now called Slovakia, Warhol continued to practice his faith as an adult in New York where his diaries record he attended weekly Mass and volunteered at a parish soup kitchen.
Warhol worked on several explicitly religious pieces, including reinventions of Raphael’s “Madonna” and da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”
Flannery O’Connor is considered one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th century. Born in 1925 to Catholic parents in Savannah, Georgia, O’Connor’s novels and short stories were usually set in the rural American South and often explore the relationship between the individual and God.
Although she fought lupus, an autoimmune disease, for more than a decade and died in 1964 at the age of 39, O’Connor received many honors for her work, including the O. Henry Award in 1957 and the National Book Award for The Complete Stories, published posthumously in 1971. O’Connor’s first novel, “Wise Blood,” which portrays a journey of redemption for the prophet of a church without Christ, was turned into a film in 1979.
”Apocalypse Now” and “West Wing” star Martin Sheen told an interviewer for the Irish Times he was raised as a Catholic and prayed a family rosary most nights as a child. But he said he had let his religion slip until he had a heart attack that nearly killed him at the age of 40.
Sheen, now 75, said he started going to Mass again out of fear that he would die, but he later began practicing his faith with more commitment. He said the changes that had come with Vatican II were strange to him, but he was drawn to “the church of service, of human rights…it’s the church of Mother Theresa…”
Sheen’s spirituality shines in the film “The Way” that he starred in and was directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. The film is about an American doctor, played by Sheen, who hikes the ancient pilgrimage trail called the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain with other pilgrims who discover themselves and God along the way.
Mother Angelica, born poor in 1923 as Rita Antoinette Rizzo in Canton, Ohio, founded EWTN Global Catholic Network.
At the age of 16, she began suffering from a stomach ailment and the pain persisted, peaking in its severity the night of January 17, 1943. She believed that when the pain vanished the following morning it was a miracle, which led to her calling to become a nun.
In 1944 she entered the Adoration Monastery of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. Then while cleaning floors she suffered a severe injury to her spine. Facing surgery, she promised Jesus that if she walked again she would build a monastery for His glory. Back on her feet, she fulfilled her promise by establishing Our Lady of Angels Monastery in Irondale, Alabama in 1962. She also built another monastery in Hanceville, Alabama.
In the mid-1970s Mother Angelica began videotaping programs for television and producing a Catholic teaching series for a CBS affiliate channel that also aired on Christian broadcasting channels.
Then she began building her own cable channel, converting a garage behind the monastery in Irondale into a television studio. Eternal Word Television Network, launched in 1981, has grown into the largest religious network in the world, transmitting programming 24 hours a day to more than 230 million homes in 144 countries and territories, according to its website.
Mother Angelica hosted shows on EWTN until she suffered a stroke in 2001. In 2009 she received a papal medal of honor from Pope Benedict XVI.