‘Passion’ Producer’s Islam film

By Patrick Novecosky
National Catholic Register
June 28, 2009 Issue

Steve McEveety

Steve McEveety

Steve McEveety is no stranger to controversy. The veteran producer of films like Bella, Braveheart and We Were Soldiers has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. But he’s also taken heat for projects like The Passion of the Christ, which some groups charged as being anti-Semitic and too violent for the screen, and An American Carol, which lampooned liberals.

The latest project from McEveety’s Mpower Pictures is more akin to The Passion. Filmed in English and Farsi, The Stoning of Soraya M stars Jim Caviezel and hits the big screen on June 26. Controversial in its own right, it tells the true story of a Muslim woman unfairly accused of adultery in a small Iranian village circa 1986. The film took second runner-up at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, finishing just behind the Oscar-winning megahit Slumdog Millionaire. Register correspondent Patrick Novecosky spoke to McEveety from his office in Santa Monica, Calif.

Your father and uncle were in the movie business, so you literally grew up in a Hollywood family. Was the faith part of your upbringing?

Yes. I was brought up in a Catholic family, and we went to Mass every week. I went to Catholic grammar school and high school, and then to Loyola Marymount, which is a Catholic university. So I think it was drilled into me quite properly. I ignored the Church for a while when I was young, then came back. The faith is bred into you, and that foundation is always there. When it’s time to turn to the spiritual side, you have a direction to go in.

You’ve worked on a number of films with faith themes — Braveheart, Bella, The Passion. What’s your definition of a good film?

The essential aspect of any film being good is that it’s entertaining. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything. After that, you can layer it with all sorts of cultural, personal or moral opinions. That’s how films can lead people in all sorts of different directions. They are layered with messages that people don’t realize are there. For me, anything that shines a light on God is the right direction. The more covert that light is, the more effective you might be.

My faith certainly has had an effect on my work. How could it not? And part of it is chance — what doors are opened, and what doors are closed. That’s God’s providence. I’ve been able to work on some great movies and thankfully avoid others. I’ve been blessed.

Did you found Mpower in order to make movies that appeal to a Christian audience?

Not really. My taste in art just does that naturally. I make movies that appeal to me. All of my movies, with the exception of The Passion of the Christ, are not Christian films. The rest of them have Christian values in them — the mention of God or the suggestion that there’s a higher being — because that’s who I am. So I can’t avoid that; it’s going to come out in the films I have control over.

How does the Christian faith fit with your new movie, The Stoning of Soraya M?

A film is made by many filmmakers. I’m one of several on this film. If you’d ask the director or the actors, you’d get a different answer. For me, it’s a biblical film, a New Testament film.

Although it takes place in the Muslim world, it’s a very Christian film. The title gives a bit of the story away. The woman who is stoned to death in the film carries her cross, and she carries it quite well. In the end, she is “crucified.” Her last detectable words are to her God. So, in that regard, it’s very much a Jesus story. It may never dawn on my fellow filmmakers, but that is very evident to me.

Many of the surrounding characters are much like the ones that Christ confronted. There are good people; there are bad people; there are people who denounce this woman and accuse her unfairly. There’s a lot of commonality there. Soraya is really quite Christ-like, and that’s what drew me to this film. But the movie is about much more than that. It’s about a victim and bullies. In the course of our lives, we’ve all been both.

There are some striking similarities to The Passion — the actor (Caviezel), the location in the Middle East, the violence, the score by composer John Debney, the foreign language. Was any of that on purpose?

Not really. I just loved the script and felt like the story must be told. Debney is my buddy. I grew up with him. I brought him onto The Passion. He’s absolutely one of the best composers in the world, and I got him to do this film. It was a blessing.

We hired two high-profile actors for the character Caviezel plays. Both accepted the part, and each one of them decided three days later to drop the part. They were living in Europe, and their families were concerned for the potential danger of playing the role. I was set to go into production in three weeks, and I didn’t have an actor. Caviezel is my buddy, and our kids go to the same school. I ran into him on the day the second star backed out. I explained what happened, and he said, “Let me read it.” So he read it and said, “I’ll do this part.” He turned out to be just perfect for the role.

The director always wanted to do the film in Farsi, the native language, so people would feel like they were really there. And he was absolutely right. You experience this film rather than watch it.

Before The Passion and Slumdog Millionaire, foreign language films didn’t appeal to a mainstream audience in the U.S. Have they opened doors for films like The Stoning?

You’re probably right. Movies are becoming more international. People here in the United States are responding to international-themed films. The Stoning of Soraya M was the second runner-up at the Toronto Film Festival, which I was pretty excited about. It was quite a feat in itself, but I was kind of disappointed that we didn’t win. Some “stupid movie” called Slumdog Millionaire beat us. I didn’t know what that was at the time. Now I’m not feeling so bad since it went on to win Best Picture and seven other Oscars.

Before The Passion, I’m not aware of films in foreign languages made by Hollywood filmmakers. I think it was one of the first. We have a different way of making movies than Europeans do. Films done by Hollywood filmmakers in a native language might be a little more accessible to an American audience.

You’ve screened The Stoning for a number of groups — secular, Christian and Muslim. What has the reaction been like?

It is way above normal in terms of how people rate the film, but the personal reactions have been just incredible. Across the board, people are stunned at the movie. I don’t know how many people have told me it’s the most powerful film they’ve ever seen.

On the flip side, any time you make a statement like this film does, you’re going to get people who disagree or are upset or offended. About 4% or 5% are either angry with us, or the movie made them angry, but there isn’t anyone who isn’t emotionally involved.

Some people can’t handle the stoning scene. They’ll close their eyes or leave, then come back. But even those people thank me for making the movie. No matter what people’s reactions were after seeing this movie, it’s stronger and more positive two days later. It’s a movie that doesn’t leave you. If there are movies you don’t forget in your life, I think this is one of them. Unfortunately, we don’t have the funding to advertise, so we’re relying on word of mouth and reviews. If we do well with both of those, the film will catch on.

What’s down the road for Mpower and Steve McEveety?

We’ve got about 20 films in development right now, including several family films. We just finished filming one called Snowmen (Ray Liotta, Christopher Lloyd). It’s fun and sweet. My dad worked at Disney, so I grew up around family films. It’s a blast for me.

We’re also doing a movie on spiritual warfare based on [Rwandan genocide survivor] Immaculée Ilibagiza’s best-selling book Left to Tell. We have a screenplay; we’re raising money, and we’re hoping to start shooting soon. We really want to get into her soul and explore what she went through spiritually to get to a point where she could forgive.

Patrick Novecosky writes from Naples, Florida.

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Obama and the new holocaust

Piles of shoes several feet high filled a glassed-in room. Next to it was another room filled with eyeglasses. Then I saw the room filled with human hair—clumps of hair and even long braided hair which had been shaved off of women destined for the gas chambers. Despite the fact that it was over 50 years old, the braid looked freshly cut. Coming face-to-face with the remnants of horror and mass murder is life changing. The camp commandant at Auschwitz testified at the Nuremberg Trials that up to 3 million people died there. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has revised this figure to 1.1 million.

My 1997 visit to the Nazis’ largest death camp in southern Poland is still fresh in my mind after more than 12 years. The memories came rushing back after hearing of news reports of President Obama’s June 5 visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.

Buchenwald is a place “where people were deemed inhuman because of their differences,” Obama said. “These sights have not lost their horror with the passage of time.” Even though more than 50 years have passed, he said, “our grief and our outrage over what happened have not diminished. I will not forget what I have seen here today.”

The main gate at the Auschwitz death camp

The main gate at the Auschwitz death camp

He’s right. My experience left me with the same feeling. I left changed forever after seeing the ovens that the Nazis used to cremate the remains and erase their crimes. It was almost surreal to walk under Auschwitz’s iron gate crowned with the infamous motto “Arbeit macht frei” — work brings freedom — an obvious lie … and everyone involved knew it.

There are no words to describe the horror of standing in a place where millions of innocent human lives were so callously extinguished. It’s important that the world never forget the holocaust in order that it may never happen again. Civilized human beings should never permit the wholesale slaughter of a race of people under any circumstances.

If you’ve ever stood in front of an abortion mill and recognized what goes on inside, the feeling of horror is no different than that of visiting a Nazi death camp. There’s no question that the Nazis were good at killing. The abortion industry, however, has perfected it. Their efficiency would have left even the most hardened Nazi in awe. Hitler himself would be proud. Every state in the union has “clinics” where women can come to have their child exterminated. There were over 1 million abortions in the U.S. last year — 50 million dead since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the new holocaust in 1973.

Since taking office in January, Obama has consistently made pro-abortion appointments to key administration positions like the head of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. One of his first acts was to reverse the Mexico City Policy, sending millions of dollars to fund abortions overseas. Obama issued an executive order on Jan. 22 reversing the Bush administration policy that bans the use of federal dollars by non-governmental organizations that discuss or provide abortions outside of the United States.

Life is good. Really good.

Life is good. Really good.

Interestingly, despite his popularity, Obama has shown himself to be incredibly out of touch with the American public. A spate of polls in May revealed that the majority of Americans are against abortion on demand.  A Gallup poll, conducted from May 7-10, found that about 51% of Americans call themselves “pro-life” and 42% “pro-choice.” This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking that question in 1995.

If this trend continues, it’s conceivable that within my lifetime, a future president of the United States will make a pilgrimage at a former abortion mill, lay a wreath and echo Obama’s very words: “I will not forget what I have seen here today. These sights have not lost their horror over time.”

Let’s hope. And let’s pray that this comes to pass.

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Kresta in the Afternoon

Al Kresta, Ave Maria Radio

Al Kresta, Ave Maria Radio

Al Kresta, host of Kresta in the Afternoon, interviewed me on Monday, May 11, while I was in Amman, Jordan, with Pope Benedict XVI.

Kresta is the President and CEO of Ave Maria Radio, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His show is a nationally syndicated Catholic radio talk show. It’s carried by EWTN Radio and broadcast on Sirius Satellite Radio.

Click here to hear the entire 15-minute interview.

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Pilgrim of peace

Holy Father calls for Palestinian state during Holy Land pilgrimage

by Patrick Novecosky
Legatus Magazine
June 2009 Issue

Pope Benedict XVI stepped into the fray of Middle East politics by endorsing a Palestinian state during his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

During his May 15 farewell speech at the Tel Aviv airport, the Pope stressed the need for universal recognition of Israel’s right to exist and the Palestinians’ “right to a sovereign independent homeland.

“Let the two-state solution become a reality,” the Holy Father said, noting that six decades of bloodshed in the Holy Land has distressed him.

“No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No more terrorism! No more war!” he pleaded. “Instead, let us break the vicious circle of violence. Let there be lasting peace based on justice; let there be genuine reconciliation and healing.”

A model for peace

The impassioned speech was one of the many highlights of Pope Benedict’s May 8-15 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which began with a four-day stop in Jordan. In many ways, his visit mirrored that of Pope John Paul II, who visited Jordan and Israel in 2000.

Pope Benedict began his journey with a stop at Jordan’s Mount Nebo, where tradition says Moses gazed out upon the Promised Land before his death.

“It is appropriate that my pilgrimage should begin on this mountain.” This holy place, he said, should remind all Christians to “undertake a daily exodus from sin and slavery to life and freedom.”

The Pope visited a mosque in the Jordanian capital of Amman before participating in vespers at St. George Melkite Cathedral. It was inspiring to see the Jordanian Christians’ affection for the Holy Father. They shouted, waved flags and sang when he entered the cathedral. The applause was almost deafening.

More than 30% of Jordan’s 109,000 Catholics piled into Amman International Stadium on May 10 for the papal Mass. The youth presence was impressive. Thousands of young people cheered and sang long before the Holy Father’s arrival. A song written especially for the papal visit — “Benvenuto Benedetto in Jordania” (Welcome to Jordan, Benedict in Italian) — rang through the crowd dozens of times throughout the morning.

In his homily, the Pope exhorted the Middle Eastern Christians to stay in the Holy Land and give testimony to Jesus in this conflict-plagued region.

“Fidelity to your Christian roots, fidelity to the Church’s mission in the Holy Land demands of each of you a particular kind of courage: the courage of conviction, born of personal faith, not mere social convention or family tradition; the courage to engage in dialogue and to work side by side with other Christians in the service of the Gospel.”

In his farewell address in Amman on May 11, the Holy Father hailed Jordan as a model for peace and religious tolerance in the Middle East.

“I would like to encourage all Jordanians, whether Christian or Muslim, to build on the firm foundations of religious tolerance that enable the members of different communities to live together in peace and mutual respect,” he said.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has gone to great lengths to foster interreligious dialogue, the Pope said. “This spirit of openness … has contributed to Jordan’s far-sighted political initiatives to build peace throughout the Middle East.”

Two-state solution

The Holy Father wasted no time getting down to business after touching down in Israel. He called for a Palestinian state in his first speech. He went on to meet with other religious leaders, visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and celebrate Mass in Nazareth for about 50,000 pilgrims.

Together with Israeli president Shimon Peres, the Pope planted an olive tree at the presidential palace as a sign of the close relationship between Jews and Christians. He called this gesture, along with meeting with Holocaust survivors at the Yad Vashem memorial, the most memorable of his pilgrimage to Israel.

“So many Jews … were brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred,” he said. “That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten or denied.”

The Holy Father also met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian territories. He called the security wall separating Palestinians from Israelis “one of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands.” Acknowledging how hard it will be to achieve lasting peace, the Pope said said he had prayed “for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation.”

Patrick Novecosky is the editor of Legatus Magazine. He was in Jordan for Pope Benedict’s four-day visit to that country.

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The Dead Sea, the Red Sea & the desert

After spending the last three days in the rugged Jordanian outback, one thing is clear: My people (fair skinned Germanic types) were not made for the desert. Even though I live in Florida where the sun can bake anyone to a crisp, the hot, dry desert is no place for blondes … unless you’re T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia). But even he went home eventually.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll note that Pope Benedict left for Israel on Monday. I stayed behind to continue a press tour of Jordan sponsored by the Jordanian Tourism Board (JTB), accompanied by a four other American journalists, a JPB rep, and a local guide (Ibrahim) who could easily be mistaken for a wise-cracking American. He says he once lived in Pittsburgh, but who’s to know for sure.

Monday, May 11

Our local guides at Ajloun

Our local guides at Ajloun

After the Pope’s departure early this morning, we headed north to Ajloun . We visited a local business run by local women which produces hand-made high end soaps before setting out to explore more rugged terrain.

Monk caves near Ajloun, Jordan

Monk caves near Ajloun, Jordan

We saw caves once occupied by monks, the ruins of a 6th century church dedicated to the Old Testament prophet Elijah. It was in ruins, but contained an empty underground crypt and some newly discovered mosaics that had been hidden for centuries.

Arab entertainers at the Jerash Roman ruins

Arab entertainers at the Jerash Roman ruins

We stopped for lunch in Jerash — a city which boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years.

The ampitheater, Jerash ruins

The ampitheater, Jerash ruins

According to Ibrahim, our sagacious guide, it contains the best preserved Roman ruins outside of Rome itself. After spending a couple hours exploring the fallen city, I think I believe him.

Before going to bed, I did a quick calculation and figured out that it was about 10 am back in Saskatchewan, so I called my Dad to wish him a happy 72nd birthday. He was surprised to hear from me. Thankfully, I was able to call via the Internet using a headset for only 2.1 cents/minute. Skype rocks!

Tuesday, May 12

Early this morning, we checked out of the hotel in Amman and drove down. Literally. By mid-morning, we were at the Dead Sea, elevation nearly 1,400 feet below sea level. It’s the lowest spot on earth (with air, of course). At 1,240 ft deep, it’s the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. JTB arranged for us to take use the luxurious facilities at the Mövenpick — one of the high-end resorts on the Jordanian side of the Sea.

A few of us wandered down to the beach to check out the salty waters and the world-famous Dead Sea mud, which is apparently pure gold for your skin. Black gold, that is. My official photographer, Greg Tarczynski, has some pictures of me covered in the stuff. I’ll post them soon, so come back to this entry in a week or so. We packed up after lunch and drove a few hours south to the Red Sea port of Aqaba before the sun set on another beautiful day in Jordan.

Wednesday, May 13

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

The most physically challenging day of our tour began at the 1st century BC city of Petra, about 75 miles northeast of Aqaba. It’s a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2,000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the silk, spice, and other trade routes that linked China, India, and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Rome.

I took a lot of pictures, but they don’t do the site justice. Among the most impressive was The Treasury, which was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. At 100 ft wide and 145 ft high, it dwarfs  everything around it. Called Al Khazneh by the Arabs, it was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king.

At the Treasury, Petra, attempting to be Solomon

At the Treasury, Petra, attempting to be Solomon

The next adventure on the trail was not for the faint of heart or weary of feet. Petra’s largest monument (165 ft high and 150 ft wide), the Monastery or Ad-Deir in Arabic is an hour’s hike (800-900 steps) up a rugged trail covered with loose rock. It sits 3,750 above sea level. The climb was worth it. Dating from the 1st century BC, it was most likely a Nabataean temple. However, apparently Christian monks lived there during the Roman era.

The massive "Monastery" is impressive at 3,750 above sea level

The massive "Monastery" is impressive at 3,750 above sea level

Atop a cliff overlooking The Monastery, Petra

Atop a cliff overlooking The Monastery, Petra

We weary hikers felt like we were on a movie set all day. In the afternoon, we shifted from Indiana Jones to the Lawrence of Arabia. Jordan’s most famous desert, Wadi Rum, was the setting for the classic 1962 Lawrence Oliver movie about T.E. Lawrence who called the area “vast, echoing and god-like.” The name means high (rum) valley (wadi).

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Wadi Rum

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Wadi Rum

Our intepid group loaded onto the back of a canopy-covered 4X4  pickup truck and headed out from the visitors center to the desert. A convoy of 1970s and ’80s modified 4X4s followed with dozens of tourists to explore the expansive sea of rocky peaks. Wadi Rum is a maze of rock formations and hills that rise up from the desert floor up to 5,800 ft. One of the most impressive is called The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

At a bedouin camp, Wadi Rum

At a bedouin camp, Wadi Rum

I purchased a keffiyeh — official Arabic headgear — a black and white scarf which, when properly tied, protects your head, neck, and face from sun and sand. While it’s not approved for use in banks or airports, it sure did the trick for me with the wind and sand blowing on us as we drove through the desert.

We stopped at a bedouin (nomad) rest stop in the desert where they had various items for sale. In a separate tent, they offered free sweet hot tea. A couple men played a cool-sounding instrument. Check out the photo, and if you know what it’s called, let me know. One of our crew, Julie Rattey from Catholic Digest, bravely climbed aboard a camel. I was too busy with the tea and petroglyphs 100 yards away to take a turn.

Our ride, Wadi Rum

Our ride, Wadi Rum

We parked just a stone’s throw from a dry lakebed and a bedouin camp where some many tourists camped for the night.

The red sands of Wadi Rum

The red sands of Wadi Rum

The sun sets at Wadi Rum

The sun sets at Wadi Rum

By the time the sun was ready to drop over the horizon, about 50 people were watching in awe as it dropped below the horizon around 7:30 pm. The reddish orange glow in the sky almost matched my reddened cheeks and fried nose as another blessed day drew to a close in Jordan.

Thursday, May 14

After a grueling, sun-drenched day in the desert, it was time for a leisurely day … on the water. We joined a crew of about 20 Brazilian-Peruvian journalists who were on another JTB press tour. Most of them had also covered the papal visit to Jordan and had morphed into travel journalists … like yours truly.

We boarded a glass-bottomed boat and pushed off into the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea around 11:30 am. Within 30 minutes, we were sitting over blue, yellow and reddish coral (from which the Red Sea gets its name). Five minutes later, we floated over a shipwreck which had sprouted coral and other sea life. Small fish swam along under us. Apparently there are few large sea creatures in the Gulf of Aqaba. From our furthest point out, we could see four countries — Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I felt like a world traveler just sitting there out in the Gulf!

A few Brazilians rented scuba equipment and a dozen of us jumped in for a little snorkeling in the frigid water. The crew put out a spread of salads, hummus, and grilled chicken kebabs and sausage kebabs. We docked and by mid-afternoon, we were on terra firma once again. It’s a rough life. Perhaps one day I will also convert into a travel journalist … but only if I can take my wife and kids with me!

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Cartoonist draws on faith

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Breen

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Breen

Steve Breen and his wife, Cathy, had just finished a 54-day novena to St. Joseph when they got the news that he had won his second Pulitzer Prize.

Breen’s cartoons are nationally syndicated and regularly appear in The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. Pulitzer judges picked Breen “for his agile use of a classic style to produce wide-ranging cartoons that engage readers with power, clarity and humor.”

A lifelong Catholic, born in 1970, the nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist regularly draws cartoons celebrating his faith. His Easter cartoon this year, for example, showed a silhouetted cross at sunrise on Calvary with the caption: “Sustainable power source.”

He spoke with Register correspondent Patrick Novecosky from his office at The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Was the Catholic faith central to your growing up in the Breen house?

Yes, it was. I had a strong Catholic upbringing. I grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., as the second of eight children. We were your church-every-Sunday, fast-at-Lent, family-Rosary Catholics. We said grace before every meal, prayers before bed, and have a great loving mother who read to us about the saints and taught us the faith.

I went to Catholic elementary school, but my formation there was a little wishy-washy. It wasn’t until I got into college that I got stronger into my faith. That seems counterintuitive because that’s where a lot of young Catholics seem to drift away. But for some reason, I started to get more and more into my faith when I was going to the University of California, Riverside. I went to confession regularly, the Newman Center for Mass, and visited churches in the area.

My cousin was in the seminary, and we would have great theological discussions. So, I grew tremendously in my faith in my early 20s. One of the reasons may have been all the prayers I was saying to find a job and a spouse. Those prayers lifted me to a higher spiritual plateau. I did more spiritual reading, like Introduction to the Devout Life, and I’d defend the faith in discussions with my friends. I’ve always been a proud Catholic and stood out from my peers because of my faith. Let’s face it: Southern California isn’t known as a bastion of traditional Catholicism.

Did you draw a lot as a kid?

Yes, ever since I was 6 or so. As I got into elementary school, I started drawing more for my friends and developing a reputation as being a good artist. I loved the attention. I thought it was fabulous to have something that was special to me. My gift for drawing helped set me apart, and it’s really nice for a young person to have that. It gives them confidence and self-esteem.

I was always able to draw Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Then, as I got into junior high, did more Mad magazine stuff, cartoons of friends and teachers; I created my own cartoon strips — that kind of stuff. I loved to entertain back then and make my friends laugh.

You were planning on becoming a high school history teacher. How did you get started as a cartoonist?

At age 19, I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist. I was drawing editorial cartoons for my college newspaper at the time. One of my first ones ran in Newsweek, and that really put the wind in my sails and made me determined to try it as a career. I focused on it like a laser beam, but I couldn’t find a job. There was a recession going on in the early ’90s, so I spent another couple years in college working on a teaching credential. All the while, I was sending out my cartoons to newspapers all over North America that did not have a cartoonist. Literally everywhere, from Hawaii to Maine.

Finally, the Asbury Park Press called me, and they said, “We like your stuff. Can we use one of these?” I would boldly do cartoons on local issues or politicians, so I did some New Jersey issues. They ran a few, which developed into “Would you like to come out here and do an internship?” That developed into a full-time job doing cartoons one day a week and doing pagination the rest of the time. After a year or two, I became a full-time cartoonist. I met my wife in New Jersey, so it turned out to be a really good thing.

How does your faith inform how you perceive the news and interpret that in your cartoons?

Cartooning is all about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. It’s sticking up for the little guy, and that is one of the basic principles of Christianity. I try to show a respect for life in all my work. I’m consistently pro-life on everything from the death penalty to abortion to stem cells and euthanasia — even to being in favor of gun control and [opposing] unjust wars. I think that’s a consistent theme and a Catholic theme.

You dedicated your recent Pulitzer win to your fellow cartoonists across the country who have been laid off. You also admitted that, despite your success, your own position isn’t guaranteed. How does your faith sustain you in these tough times?

God will provide for those who are faithful. He may not always give you what you want, but he will give you what you need. Cathy and I recently finished a 54-day novena to St. Joseph, and right on the heels of it, I won three national awards, including the Pulitzer, so you can draw your own conclusions. Prayer really works, and it’s something that will sustain you — a sustainable power source.

Your editor said, “Steve’s talent lies in his ability to poke fun without getting personal.” Is it a challenge to stay fair and honest in your work without being mean-spirited?

It is, because sometimes you have to pull yourself back, take a pause, look at the cartoon, and ask yourself if it’s fair. Sometimes I’ll look at it and say, “No, it’s not fair. I shouldn’t say this or I should adjust that.” That has happened. Sometimes my editor will point it out to me. If you’re just out for blood or being mean-spirited in the cartoon, you can lose people — especially if you do it on a consistent basis. You’ll come to be known as the cartoonist who is nasty. It’s not that I want to be liked; I don’t want people to write me off as being too harsh and nasty. If I could tone the cartoon down and use some other device, I can reach more people sometimes.

You also created the comic strip “Grand Avenue.”

Yeah, I started it in 1999. I’d always wanted to do a comic strip with kids in it. Kids are so fun, and there’s so much material. But there have already been strips with kids, so I thought, “What if I add something different, like they’re being raised by their grandmother? There are a lot of older readers who might appreciate it.” That’s how it came to be. It’s been a lot of fun. A few years ago, I took in a partner, so I now draw it with Mike Thompson of Detroit. We’re now in 150 newspapers.

You and your wife have four kids, and you’ve written a few children’s books. Tell me about that.

Right. I’ve done two books. The first was Stick in 2007, then in ’08, I had Violet the Pilot. And this fall I have a new book coming out called The Secret of Santa’s Island. I’m a huge fan of Christmas and have always wanted to do a Christmas book. I also love the Charlie Brown Christmas special. So I show the elves watching the Charlie Brown Christmas show on one of the pages.

Getting back to my family, Cathy is from a family of 11 kids. Her dad is Bud McFarlane Sr., the Catholic evangelist. They are a great supportive family. We were married in 1998 and have four kids. Thomas is 10; Patrick is 7, Jack is 4 and Jane is 1.

The three oldest love to draw and color. But with the state of the newspaper industry, I’m telling them not to consider a career in journalism. I’m sure they’ll be great Catholic artists. They might find jobs in Catholic web design or something like that.

Patrick Novecosky writes from Naples, Florida.

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The papal drive-by

The site on the Jordan where Christ was baptized. (Patrick Novecosky photo)

The site on the Jordan where Christ was baptized. (Patrick Novecosky photo)

As the pea gravel crunched beneath my feet, I couldn’t help but think of the Last Supper where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The chalky dust not only covered my shoes, but permeated the air as we walked the path to the spot where tradition says Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.

Just an hour outside of Amman, Jordan, we were about two hours ahead of Pope Benedict’s arrival at the site, part of his four-day visit to the country. It was mid-afternoon on Sunday as our bus dropped off the crush of media covering the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land. Photographers and reporters from around the world were packed into three buses on this hot and dry day. Site staff gave us the option of waiting for the Pope in the parking lot where he would be greeted by Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania — or we could walk a quarter mile down the pea gravel path to the Baptism Site. Most everyone chose the latter.

Waiting for the Pope at the baptism site.

Waiting for the Pope at the baptism site.

Dozens of us scoped out the best vantage point to view (and photograph) the Holy Father, who was to stop at a platform overlooking the spot designated as the place where John the Baptist christened Our Lord in the muddy waters of the Jordan. It wasn’t impressive. Scraggly bushes surrounded the area which seemed to be fed by a tributary from the river itself. However, archeological experts have determined that early Christians built a church to commemorate the spot as the place of Christ’s baptism. When the area flooded, they came back and built again. That resolve has convinced many that this was the biblical site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan described in John 1:28 and John 10:40.

The Holy Father with the King and Queen of Jordan. (Patrick Novecosky photo)

The Holy Father with the King and Queen of Jordan. (Patrick Novecosky photo)

I found a perfect spot to await the Holy Father, only 20 feet from the platform. After chatting with colleagues for about 90 minutes, a convoy of eight-passenger golf carts arrived with security personnel, followed by the Holy Father, the King, Queen, Prince Ghazi among others. The Holy Father’s vehicle stopped for five minutes as a site expert described the scene for the Pope. But rather than disembarking to take in the site from the viewing platform as planned, the papal cart spend on down the path to an awaiting crowd of about 800 pilgrims.

Greg Tarczynski, a well-known photographer for Catholic and other media outlets, had parked himself on the muddy river bank for nearly two hours to get a picture that was not to be. We all scrambled down the path to the stage where the Pope was to bless the cornerstones for two churches planned for the Baptism site — a Latin-rite church already under construction and a Melkite house of worship. However, the military security (who seem just as confused by the papal entourage’s change of plans) held us back. We found out later that we were detained until the royal entourage could leave the area.

The papal entourage.  (Patrick Novecosky photo)

The papal entourage. (Patrick Novecosky photo)

We got to the platform just as the ceremony got under way. I stood on a chair as close as possible to the stage and got a descent shot of the Pope blessing the cornerstones. After the papal convoy departed, we were blessed with an incredible view of the sun setting in the west, finally dipping below the horizon in the land where Jesus walked. A fitting end to a day I won’t soon forget.

Pope Benedict blesses two cornerstones.  (Patrick Novecosky photo)

Pope Benedict blesses two cornerstones. (Patrick Novecosky photo)

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