Faith inspired artist of event’s iconic painting

Neilson Carlin’s journey of faith brought him to the Catholic Church. Now the Church is hoping his artistic gifts can inspire millions of people, especially families, in their own journeys.

Carlin recently completed, at the request of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the official iconic image of the 2015 World Meeting of Families. On Sept. 7, Archbishop Charles Chaput unveiled the image at the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. The following week, Archbishop Chaput traveled to Rome to present the icon to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia and the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Coming back to the Faith

Just a few years ago, Carlin, whose workshop is located an hour from Philadelphia, never could have imagined making such a significant contribution to a major Catholic event.

“I had deep-seated suspicions about the Church,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. Baptized Catholic as an infant, his family never participated in their local parish. As he grew older, Carlin was exposed to Protestant, particularly Evangelical, communities. He became very active in youth ministry as a teenager before drifting away from religious practice while at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

“I felt a yearning to reconnect,” he said. His Evangelical background had given him, “a love of Christ, a love of Christianity,” but also a desire for something else.

After meeting his future wife, he began to attend Sunday Mass with her. When they decided to get married, he agreed to raise the children Catholic and thought attending RCIA for a few months would help him understand what exactly that meant. While attending the classes, his ingrained prejudices about the Church disappeared: “everything I had a question about had an answer.” He credits meeting “the right priest and the right deacon” who were very patient with his questions during that year. Two weeks before Easter, he decided to enter the Catholic Church.

A man who admits he did not want to bend to the authority of the Church, Carlin now says, “I can’t even remember what I used to think when I wasn’t Catholic.”


World Meeting of Families
Official World Meeting of Families Philadelphia 2015 Prayer Card

At the same time, Carlin began to merge his renewed faith with his vocation as an artist. His artwork for liturgical settings found a national stage at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His interest in religious art, however, goes back much further.

“Whenever I had the opportunity to be creative as an artist, I often drifted toward Christian themes,” he said. For his senior thesis in college, he even submitted four illustrations of scenes from the Bible.

But nothing prepared him for the magnitude of his newest assignment.

He said the idea of the project did not “settle in” until he began to read about the history of the World Meeting of Families and its potential accompanying papal visit. He says he realized then, “Wow, I might have a piece that will be seen on the world stage.”

Father Dennis Gill, rector of the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, thought Carlin an ideal choice after admiring his work at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and at St. Rocco Parish in Avondale, Pennsylvania.

“I have found his work to feature an attractive, modern realism,” Father Gill said.

Details of the image

Carlin makes use of striking colors and lighting to make a traditional image come alive. Perhaps the most thought-provoking aspect of the image is the inclusion of Sts. Joachim and Anne, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, along with the Holy Family.

The decision to include the grandparents of Jesus was part of the initial discussion around the image, a request of Bishop John McIntyre, auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia. The goal is to recognize not just the nuclear family but also what Father Gill calls the contributions of the “periphery.” The fact that the Church celebrates the memorial of Sts. Joachim and Anne annually highlights, according to Father Gill, “their importance in the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

Though Jesus clearly stands in the center of the image, the people who contributed to his earthly life are not overlooked. Carlin sees this as analogous to the development of this iconic image. “I’ve always found the most satisfying part of my work for the Church is that every piece is a collaborative process. I bring my skills to the table along with the ideas of the patron.”

The upcoming World Meeting of Families will require the collaboration of many people to make it a success. Early projections indicate that this edition could be significantly larger than the last iteration in Milan in 2012.

Over the next several months, we will highlight the contributions which people like Neilson Carlin are making to what Archbishop Chaput has promised will be “an unforgettable celebration.”

Eric Banecker is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.