Father Barron reflects on the Holy Land and role of beauty in evangelization

Fr. Robert Barron(Criterion, By Sean Gallagher) In the past year, few priests in the U.S. have had more of a public witness in their efforts to strength the faith of Catholics than Father Robert Barron.

Catholics across the country have viewed segments of his 10-part “Catholicism” documentary series released in 2011 in which he serves as narrator and shows viewers the beauty of the faith through locations around the world.

A priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Father Barron, 52, is the founder and president of Word on Fire Ministries, an organization dedicated to evangelization, especially through television and on the Internet via online videos and social media.

Last July, he also was appointed rector of the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary near Chicago.

Late last month, he visited Indianapolis for a meeting of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a worldwide organization of clergy and laity that support the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

During that time, he sat down for an interview with The Criterion on Sept. 30. The following is an edited version of that interview.

Q. The 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council will occur on Oct. 11. One of the principal reasons why Blessed John XXIII called for the council was to help prepare the Church to proclaim the Gospel in the 21st century. Yet, as we stand here in 2012, 1962 can seem a world away given the social, cultural and technological changes that have occurred in the interim. How are the teachings of that council still relevant to us?

A. “You’re absolutely right. This is all about Vatican II. People trace the new evangelization back to John Paul II and Paul VI with “Evangelii nuntiandi” [a 1975 apostolic exhortation on evangelization], which isn’t appropriate. We need to go beyond Paul VI back to Vatican II. It was a missionary council.

“Vatican II did not want to modernize the Church. It wanted to ‘Christify’ the world. And I think that comes through in every document of Vatican II, including ‘Inter mirifica,’ the one about social communications.

“It’s about bringing the treasures of Christ’s life out to the wider world. That’s Vatican II. The trouble is, our generation, roughly speaking, got the ‘Let’s modernize the Church’ agenda. And it was a misreading of the council.

“Yes, we needed to adapt the Church so that it becomes a more effective vehicle of evangelization. But the goal was not to modernize the Church. It was to ‘Christify’ the world.

“But that agenda got hijacked a little bit. Certainly, when I was coming of age, when I was in school, it was modernize the Church. Let’s get caught up to the modern world.

“But you see, the modern world cannot measure the Church. Christ has to measure the Church. And any culture is evangelically ambiguous and so they can’t become the measure of the Church.

“That, in my mind, is the root of the malaise of the Church when I was coming of age, what I call ‘Beige Catholicism.’ It kind of lost its way, lost its focus and was embarrassed to say anything too definitive.

“That’s what John Paul intuited, I think, as the great problem—hence the new ardor he called for in the new evangelization.

“So I trace it all back to Vatican II, 50 years ago. Paul VI, who was a Vatican II man in his bones, got that and, hence, ‘Evangelii nuntiandi.’ [Blessed] John Paul II, who was a Vatican II man in his bones, got it and, hence, the new evangelization. Benedict XVI was also a Vatican II man.

“That’s the key to this whole thing. It’s people rightly reading what Vatican II is about.”


Q. So after the council, Catholics were focused a little bit too much ad intra, on internal Church matters, and not enough ad extra, how the Church proclaims the Gospel to the world?

A. “Absolutely right. It’s one of the ironies of the post-conciliar period that we turned so ad intra. When I was coming of age, it was all the Church battling with itself over sex and authority. You know?

“Now, they’re important questions, absolutely. Is there a place for them? Sure. But as the central, preoccupying focus? Absolutely not. And that was a mistake after Vatican II.

“We missed the Vatican II élan in many ways in our country and in the West as well. But the recovery of that is really key.”

Q. One emphasis in the teachings of the council was on the important role of Catholic laity in carrying out the mission of the Church and on the related universal call to holiness. Many commentators have pointed to the increased role of lay Catholics in parish and diocesan administration, and in the liturgy as an embodiment of that teaching of the council. How well, though, do you see Catholic laity applying their faith in conscious and deliberate ways in the secular world—a place where bishops, priests and religious don’t typically play a central role?

A. “Right. I think that’s what we’ve missed. What you’ve described in the latter part of your question is what Vatican II had in mind, it seems to me. People who have access to the secular world in ways that I don’t as a priest have to sanctify the secular world.

“So journalists who know how to move in that world, and business people who know how to move in the world of finance and investment, teachers who know how to move in the world of education, politicians who know how to move in their world—they’re the ones who have to evangelize.

“That’s another mistake, as you suggest there, that we kind of clericalize the laity, make them more like ecclesial functionaries. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way at all. It’s extremely important that there are lay people in those roles.

“But that isn’t what Vatican II had in mind, it seems to me. What Vatican II had in mind was unleashing this life so that the laity can ‘Christify’ the world in their distinctive way.

“That, I think, was another mistake. Let’s get more lectors. I love lay lectors. Or let’s get more lay people involved in chancery offices. That’s great. But that’s not what Vatican II had in mind.”

Q. At the same time, you’re now the rector of one of the leading seminaries in the United States, and have commented in one of your recent YouTube videos on the importance of priests in the new evangelization. As important as the laity are in evangelizing in the vast segment of society where clergy and religious don’t play principal roles, how is the life and ministry of priests still crucial to the carrying out of that mission of the new evangelization?

A. “We’re all in this together. And we’re all in it playing interrelated but distinctive roles.

“So I think the priest is the alter Christus [‘another Christ’]. The priest is priest, prophet and king. The priest is the one that brings to bear the sacramental power of the Lord and the Lord’s presence, especially in penance and the Eucharist, thereby to sanctify the laity, who then sanctify the world.

“So I think that’s the way it works. We’ve got distinctive and interrelated roles to play, but priests, I think, are indispensable for that sanctification through the sacraments—that’s what we’re finally about—and the proclamation of the word.

“That’s our job. And then the laity, having been sanctified, now go and sanctify the world.”

Holy-Land_Galilee_Mount-of-Beatitudes-ChurchQ. In that same video, you stressed the importance of future priests to be conversant with and effective users of the new media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. I presume that the same could be said of lay Catholics. How key is the use of the new media to the new evangelization? What are some of its limits, and how is sharing the Gospel in a direct way, person to person, face to face, still important?

A. “It’s a complicated issue that you’re raising. And I certainly see all of the limitations of new social media. I get that.

“Superficiality is one of them. When I make a YouTube video, I, on purpose, make it short—seven or eight minutes—because I realize that people aren’t going to watch a 35-minute disquisition. But they might watch a seven- or eight-minute video.

“That’s the pro and the con. They might watch it. But the con is that it’s almost necessarily going to be relatively superficial. The challenge is to try to do both those things, at least relatively well. I get that.

“I also get the impersonal quality of it. It’s very easy to think that you’re just throwing letters and words around. I have to remind myself consciously when I’m responding [to a comment on the Internet] that, behind those words, there is some person somewhere out there.

“I don’t even know where he or she is, what country they’re from. I have no idea. But behind those words is a person. So I get that. That’s a danger with it. It can be very impersonal.

“But when I was in Rome a couple of years ago for a conference on the new media, there was this bishop from Poland that got up. He was maybe in his 60s.

“And he said that his grandmother used to say to us that she would never use the telephone because it was an inelegant form of communication. She was a stately, kind of patrician Polish lady.

“His response was, ‘Well, yeah, it’s an inelegant way of communication. But who of us here wouldn’t use a telephone?’

“So it’s easy to talk about all of these negatives about the new media. And they’re all there. I agree.

“Nevertheless, who wouldn’t use them? We’d be silly not to use them. In this fallen and conflicted world, you’ve got to make some compromises. I think it’s well worth the dangers.”

Catholics across central and southern Indiana became familiar during the past year with Father Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, through viewing and studying his 10-part documentary series titled “Catholicism.”

The videos show him traveling the world to explain the beauty and meaning of the Catholic faith, and how it is often illustrated in paintings, sculptures or medieval cathedrals.

Father Barron’s experience in visiting various historic sites in the Holy Land in part led him to come to Indianapolis late last month for a regional meeting of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem during which he was invested as a member of the order.

Father Barron, who was ordained a priest in 1986, was interviewed by The Criterion on Sept. 30 during his visit to Indianapolis, and spoke about his documentary series, the Holy Land and the importance of beauty in the life of faith.

The following is an edited version of that interview.

church-of-the-holy-sepulchre-feateurdQ. You once said that the seeds of your “Catholicism” documentary series go back to when you viewed Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” documentary series when you were young in the 1970s. That goes back a way. Given the long gestation of your series, how did you feel when you saw the enthusiastic response to it once it was released to the public?

A. “I was thrilled and delighted by it. And I guess I had an instinct that people would respond favorably.

“When I got into the whole media work, I was always dreaming about this project. I figured, ‘What’s the biggest, best and most ambitious thing we could do?’

“And it struck me that it was this sort of series. Go around the world. Talk about the faith in its totality. Show its cultural impact. Show the beauty. Show the truth. It was my biggest dream.

“I kind of have what [St. Thomas] Aquinas called, ‘magnanimitas.’ You like big plans. I’m from Chicago. I make no small plans. So when I got into this work and I was doing a lot of smaller things, I thought that this would be the biggest thing to do.

“I saw Clark’s ‘Civilization’ as a kid, and it intrigued me for a long time. So it became a sort of template for what I was thinking about.”

Q. In producing “Catholicism,” you traveled a good bit in the Holy Land and other places in the Middle East that are important to the Church.

What’s it like for you, then, to be invested today as a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, and to make a commitment to have a special care and concern for the Church in that part of the world?

A. “Our first trip was to the Holy Land. I’d never been there before. We traveled extensively and were there for about two weeks. We filmed all over the place, ending up in Jerusalem.

“Of all the places we went—I think we went to 16 countries—there’s no place that calls me back more than Jerusalem, even though Jerusalem, compared to Rome or Paris or other great cities, is not that much.

“There are things of great architectural interest and all of that there. But there’s something about the mystique of Jerusalem that just calls to me. Of all the places, that’s where I most want to go back.

“And being up in Galilee was the same thing. When we filmed along the Sea of Galilee, our Israeli guide took us up to the northeast corner of it to this great height. And you could see the entire lake in one view. We still have a photograph of the whole Sea of Galilee in our office.

“How could that not sing to you if you’re a Christian?

“As I’ve been at this meeting last night and today, it’s conjuring up all those memories. And I do feel a very strong sense of what this order is about. It’s caring for Christians in the Holy Land and caring for the sacred places. Having been there and having seen it, that means a lot to me.”

Q. In your “Catholicism” documentary series and in your book of the same title, you placed a clear emphasis on the beauty of Catholic teachings and practices, and the beautiful way that they have been expressed in various forms of art. The Russian author Dostoevsky wrote that “beauty will save the world.” I think that many people in our society would be perplexed by this statement, holding instead that science, technology or the government will save the world. On the one hand, how important is this appeal to beauty in our society that seems to be so driven by utilitarianism? On the other hand, how challenging is it to make this appeal effective in this cultural context?

A. “The advantage of the beautiful is that it’s more beguiling than off-putting. People hate moralizing even though there’s room for it, obviously. People hate being told, ‘You’re wrong, and here’s the truth.’

“But show them something beautiful and say, ‘Hey, look at that.’ It’s much more beguiling. It’s less off-putting. Beginning with the beautiful is a good way to go. It beguiles them in a way that they drop their defenses a bit.

“You bring someone to Chartres Cathedral and it’s hard not to say, ‘Wow. Look at this. Where did this come from?’ And then you get to questions of the good and the true. ‘What’s the doctrine that stands behind this place?’ ‘What’s the vision of life that made this place possible?’ So you get from the beautiful to the true and the good.

“But you put sugar around it, I suppose. It’s easier to swallow.”

Jerusalem Old City streetQ. Tied to this relationship of faith and beauty and the challenge it places on our often utilitarian mindset is the role of prayer and worship in the life of the Church. Just as many in our society wouldn’t see the usefulness of beauty, they might also make the same conclusion about worship. How might lay Catholics understand the relationship between prayer, the liturgy—and especially the Eucharist—to the concrete and practical way that they strive to apply the faith in their daily lives and, through this, to spread the Gospel?

A. “I think in our culture, especially, the rediscovery of prayer is indispensable. Without it, you’re not able to share a relationship.

“And that’s what evangelization is. It’s not sharing ideas. That’s theology. It’s sharing a relationship. You are in love with Jesus Christ. You’re a friend of Jesus Christ. That’s only cultivated through prayer. So if you don’t have that, you don’t evangelize.

“You might get into good arguments and even win them. But you won’t evangelize very well. That’s a matter of sharing, ‘Here’s a friendship that I want to tell you about.’ ‘Here’s a person who’s become the center of my life and I want to tell you why.’ That’s evangelization and that’s only cultivated through prayer.

“But that’s really hard in our culture. People love to argue and to argue about the good, moralizing in both directions. Just go see the comments on my YouTube videos. We love doing that.

“So get immersed in this friendship. Spend time with this friend of yours.

“That’s a much harder thing. But it’s absolutely central to evangelization. Without it, we’ll just be arguing with each other and sharing ideas. But we won’t be evangelizing.”

Q. In your travels to so many places around the world to produce “Catholicism,” and in your life and ministry as a priest over the past 26 years, especially in the last decade, you’ve surely seen the multitude of challenges set against the mission of the Church, both by outsiders and, sadly, by those within the Church. Yet, you often seem so hopeful and convinced about the power of the Gospel and the Church’s proclamation of it. In the face of all of those challenges, why do you remain so hopeful and convinced?

A. “I guess it’s because of that friendship with the Lord and the power of the Resurrection that God has won. That’s the ‘evangelion.’ That’s the Good News. God has won. God has defeated the powers of the world.

“The powers of the world are still around, and are always annoying and in your face. But we’ve won. And there’s the cross. That’s what the Holy Sepulchre still signals to me.

“I remember when we filmed in there. We got there super early, like 5 in the morning. And we found this little corner where there weren’t any people. And I talked about the Resurrection and why the Resurrection is the thing.

“I guess that’s what gives you the hope.

“It’s that God has won the victory, and so we can fight the good fight. Even though we’re losing skirmishes here and there, so what? The battle’s been won. So just get into the fight.

“And I’ve always been attracted to the more joyful people, like

G. K. Chesterton and Thomas Merton and people like that. They influenced me a lot when I was coming of age. It wasn’t so much the polemicists. It was the joyful warrior types.

“So I’ve tried, in my own small way, to imitate them.

“Chesterton had a huge impact on me when I was a young man. It wasn’t just the ‘gaudium de stilo’ [‘rejoicing in style’] in his great literary style, but the ‘joie de combat.’ He was a joyful knight. I think that’s the cool model for evangelizing.

“And then there’s the whole John Paul II thing. I entered college seminary as a kid in the fall of 1978 when he became pope. And so my whole time in the seminary and coming of age as a priest was all in the John Paul period.

“So you watch him. Watch how he did it. That’s where a lot of the inspiration for it came from.”