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“Fundamentally a missionary”: New book captures Bishop Barron’s evangelistic vision

A review of To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, by Bishop Robert Barron, with John L. Allen, Jr.

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron speaks at a session of the 51st International Eucharistic Congress in Cebu, Philippines, in January 2016. (CNS photo/Katarzyna Artymiak)

For decades, it has been a cliché to say that there is a crisis is catechesis, especially with respect to young Catholics. In To Light a Fire on the Earth, Bishop Robert Barron, currently Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angles, describes what has to be the nadir:

When I was getting religious instruction as a young man, it was a period right after the council: 1969, ’70, ’71. We did a lot of very experiential kinds of things. I remember vividly one of the sisters at the grade school played James Taylor’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ and told us, ‘Now as you hear this song, I want you to just draw what you’re feeling.’ I didn’t think it was anything weird, I just did what they told me, but that was religion class.

With charitable, even heroic, understatement, he adds: “The formation was a little superficial.”

In his career as an evangelist, Barron has vanquished this sort of what he calls “banners and balloons” Catholicism. Few in our time are doing more than he is to eradicate this sloppiness and supplant it with the riches—theological, moral, and aesthetic, all so brilliantly deployed in his Catholicism seriesthat are available to bring both young and older Catholics into friendship with Christ. Journalist and author John Allen met with Barron for a series of conversations, and the result has been distilled into a highly readable portrait of this extraordinary prelate. Allen rightly eschews an emphasis on inside-baseball Catholic subjects and concentrates instead on Barron’s view of the Church in the world, with chapters on beauty, goodness, truth, the Bible, obstacles to faith, and the like. Allen provides essential background material for context and clarity; he then lets Bishop Barron speak for himself.

Barron’s evangelization is the product of a rigorous prayer life. Daily, this includes a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel in his residence and recitation of the Divine Office. As busy as any American CEO, Barron has absorbed the essential advice on prayer of Thomas Merton: “Take the time.” Moreover, he tells Allen about how decisive that solid example can be in this area. Many years ago, when Barron was studying is Paris, he arrived at a seminar taught by a prominent Jesuit theologian, Father Michel Corbin. When he showed up early, the Jesuit was saying the rosary. The impact on Barron of seeing this esteemed man at prayer was considerable: “I kind of surprised him, and I thought, Wow, here’s a French professor of theology praying the rosary. Corbin really helped me to see the liturgical and spiritual and prayerful dimension of what we were doing. I think that opened a door that I went through.”

There is a great deal of understandable (and, of course, warranted) discussion by Allen of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, but Barron realizes that, despite resemblances, the world and the media have changed in many basic ways since Sheen’s time. Barron’s success is predicated on grasping these changes and tailoring his evangelization to them. Barron understands that the religiously unaffiliated young are who he is after: “Getting after the nones should be a major priority – find them, bring them back, engage them, answer their questions. We’re losing young people in droves, and so we need to get them back. I think that should be a priority when it comes to evangelization.” As Allen notes, Barron recognizes the vital point made by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1985: The two best arguments for Christian belief are the saints and the art that “has grown in the [Church’s] womb.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that Barron is currently in the middle of producing a two-part series on great (but not all of whom are saints) figures in Church history. His follow-up series to Catholicism is the remarkable The Pivotal Players, which puts before us not only such obvious figures at St. Francis of Assisi and St. Augustine but also Michelangelo and Flannery O’Connor. And thus is Cardinal Ratzinger’s observation instantiated—and in a way that reaches Catholics right in the meeting rooms of their parishes.

In November of 2016, Barron was elected to lead the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. (To see immediately why this selection was the obvious one, see his Erasmus Lecture, “Evangelizing the Nones,” in the January 2018 issue of First Things.) Barron is certainly not the only prelate with talent and success in this area—one thinks of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia—but his selection demonstrates that the American bishops know the gravity of the problem the Church faces, and any kind of bureaucratic response is no response at all.

Yet another noteworthy challenge that Barron has embraced is his effort to extend his work in evangelization with the Word on Fire apostolate from a ministry into an ecclesiastical movement itself. This project is at a very inchoate stage, and Barron is working to formulate a framework (he mentions Opus Dei as an appealing example of what he has in mind). It is this evangelical ambition that is so striking in Barron: his drive, in so many ways, is Pauline in its intensity. Allen rightly sees him as “fundamentally a missionary.”

The key figure early on for Barron—the man who recognized his gifts and made room for them—was Francis Cardinal George, one of the most distinguished American bishops in recent memory. He shrewdly discouraged the young priest’s pursuit of what would undoubtedly have been a sterling academic career and told him: “I think you have a wider and bigger task to accomplish.” He certainly did—and does.

To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age
by Robert Barron with John L. Allen, Jr.
Image Books, 2017.
Hardcover, 260 pp.

About Gregory J. Sullivan 7 Articles
Gregory J. Sullivan ( is a lawyer from Pennsylvania. He is a part-time lecturer in the Department of Politics at Princeton University and has written for The Weekly Standard, National Review Online, and First Things.


  1. “In November of 2016, Barron was elected to lead the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis.”

    One important condition for evangelization is realizing that there is no one American identity, and that Roman Catholics need to give up the idea of creating a homogeneous ecclesial culture for all of the United States.

    • As in the Creed: “I belive in ONE, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”

      And since we are called, by God, to evangelize people into this ONE, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, then I would say your assertion that “Roman Catholics need to give up the idea of creating a homogeneous ecclesial culture” is, let’s say, misguided? That is not simply an “idea.” It is a command.

      As far as Bishop Barron is concerned, if hell is empty, what is the point of evangelizing?

      • If you don’t understand what “homoegneous ecclesial culture” means, you should ask. As a Latin you’re used to the Patriarchate of Rome imposing this for the last 5 centuries at least. Let me enlighten you — the mandate is to evangelize and to baptize so that men are incorporated into the Body of Christ and to become the People of God. It is not to impose a single, uniform ecclesiastical tradition and culture on everyone in the entire world, and it shouldn’t be the case for a diverse area such as the United States. Hence the variety of different ecclesiastical traditions (of which a liturgical rite is one part) across the globe and even within a liturgical rite, it is possible to have different ecclesiastical traditions that are tied to particular ethnic groups.

        • SOL, I hope you are referring to the different Catholic churches and not Protestantism. There are ecclesiastical traditions and there are ecclesiastical traditions.

  2. I keep hearing all of the chatter, theories, slogans, and ads for programs and books to buy – yet nothing really seems to be changing anywhere and then bus still seems to be going off the cliff backwards, with no wheels, and no driver.

    • Nothing is changing because nothing is really being done to address the core problems. Just more “conservative” Roman Catholicism being pushed for by some (more Thomism!) and the more “progressive” Roman Catholic bishops and intellectuals trying to preserve their fake “Vatican II” legacy.

  3. I like Bishop Barron, and I strongly agree with his rejection of the mediocrity and superficiality of faith formation and religion class in “Catholic” schools.

    I do not like John Allen – as he is against Catholic tradition and culture, subversive and divisive. Allen is the quintessential Amoris Laetitia “Catholic”: everything before 2013 is now over, and there is a new law and a new kirk to go with it.

    In sum – the combination of Barron and Allen is a pollution of good water with sludge.

  4. With due respect to Bishop Barron, the Neocatechumenal Way is an ecclesial movement in which the Word is on fire and catechesis is effectively transmitted. Archbishop Chaput would gladly confirm.

  5. With the fail to respect the norms of their own liturgical tradition, the Neocatechumenal Way is hardly a movement to embrace or emulate.

    • Sorry, Sol, but the popes since Blessed Paul VI have supported and encouraged the Neocatechumenal Way because of the authenticity of its charism and its manifold fruits. “Test everything, hold fast to what is good.” Like I noted, take a look at what Archbishop Chaput has said in support.

      • This is Latin positivism at its worse. So their disregard for liturgical norms doesn’t matter, just because they get some sort of official support? So did the Legionaries of Christ.

  6. That’s an outrageous example of guilt by association, Sol. It won’t fly here. You’ve launched a broad spectrum of criticisms in your comments to this post — something for everyone. Had much success evangelizing with that approach?

    • You didn’t address the well-documented liturgical abuses of the Neocatechumenal Way, which even Rome had to address (by capitulating). There are no logical fallacies here on my part, but if you feel that there are, list them. All you did was appeal to authority, when authority is by itself no proof that a group in question is free from problems. (As the case of the Legionaries revealed.) Infallibility does not apply in such circumstances.

      If you wish (1) to hold up the Neocatechumenal Way as an example of how evangelizing should be done, and (2) to appeal to papal authority as a confirmation of this, then the Orthodox will be rightly scandalized on both counts. But maybe you don’t care about ecumenism with the Orthodox and think they need to repent of their heretical errors.

  7. “…with John L. Allen, Jr.”
    I use to believe Bishop Barron had some promise. Then, not so much. Now, not at all.
    Tragic, but foreseeable. There is only one way to get to the top of the tree of preference these days — and I’m not talking about the Tree of Life.

  8. Bishop Barron’s work helps bring me closer to Christ. He loves Jesus so much and his love of Jesus is contagious. May God continue to bless Bishop Barron and his ministry as he reaches out to all people to share our Lord Jesus’ love for us all and His teaching.

  9. Ladies,,,,gentleman, ,,,, please,,,,,,, calm down. Read the book to know the man!!! After all , he does admit going to a liberal seminary, considering himself a post liberal (????????),! And praise the Lord of Mercy; if we do not make it into purgatory, we may have to endure a private room called hell with satan and his dark angels. Today, it is all about our bishops failure to mention the evils of contraception gor the last 50 years.

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