Father Robert Barron (CNS photo/Word on Fire)
Father Robert Barron recently sat
down in his Chicago-area offices with Father Matthew Gamber, SJ for a
discussion about Barron’s newly released 10-part DVD series, Catholicism
. Produced at a cost of three million dollars, all
of which was raised through private donations, the series will be shown on
nearly 90 public television stations around the US this fall. It will be
broadcast on EWTN, as well.
The series covers the major themes
of the Catholic faithtaking viewers on a world-wide tour of its doctrines, its
past and present, its sights, sounds, and especially its people. Highly experienced
professionals from the world of network television helped to produce the series,
in which Father Barron serves as the narrator and master teacher.
Father Barron holds the Francis
Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein
Seminary near Chicago, and has been a guest professor at many of the pontifical
universities in Rome. He heads the organization Word on Fire, which produced
the series and which is dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel through the use of
CWR: In the midst of one of the episodes you pause to
reflect, and seem to utter spontaneously the phrase, “The infinite intensity of
God’s goodness.” This seems to be what the whole Catholicism series is meant to displaywould you say that is a good
summary statement, or perhaps your own motto for the project?
Barron: Yes, that would be a way to
summarize it. It is because of this time we are going through. This time has
been the worst crisis for the Catholic Church in American history due to the
sex-abuse scandals. The Church has been on the defensive. I wanted to show the
life-affirming message of the Gospelthat God became human that we might become
like God. I want that to come through. I wanted that, because the Church has
come through such a dark and negative period. The project was born of this dark
period, I would say.
CWR: One priest, ordained about a decade ago, who
recently viewed the program, said that he has never seen such a confident
public presentation of the Catholic faith. Where did that tone of confidence come
from in the midst of what you call a very dark period for the Church?
Father Barron: I came of age in what I
have called and written about as “Beige Catholicism.” Beige, literally, in the
bland design of many of the churches that were built during that era, but also
in its hand-wringing approach to apologetics. It seemed that, in the Church, we
were willingalmost by instinctto see the worst side of things. And this has
not served us well. I wanted the program to be a bold and confident, but not
cocky or off-putting, presentation. But bold and confident has been the way of
the Church before me. There was St. Paul, who obviously represented a bold
Catholicism. Think of G.K. Chesterton, think of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and
their boldness in proclaiming the Gospel and the Church. We have this
well-established instinct for self-critique nowadays, but I wanted to present
the fuller and affirmative picture of the Church.
CWR: In the various episodes you
acknowledge that the Church has detractors and enemies, especially secularism
and other elements of the contemporary western mind setmaterialism, nihilism,
relativism. Are Catholicism and your presentation of it in the series the
antidote to these viewpoints?
Barron: At its best I think it is. It
is the counterproposal. All those “isms” are out there, including American
individualism. What the best of Catholicism does is to propose a different
vision of lifethe vision that life is not about you. It is about God. I would
see the program as an antidote to those worldviews, most definitely.
CWR: You have mentioned that you hope
to reach three different audiences: inactive Catholics, active Catholics, and
finally the wider secular culture. What kind of reaction do you hope to elicit
from these various audiences who watch Catholicism?
Barron: I hope that the regular Catholic
will feel proud and up-lifted and newly informed about their faith. My brother,
who is a very successful publisher, born and raised in the faith, watched the
film recently and he told me that at the end he was left with a realization
that there is so much more that he does not know about the faith, but that he
wants to know more and needs to know more.
I hope the fallen-away Catholic, or what I
call the “drifted-away Catholic,” will find that it intrigues him enough to
take another look. I hope that he will be given a new sense of Catholicism. I
am a von Balthasar guy [Hans Urs von Balthasaar, the 20th-century Swiss
theologian], so I believe that it is beauty that will bring people to God. You
look at La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, at the Sistine Chapel, and you can’t help
but be drawn into something outside yourself. The visuals throughout the series
are meant to draw people into the message of Catholicism.
CWR: The visuals are stunning in
practically every frame. A viewer could turn down the volume and simply watch
the screen and learn a lot.
Father Barron: That would be an
interesting experiment to do, to watch it with the volume down and see it
without listening to it. I am so happy about that, really proud of that. We had
the best people we could find working on this project, from the director to the
producer to the camera crew. Everyone was excellent and understood the visual
medium we were working in so well. I wanted to do it all at the highest pitch
of beauty and quality. From the very beginning we insisted on quality. My
benchmark was Kenneth Clark’s Civilization
series. I showed that and I asked the people we were going to hire to help
produce the series, “Can you do that, can you go with me all over the world and
do that?” That is what we were aiming for in terms of excellence.
CWR: What about the secular person? How
do you hope he or she responds to it?
Father Barron: [The series] is going to be
on 90 or so public television stations coast to coast.
It has been shown already in Baltimore and
Washington DC, and so far the ratings were considered outstanding.
That is how secular people might see it,
on public television. I imagine the guy who stumbles across it and is drawn
into it by the imagery or the narration or the music. In my mind I am a sower
of seed. I write, I speak, I go on the radio, and spread the seeds aroundwho
knows where they will land? They often land in the funniest places.
CWR: Any statistics on how many people you
expect to be reaching?
Father Barron: I hope it will go out to
millions and millions. [The PBS stations] are going to show it on Sunday
afternoonsnot in the middle of the night. We are [airing] on Sunday morning in
Salt Lake Citythat will be interesting. So PBS will be showing four episodes
and EWTN will be showing the other six episodes this fall, and we will see what
CWR: Is that one of the ways you hope
the series will “evangelize the culture”? What exactly is the evangelization of
culture and how is it different from evangelizing people?
Barron: I see it generally speaking
as addressing the good, the true, and the beautiful. Justice is a drive toward
the good and the institutions of justice include the law, the courts, the
judiciary. The truth is proposed in journalism, newspapers, communications of
all kinds, at the universities. The beautiful is found in the arts. I see those
three great trajectories, and to evangelize culture is to show that Jesus
Christ is the proper “lure” of all three of these dimensions of culture. I
think Jesus addresses them all. And so you propose Jesus under those rubrics.
There are all kinds of ways to do that. In terms of the series, we are using
the arts and using the intellectual tradition. They are ways of beguiling the
culture. We wanted to show that there is something for those people in those cultural
realms in the series. I would hope that any artist would watch it and be
intriguedthere is so much art that is Catholic. Anyone interested in
philosophyI would hope that they would also take something away from watching the
CWR: And then what?
Father Barron: Well, every knee shall
bend! Everything then turns to Christ!
I hope at least that a new symbiosis can
take place. A new relationship can take place between the Church and the
culture. In modern times the Church has been seen as the enemy of the true and
the good and the beautiful. It is one of the great tragedies that we are
construed as the enemy of those things. That is so sad. It was definitely not
always the case. Think of Chartres Cathedralthe beauty is crying out to you,
the justice of a city wholly ordered around a cathedral and its liturgical
life. This kind of integration has been lost. We are now seen as something oddas
an addendum to the culture rather than the integrating heart of the culture. I
hope that after this we can start to see a new marriage, a new trajectory
between the Church and the culture.
CWR: Of the 10 episodes in the series,
did you have a favorite?
Father Barron: I don’t know if I do. It is
a cliché to say, but they are all like children to me. Number three is the most
theological in content. It is like attending the doctrine of God class I have
taught for 20 years, so someone with intellectual interest will really like
that one. The fourth episode is about the Virgin Mary, and it is the most
lyrical. We go to Lourdes. The music, the imagery is all so Marian. The first
episode is on Jesus, so that is an important one. I wanted to issue a wake-up
call and ask people to look at Jesus in a new way. Each episode really stands
on its own. You can pick them up and watch them out of order and still gain the
fullness of what is presented.
CWR: Was there one episode where you
thought: this is really what I had in mind when I dreamed of this project?
Father Barron: It might be the ninth
episode, on spirituality. We filmed a lot of in the Saint-Chapelle in Paris.
The cameraman set up his camera in the middle of the chapel and he filmed me
walking around it. And I said at the time: “This is what I wanted to do; this
At one point we were at Notre Dame
Cathedral in Paris for vespers, and there was incense wafting across the north
rose window. I turned to the crew and I said, “This is why I wanted to do this,
this is what I wanted to catch on film.”
We’ve domesticated the church space and
made it into a living room or a bank, or made it so that we feel “at home.” But
[a church] is not meant to make you feel at home as much as to help you feel
longing for your true home, which is not here. There is a shift in
sensibilities going on, though, and people are coming around to that view. But
this is a strange period we are passing through right now.
CWR: You’ve said that John Paul II had
a large influence on you and on your taking on this project. How so?
Barron: He was huge. He was a direct
influence. The new evangelization was what he was proposing, which really
caught my interest. The idea of trying to evangelize a culture that knows
Christ but that has lapsed into a certain forgetfulness was something he
highlighted. And he told us that we have to use the new media effectively.
With John Paul II, I saw a non-aggressive
but very confident Catholicism. No apologies, but also not aggressive, not
violent. Think of what he did in Poland. He was bold and confident and strong. He
pops up in the series from time to time because we are always looking at the
real people who make up Catholicism. We are looking at the saints.
CWR: You have an entire episode on the
saints, and you chose to highlight four of themall women and all consecrated
religious. There is not much done by accident in this serieswhy did you choose to present the topic of
Catholic saints through these women?
Barron: I wanted relatively
contemporary saints, and these four are from the 19th and 20th century. I
wanted an Americanso, Katharine Drexel. Edith Stein, from the war era; Mother
Teresa, who is practically contemporary, she died in 1997; and St. Thérèse of
Lisieux, from the 19th century.
As you know, the Catholic Church is
thought to be oppressive to women because women cannot be priests. Well, I
wanted to show that real power comes through holiness, that it comes through
sanctity and that the most powerful Catholic figures in recent times were
Catholic women. Think of the power of St. Bernadette of Lourdes in the 19th
century. I wanted to show that in the Church, the real power lies in sanctity
and not official positions.
I wanted to show that the Church is very
inclusive of womenthat it is completely inclusive of women.
Each episode in the Catholicism
series ends with a note of gratitude to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little
Flower. It seems that she had a very active role in the production of the
series. How did that come to pass?
Father Barron: The Little Flower has
been a personal friend for a long time. And we adopted her very early as
the patroness of Word on Fire. Whenever we found ourselves in a difficult
situationwith money, with delays, with getting permissions, with practical
problems, etc.we would call upon her. And a staggering number of times,
solutions would more or less present themselves. In time, every member of
our team would start to notice these “Little Flower moments.” So we have
claimed her as our special heavenly protector, and this is why the series is
dedicated to her.
CWR: We often hear that for most
Catholics, their affiliation with the Church really begins and ends at their
local parish, but you seem to want to expand their horizons.
Barron: I want to give a broader
sense of what this Catholic thing is about. I hope that Catholics take pride in
it. We showed it to a priest, and he came up afterward with tears in his eyes,
saying that watching it made him feel extremely proud. The priesthood has been
so denigrated. The whole Church has been so knocked around. We needed to tell
the story in its fullest sense.
A lot of it was filmed in Europe, but not all. We went
to Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, and Turkey. The Church is so much bigger,
broader and wider; I want Catholics to see the global quality of it.