“There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”— Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
Bishop Robert Barron is the Bishop Fulton Sheen of our time. Like the Venerable Sheen, Barron is an erudite Thomist scholar with a gift for popularizing without in any way watering down the Catholic faith. Like Sheen, Barron adroitly employs all the available technologies to evangelize. Whereas Sheen used radio and television, Barron is online with podcasts and in DVD form with his masterly documentaries Catholicism, Catholicism: The New Evangelization, and the forthcoming Catholicism: The Pivotal Players, Part I. And like Sheen, Barron is a lucid writer whose books will outlive everything else he has done. (The companion volume to Catholicism is a remarkable if understandably overlooked book published in conjunction with the release of the DVD.) With his new collection of short essays, Vibrant Paradoxes, Barron again presents an accessible, popular, but uncompromisingly orthodox vision of Catholicism.
Barron begins by reflecting on the influence of G.K. Chesterton’s enduring masterpiece Orthodoxy (1908), which he says (and many, many others can say) “truly re-arranged the furniture of my mind.” Chesterton’s view was that Catholicism maintains its beliefs “side by side like two strong colors, red and white . . . .It has always had a hatred of pink.” This is the both/and of Barron’s subtitle, and it is this yoking of contraries that recurs throughout the thematically arranged sections of essays: Sin and Mercy, Reason and Faith, Matter and Spirit, Freedom and Discipline, and Suffering and Joy.
These essays are gems of concision. Readers familiar with Barron’s work will not be surprised to see careful theological reflection employed in the context of frequent discussions of popular culture and contemporary figures and affairs. Barron is especially adept at jousting with old and new atheists. Moreover, there are a host of fresh reflections on Church teaching and Scripture. (Like Sheen, Barron reads the Bible with memorable insight.) Just to select one of many possible examples: his essay “The Genesis Problem” makes the case – one that many often make but that cannot be made often enough in this country – for properly understanding the Bible’s first book as a theological and not a natural-science text – or, as Barron neatly phrases it, “not as primitive science, but as exquisite theology.”
The longest essay in the collection, “A Lion of the American Church: Thoughts on the Passing of Cardinal George,” is a nuanced appreciation of this man that goes right to the holiness that formed his exemplary character. “I had the privilege,” Barron writes, “of living with Cardinal George for six years, and thus I was able to see his life close-up. He had an absolutely punishing schedule, which had him going morning, noon, and night practically every day of the week: administrative meetings, private conversations, banquets, liturgies, social functions, public speeches, etc. Never once, in all the years I lived with him, did I ever hear Cardinal George complain about what he was obliged to do.”
When Barron’s writing adverts to the universality of the faith, it is often in striking ways. Too often American Catholics speak of the Church only in American terms, absorbed as we are with the matters right in front of us. Barron knows these matters of course, but he also knows the great vitality of the faith elsewhere in the world. His essay “The Fire at Namugongo,” for instance, discusses the martyrdom of the nineteenth-century Ugandan Catholic Charles Lwanga. He was burned to death for his faith, exclaiming “Oh God!” only at the very end of his ordeal. In the hallowed paradoxical way, the blood of Lwanga and his fellow martyrs was the seed of today’s Ugandan Catholicism. Barron’s first-hand depiction of this flourishing contemporary faith is unforgettably stirring and results in some of his most evocative writing:
On June 3rd, the feast of the Ugandan martyrs, a festive liturgy attended by over 500,000 people takes place at Namugongo, just adjacent to the site where Charles Lwanga uttered his plaintive, “Oh God.” It was one of the great privileges of my life to have assisted at that Mass, as part of the filming of my series on Catholicism. As the massive crowd assembled, choirs from many different parts of Africa sang and swayed, and a tremendous spirit of prayerfulness obtained. About fifteen minutes before the formal commencement of the Mass, a liturgical procession – the most wonderful I’ve ever witnessed – took place. It began with three dignified young men, wearing the formal garb of acolytes, and just behind them came a parade of female dancers, dressed in the traditional tribal costumes of Africa, and dancing and gyrating joyfully to the music. Then came a team of male dancers, wearing leopard skins and feathers, and jangling ankle bells as they stepped. Behind them came a long line of priests and bishops, swathed in red chasubles, evocative of the blood shed by the young martyrs. The general mood that this created – almost overwhelming in its power – was joy, triumph, victory. As I watched all this unfold, I confess that several times tears came to my eyes, for I could see, beyond the procession and beyond the crowd, the top of the basilica constructed on the site of Charles Lwanga’s execution. As that brave young Christian utter his dying “Oh God” on that spot so many years before, could he ever have imagined that one day a half a million African Catholics would gather there in festive celebration of the faith for which he gave his life? Could he ever have imagined that, in the year 2016, there would be 400,000,000 Christians in Africa?
Obviously, a latter-day Sheen is most welcome. The problem is that the culture from Sheen’s time to our own has shifted radically. Sheen could address what was in fact a national audience on his radio and television programs. In other words, he spoke not only to Catholics but also to Protestants and Jews very directly. By contrast, with the revolution in technology since that time along with the collapse of any kind of broad national moral consensus, Sheen’s audience has fragmented into a million little niche audiences.
This fact has left Barron’s immense gift for evangelization confined more or less to the niche of orthodox Catholics. What is necessary today to widen the circle of evangelization beyond this niche is for the laity to share the project. With this necessity in mind, perhaps the best thing one could do with Vibrant Paradoxes is read it and then pass it along to a friend who is a lapsed Catholic or not Catholic at all but open to reasoned discussion on ultimate questions. One can be certain that that friend will have never encountered the faith so handsomely – so vibrantly — presented.
Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism
By Robert Barron. Foreword by Dr. Peter Kreeft
Word On Fire, 2016
Paperback, 272 pp.
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