“Always forward”: Inside the work of the Word on Fire apostolate

Word on Fire, says Fr. Steve Grunow, CEO of the apostolate, is “a concretization of Vatican II’s vision of a complementary and cooperative rapport between clergy and laity…”

Father Steve Grunow, the CEO of Word on Fire, which is now working on the second part of the "Catholicism: The Pivotal Players" series. (Images: www.wordonfire.org)

Since being founded in 2000, Word on Fire Catholic Ministries has steadily grown in reach and recognition, offering hundreds of online videos, numerous articles and blog posts, several books, and study programs. Bishop Robert Barron’s popular and influential YouTube videos, many books, and other media projects have made Word on Fire a key part of the new evangelization in the United States and beyond.

Father Steve Grunow, the CEO of Word on Fire, has been working with Bishop Barron from nearly the start of the apostolate. In addition to writing blog posts and articles for Word on Fire’s website, he has been shepherding the apostolate through its vast and speedy growth, including a move from Chicago to Los Angeles when then-Father Barron was named an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Word on Fire released recently a successor series to the immensely popular Catholicism series. Titled Catholicism: The Pivotal Players, it was written and hosted by Bishop Barron; it explores in fascinating detail the lives of several Catholics influential both within the Church and in the wider culture.

Father Grunow recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about the work of Word on Fire, the new series, and plans for the future.

CWR: The Catholicism Series proved to be a massive success.What prompted this successor series? Or was it in the works all along?

Fr. Steve Grunow: Bishop Barron had it in his mind at the time of the release of the Catholicism series that there would be a follow ups.  The first of which was the documentary he created entitled Catholicism: The New Evangelization, which was completed shortly after the original Catholicism series was released.  I consider Catholicism: The New Evangelization to be likened to an exhalation that precedes a deep breath, a deep breath before Bishop Barron and his team plunged into Catholicism: The Pivotal Players.

A way to understand the original Catholicism series and its successors is that Bishop Barron is popularizing or making widely accessible the great themes of his book entitled The Priority of Christ. This book makes the case that the Church is the extension or prolongation of the Incarnation in space and time and it is the saints, along with the aspirations of the faithful to live in relationship with Christ in the Church that manifests the densely textured, facticity of this unique revelation. Thus, in this way, Pivotal Players is the continuation of what Bishop Barron presents in the original Catholicism series.

CWR: How did you decide which “pivotal players” to include for this series? And why take this approach as opposed, say, to major historical events or themes?

Fr. Grunow: Bishop Barron proposed that his new film tell the story of the Catholic Faith through the witness of men and women whose impact on both the Church and the culture shaped civilization in an extraordinary way.  In other words, he envisioned an emphasis on the men and women whose influence was both “ad intra” and “ad extra” and would be considered by both people inside and outside the Church as having a creative impact on civilization as a whole.

He came up with a list, from which there were then additions and subtractions, and an original list of eight became ten and ten are now twelve.

There never was the suggestion of a mere focus on events and I think that this is because the events of history do not happen in abstraction from real people. This follows from the original series which presented Catholicism not simply as abstract propositions, but as a way of life, a way that is personal and interpersonal—a relationship with Christ and the Church.  Focusing merely on events can give the impression that the Church just drifts within the sea of history, tossed to and fro by dialectical processes, but this cannot be the case if we take seriously who God in Christ reveals himself to be, and his revelation is always personal. As the Incarnation is extended in the Church, so too does his revelation extend into the world through the lives of all the people whom he calls into relationship with himself.

It is this relationship with Christ, inserted into real lives, that indicates that great truth of the Incarnation, that God inserts himself into historical contingencies while remaining transcendent of history.  The relationship of Christ and the Church moves and shapes history and it is a personal relationship.  As such it is best to look as persons, rather than historical epochs, in our attempts to appreciate and understand Catholicism.

CWR: Why these specific Pivotal Players? Certainly with two millennia under our belts there is a vast array of people to choose from. How did these men and women make the cut?

Fr. Grunow: As I said, the list of Pivotal Players was compiled with a principle in mind and this principle was that the personal impact of the person’s life had to have had a creative impact on both Church and culture, impact on civilization as a whole.  One of the interventions early on was also that some of the Pivotal Players would not be canonized saints.  Yes, they would all be Christians and members of the Church, but an official declaration of sanctity was not a pre-requisite.  Thus we have Michelangelo, Bartolomeo de las Casas, Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor.

There has been a few criticisms of the series for not having enough female figures, but this critique does not take into account that the Pivotal Players series is a continuation of the original Catholicism series which, following from The Priority of Christ placed emphasis on St. Therese, St. Edith Stein, St. Katherine Drexel, and St. Teresa of Kolkota.  In fact, there is a heavy emphasis on women in the original Catholicism series: St. Teresa of Avila and Dorothy Day are given substantial consideration and there is an entire episode dedicated to the Mother of God.  There is always criticism no matter what you do and you just can’t do everything.

CWR: Were there any figures that you personally pushed for or any that you have a particular resonance with?

Fr. Grunow: I made a strong case at the beginning for the inclusion of Flannery O’Connor, a case that was originally rejected, but I can be very stubborn and persistent.  If the series were to continue beyond the second volume, I would insist on René Girard.

CWR: Bishop Barron is certainly the face of the Catholicism series. How much are these series a collaborative work? From the concept stage, through the writing, and finding locations, and all of the nitty gritty, what is the team effort like?

Fr. Grunow: The concept and writing are all Bishop Barron. Word on Fire is his apostolate and supports his evangelization efforts. But Word on Fire is also structured as a media group and as such, Bishop Barron has decided on a concept and created a script, then it goes to Word on Fire’s production team, so it is a collaborative effort.  Bishop Barron understands his Word on Fire apostolate as a concretization of Vatican II’s vision of a complementary and cooperative rapport between clergy and laity, both working together to advance the mission of the Church.

CWR: How long have you been in your position as CEO of Word on Fire? How has it been, watching Word on Fire grow so rapidly over the last several years, to become the phenomenon it is today?

Fr. Grunow: I refer to myself as the back end of Word on Fire and Bishop Barron as the front end, so if you think of Word on Fire as a horse, yes, I am the ass—but it takes both the front and back end of the horse to make it capable of running.  I’ve been with Word on Fire since its founding and working with Bishop Barron to advance the cause of evangelization since before there was a Word on Fire, and it has been a singular grace and great privilege to witness what the Lord has done with Bishop Barron and his team.  Receptivity to what the Holy Spirit wants for the Church manifests itself in creativity, productivity and what in the spiritual life are called gifts.  The most important of these gifts have been the many lives that have been changed by coming to know Christ and accept from him all the gifts he wants people to enjoy.  Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire has reached millions of people with the invitation to know Christ in the Church.  This has happened through films like Pivotal Players and the original Catholicism series, but also through his expansive digital platforms which I liken to a door into the Church that is open 24/7 and which people can access all over the world.

CWR: Has there been a discernible change in the work of Word on Fire since Fr. Barron became Bishop Barron? Do you have more exposure or more resources? Is Bishop Barron busier now with non-Word on Fire work?

Fr. Grunow: The blossoming of Word on Fire into a national and international evangelization movement was happening before Father Barron became Bishop Barron.  The late Cardinal George saw this very clearly. He understood that what many missionary movements in the Church’s past had accomplished, Word on Fire was doing in the present.  Bishop Barron’s appointment as a bishop escalated and enhanced what was already taking place.

Of course, there is more exposure and his office imparts more gravitas to his person and his work.  The greatest resource that Word on Fire receives are the relationships that are fostered, but also the community of Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire team.  In terms of his duties as bishop, yes there are those, and in many respects his time as a seminary rector prepared him for his current responsibilities.  We are beginning the filming of the second volume of Pivotal Players in June and have more projects in the works.  Shortly after his consecration as bishop, Bishop Barron and I made pilgrimage to Monterey to pray at the tomb of the renowned missionary/evangelist, St. Juniperro Serra.  After completing his prayers at the site, Bishop Barron rose from his knees, walked over to me and quoting St. Juniperro said “Always forward”.  And so it is for Bishop Barron and his Word on Fire team.

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About Paul Senz 113 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

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