Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., and Bishop Robert Barron in conversation

The two engage in a conversation about Fr. Fessio’s life story and education, the founding of Ignatius Press, and his friendships with Henri de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., and Bishop Robert Barron. (Image: Screenshot /

Word on Fire founder Bishop Robert Barron, who is bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, recently spoke with Fr. Fessio, S.J., founder and editor of Ignatius Press.

“Friends,” writes Bishop Barron about the interview, “Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, was formed by some of the greatest figures of twentieth-century Catholicism, including Henri de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. We discuss his life story, his education, his experience in Europe, the founding of Ignatius Press, and more.”

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  1. I completely agree with Fr. Fessio’s sense of the what I will call the “liberal-theological-ideology,” as exemplified by Rahner: a “mechanical” mind, and (as agreed by both Fessio and Barron), a mechanism aimed at “turning wine into water,” (or “naturalizing” what is…as testified by, for instance New Testament witnesses…in reality “supernatural”). In summary, the grim and empty march of being “liberated” (from God) and selling oneself back into slavery of the “new-Egypt” (the establishment empire, the “one-true-god”).

    • Isn’t it interesting that Fr. Fessio, also trained as an engineer, with a mechanical understanding of how things work, is the one to identify Rahner’s mechanical approach as insufficient spiritually. Once told our children that you can be “on fire with love” but you cannot measure that with a thermometer.

      • Dear MJ Anderson, I like that perspective very much.

        Without understanding the differences between the flesh, the soul, and the spirit, too many of us charge into naturalistic ‘explanations’ of faith.

      • And they brush aside Edward Cornelis Florentius Alfonsus Schillebeeckx OP as the Anti-Apostolic pagan he was, who should have been banned from his first corruptions of Catholic theology but was allowed to lead many faithful Catholics wildly astray, denying The Resurrection of our LORD, Jesus Christ. May God forgive him, the errant & effete Roman Curia, & all of us..

  2. It required faith to survive that spiritual cataclysm within the Church. Fr Fessio against the tide founded a needed beacon for the faith, Ignatius Press.

    • Amen Fr. M.

      I owe a great debt of gratitude to Fr. Fessio, whose Ignatius Press was a central core in my adult Catholic continuing education.

      • “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesiastical Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque).

        Will you, Father Fessio and Bishop Barron, please, out of Love and concern for Christ and His Church, speak about the apostasy of Jorge Bergoglio and save The Papacy and thus Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church from all those Baptized Catholics, who, in denying The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque) deny the Divinity of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, which is apostasy?

        Why would any Faithful Catholic allow this Great Apostasy, due to a denial of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, continue to grow?

        • Gee – you seem to have noticed an “apostasy” that the entire world has missed. All the bishops of the world missed it, and all the priests and all the theologians. Good catch.

          • his is what Jorge Bergoglio said,
            prior to his election as pope, on page 117 of his book, On Heaven And Earth, demonstrating that he does not hold, keep, or teach The Catholic Faith, and he continues to act accordingly:
            “If there is a union of a private nature, there is neither a third party, nor is society affected. Now, if the union is given the category of marriage, there could be children affected. Every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help shape their identity.”- Jorge Bergoglio, denying The Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and the fact that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, while denying sin done in private is sin.

            From The Catechism Of The Catholic Church:
            1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”121
            1850 Sin is an offense against God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.”122 Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become “like gods,”123 knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus “love of oneself even to contempt of God.”124 In this proud self- exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.125“

            One cannot claim that sin done “in private” is not sin, without denying The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, and thus the fact that There Is Only One Son Of God, One Word Of God Made Flesh, One Lamb Of God Who Can Taketh Away The Sins Of The World, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus there can only be, One Spirit Of Perfect Complementary Love Between The Father And The Son, Who Must Proceed From Both The Father And The Son, In The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity. (Filioque) Although at the end of the Day, it is still a Great Mystery, It is no Mystery, that we exist, because God, The Communion Of Perfect Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Exists. It has always been about The Marriage In Heaven and On Earth

            . “Blessed are those that are Called to The Marriage Supper Of The Lamb.”

            “Canon 188 §4 states that among the actions which automatically (ipso facto) cause any cleric to lose his office, even without any declaration on the part of a superior, is that of “defect[ing] publicly from the Catholic faith” (” A fide catholica publice defecerit“).

            To deny The Unity Of The Holy Ghost is to deny The Divinity Of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity which is apostasy.

  3. Thanks to Bishop Barron and Fr. Fessio. I am a lifelong Catholic with
    no formal theological training. Yet, I learned and understood a great deal
    from this conversation.
    When the bishop asked Fr. Fessio why he had remained in the priesthood
    while so many left in the 70s and 80s, he replied, “Because I made a promise
    to God.” This to me was the most inspiring and memorable moment in the
    While the media showers attention on Fr. James Martin and the very
    strange Cardinal Fernandez, God’s work goes on quietly through humble holy
    people like Fr. Fessio.
    God Bless him.

  4. At 57:30, in response to Bishop Barron’s question about the Jesuits today, Fr. Fessio responds, “Who’s the major figurehead or the face of the Jesuits today?” A slight pause then he answers it himself by saying, “Fr. James Martin.”. I would have guessed the Pope, as a Jesuit, is the figurehead or face of the Jesuits today. Interestingly, but not surprising, unless I’m mistaken, there is no mention of Pope Francis, SJ, in the entire hour-long discussion. Since Ignatius Press was founded by Jesuit Fr. Fessio, I would have asked him if he had ever met his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis. But having done his doctorate under Fr. Ratzinger, my guess is that Pope Francis wouldn’t be interested in meeting with him. Great interview!

  5. Thank you for this conversational treatment of three very heady theologians. From the back row may I venture two footnotes of support:

    FIRST, on the “dominant idea” if Ratzinger/Benedict on the nature of the Council, not only was it about the the continuity with Tradition rather than about rupture, at the core of this insight it was about returning even more directly (not to previous statements on letterhead) to the historical event of the astonishing and even alarming Incarnation.

    Regarding even the heading of the Council’s draft schema, “De fontibus revelationis,” Ratzinger remarked:

    “Granted that all textbooks say so, also granted that Vatican I uses this title as a subheading in Chapter 2, ‘De revelatione,’ where it re-emphasizes the Tridentine resolutions on Scripture and tradition. But the Council of Trent itself did not use these words and in the actual Vatican text the expression does not occur again […] Really, Scripture and tradition are not the sources of revelation [!]. God revealing himself—his speaking and self-disclosure [!]—is the ‘unus fons’ which the two ‘rivuli’, Scripture and tradition, flow” (cited in Peter Seewald, “Benedict XVI: A Live,” Vol. I, p. 367).

    This is the TAPROOT of the Genoa Speech delivered by Cardinal Frings and which invigorated the Council into ressourcement and aggiornamento, and the still-awaited, authentic new evangelization.

    SECOND, Fr. Fessio’s accurate caricature of Rahner as “mechanical,” in contrast with the richness and breadth of von Baltazar—this recalls the also mechanical (!) Charles’ Darwin in his refreshing self-assessment:

    “This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine [!] for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.

    “A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect [!], and more probably to the moral character [!] by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. . . . My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics [!] or mathematics” (Charles Darwin, Sir Francis Darwin, ed., “Charles Darwin’s Autobiography,” New York: Henry Schuman, 1950, pp. 66-67).

    • “God revealing himself—his speaking and self-disclosure [!]—is the ‘unus fons’ which the two ‘rivuli’, Scripture and tradition, flow”, So simple but lost in translation. Why Benedict XVI is a great theologian, even reaching back to the Council.

      • YES, exactly and absolutely!…
        And having redone the schema on Divine Revelation, Benedict then watched the rest of the Council sessions go on a more full-throated “dialogue”—but still holding to “discontinuity WITHIN continuity,” e.g., “more than a thousand references to the teachings of Pius XII in both spoken and written contributions [to the Documents] (ibid, 460).

        Peter Seewald: “Ratzinger’s contribution to [Dei Verbum] opened up a new perspective: it turned away from the over-theoretical to a personal, historical understanding of God’s revelation, focused on reconciliation and salvation” (ibid, 461).

        Is the PROBLEM today the elevation of the pastorally “concrete” above a supposedly “abstract” and yet truly deeper, higher, and inseparable reconciliation and salvation?

        About which—and applicable to the current bifurcation of the Church under the tortured logic of Fiducia Supplicans—this more inclusive (less myopic) insight from von Balthasar:

        “…what is continuity for [the Holy Spirit] is apt, often enough, to look incomprehensibly disjointed to men [….]” Of “the deeper continuity”: “…what [the Holy Spirit] will not tolerate is having everything new and fresh in the Church’s history reduced, in the name of tradition, to what is old and has ‘always been known anyway’, if only implicitly. The genuine tradition of the Church can only be compared within very strict limits to the phenomenon of organic or psychic development from the implicit to the explicit [….]”

        HOWEVER: “The truths that come into new prominence can never contradict the old [!], but nevertheless the Spirit can in every age blow where he will, and in every age can bring to the fore entirely new aspects of divine Revelation” (Balthasar, “A Theology of History,” Ignatius/Communio, 1994, pp. 106-7).
        Both and, not either or.
        Again, the PROBLEM, the fragmentation and even contradiction (?) today—some would say the deception—is the exemption of what is informally “pastoral” from what is formally taught. Zeitgeist versus Christ?

        The Catechism and two recent popes affirm BOTH the Beatitudes and the Commandments, i.e., the natural law and moral absolutes: “…the commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, BUT it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken” (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 52).

  6. Bishop Barron never wears his cap and uniform. Is he looking to make points wit father Fessio. Does father Fessio know that Barron believes in Trans signification and trans finalization in his book on the Eucharist

  7. My guess is there was an understanding beforehand that discussion of Francis was off the table. Fessio is too much of a gentleman to put Barron in the position of being Stricklanded.

  8. Enthusiasm for what Von Balthazar did with Beauty? Didn’t he make it equal with Truth, which is making feeling equal with rather than in a subordinate relation to reason? I am just finishing up reading “On Modernism” by Pius X. I am not educated enough to know, but the sense I have is that Delubac and Von Balthazar embraced the modernist idea that the proper object, even dignity, of religion, as opposed to science is the irrational “vital” sense, and where that will end only God (in the Hegelian sense of the Spirit) only knows. If my sense is wrong, please take the time to do a spiritual work of mercy and educate me. I like Fr Fessio but not because his unqualified embrace of these two. The idea that Beauty does not have its dignity in the proper subordination to Truth is what Newman summarized as what he fought against his whole life, the idea of “Moral Taste.” To say that one appreciates both Von Balthazar and Aquinas, as Bishop Barron has, is to say that one appreciates Von Balthazar. It is kind of a nonsense statment from my low angle. Again, educate me differently. Enthusiasms are expressed in this interview and allegiances declared, but no distinctions drawn.

    • Ratzinger/Benedict recognizes and responds to your critique and others in his “On the Way to Jesus Christ” (Ignatius, 2005, pages 36-41). Here in fragments:

      “Taking this insight [the path of beauty] as his point of departure, Hans Urs von Balthasar builds his ‘magnum opus’ of theological aesthetics [which…] has not been widely accepted.” But, about rational argument alone:

      “Arguments so often have to effect, because too many contradictory arguments compete with one another in our world, so that one cannot help thinking of the remark of the medieval theologians that reason has a wax nose: in other words, it can be turned around in any direction, if one is clever enough. It is all so clever, so evident–whom should we believe.”

      Then a page or two on uplifting music, painting, icons, the senses, and “the splendor of God’s glory, the ‘glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6).” But, then, correction of another objection as,

      “…a flight into the irrational, into mere aestheticism. For, the opposite is true: this is precisely the way in which reason is freed from her dullness and becomes capable of action.” But also, what of “the question [of] the power of falsehood, seduction, violence, and evil in general. Is not realit basically evil? […] that after Auschwitz it is no longer possible to write poetry [….]”

      “And so we return to the ‘two trumpets’ of the Bible with which we started, to the paradox that we can say of Christ both: ‘You are the fairest of men’, and ‘He had no beauty…his appearance was so marred.'[….] The experience of the beautiful has received a new depth and a new realism. The One who is beauty itself [!] let himself be struck in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns–the Shroud of Turin can help us realize this in a moving way. Yet precisely in this Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, the ultimate beauty: the beauty of love that goes ‘to the very end’ and thus proves to be mightier than falsehood and violence.”

      Then comments on yet another strategy of falsehood:

      “…a beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves into the ecstasy of starting off toward the heights but instead immures them completely within themselves” [my gratuitous edit: or a mere replica of themselves as under Felucia Supplicans?].

      Last lines: “Nothing can bring us into contact with the beauty of Christ himself more than the world of beauty created by faith and the light that shines upon the faces of the saints, through which his own light becomes visible.”

  9. Dear Peter D Beaulieu, so many good points that, like this amazing conversation between Fr Joseph Fessio SJ & Bishop Robert Barron, delight the heart of an elderly, multidisciplinary, Catholic Christian academic like me.

    Yet: our delight in participation in such learned, logical, elegant, & charitable perspectives & outworkings of the eternal Good News of The Kingdom of God given to us in Jesus Christ rarely if ever reach the level of ECSTASY. In fact, many Catholics restrict that possibility to some extraordinary, private experiences of a few saints, beyond the common wheal.

    Yet: your lovely quote from Karl Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, edges us toward the closeness & simplicity of ECSTASY: “. . on uplifting music, painting, icons, the senses, and “the splendor of God’s glory, the ‘glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6).” . . . this is precisely the way in which reason is freed from her dullness and becomes capable of action.”

    Is that not where PF, CF, and cohort go right off the rails by conflating the physiological joy of biologically determined endocrine action [flesh driving soul], with the totally distinct cerebral joy of divine encounter in praise & worship [spirit driving soul]; as Jesus exhorts us in Luke 10:20 -“. . rejoice that your names are written in Heaven.”

    The joys of our soul driven by our flesh are a different reality altogether to the ECSTASIES of our soul driven by The Holy Spirit. For a Christian pastor, is there anything more damaging than confusing them? As part of all that Jesuit education were they never taught the difference between flesh, soul, & spirit?

    The truth is that The Father will deluge those who ask with The Holy Spirit, often manifesting as personal ECSTASY. I can vouch for this in my life. As an example: touches of divine ECSTASY can readily be observed on the faces of the performers, led by Matt Redman, & many of the audience at The Mission, singing: ‘The Praise Is Yours.’

    The spectacular intellectualization of Christian faith and practice by Catholic thinkers & others provides us with a feast of inspiring ideas. Yet, the little ones have more wisdom still when they just REJOICE IN THE LORD!

    See Luke 10:21-23 – “FATHER, I thank You . . for You have revealed these things to little children . .”

    Ever rapt in the ecstasy of Christ-with-us; love & blessings from marty

    • So well said, Marty; wisdom born of experience and age. Having immersed myself in Carmelite spirituality for a while, (and still holding it precious) I totally agree with what you say. Reading your comment reminded me, though, of a very important maxim of Teresa and John of the Cross: that it is very foolish and even dangerous to seek these ecstatic experiences especially for themselves. To do so becomes almost a form of idolatry. They saw pursuing ecstatic experiences as one of the serious faults of ‘beginners’ in the spiritual life. Now, incorporate the physical/sexual orgasm in that pursuit, well, I somehow don’t think those with any depth of spirituality would ‘approve’.

      I must say that my one major ‘ecstatic’ experience was when I was ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit’ when I was 15; it was like experiencing a waterfall pouring through me from my head to my toes and then up again. In a split second, I was a totally different person after that – Jesus all of a sudden seemed totally real and I honestly could not stop smiling for days. I’ve tried to rationalise this experience away as I got older and flirted with atheism and became more intellectual – but NOTHING has shaken that experience out of me. Yes, it was ecstatic, it was a conversion experience. It was THE core point and remains the core point in my turning world. And God knows I needed it or I’d probably have given up in every way by now.

      So, yeah, and also as an abuse survivor (child and adult) connecting spiritual ecstasy with sexual orgasm, while I can maybe entertain this as a metaphor especially when it occurs between two loving committed people, overall, the combination is, I believe, deeply unhealthy in regard to individual spirituality. But it is a total anathema when it is weaponised by abusers, something I have been told occurred by too many victims of so called spiritual clergy.

  10. Woops, I was responding to an email notification I got so thought we were still talking about THAT book by THAT cardinal. Nevertheless, my comments about (spiritual) ecstasy still stand. I do believe that such experiences occur and not just amongst the ‘saints’ alone. Anyway, now I shall go an d listen to the conversation.

    Cheers, all.

  11. A wonderful reminder that the Jesuit order still boasts highly articulate, faithful priests, too easy to overlook with undue negative attention given some rebels.

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