Bishop Robert Barron: Leading the frontlines of evangelization

Bishop Barron at the Friary of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Newark, N.J. Photo: Manny Marquez

Bishop Robert Barron is one of the most widely read and respected clergy members in the Church today. He is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, a global media apostolate. Since 2015 he has served as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1986 in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Bishop Barron spoke with Catholic Digest about his latest work, The Mass, a six-part video series that explains the liturgy, and some of his other projects. 

Bishop Barron after Easter Mass in Santa Barbara, Calif. Photo: Joseph Gloor

Q: We understand you have a new series about the Mass. What can you tell us about the development of the videos and about the series itself?  

A: We, the Word on Fire team, developed the series in conjunction with Spirit Juice Studios, with whom we’ve worked many times. We had about a thousand people come out to Our Lady of Sorrows, a beautiful church in downtown Santa Barbara, and we filmed these talks that I gave, walking through the Mass. I gave the talks, and Spirit Juice put together the presentations with lots of beautiful graphics and music. They also had a drone camera taking sweeping aerial shots of Santa Barbara. 

Q: What about the talks themselves — what was your goal for them, and what is their focus?

A: The first talk is kind of a general theology of the Mass, an overview. From there I walked my way through the different parts of the Mass. My conviction is that the Mass is one of the most misunderstood, or poorly understood, elements of our faith. I’m convinced that most Catholics stay away from the Mass (only 25 percent show up each week), and that even those who come have, to an alarming degree, lost a sense of what the Mass is. We all come together to sing songs and talk about Jesus. But what’s really happening at the Mass? How is it different than a TED Talk with music, or a religious jamboree? Few people are clear on that. So that’s what I focused on: what the Mass is and why it matters.

The series has already sold exceptionally well, and I’m not really surprised. I think a lot of Catholic educators — RCIA directors, adult formation people — understand how poorly the Mass is understood. So the series has been widely listened to and bought, and I’m happy about that. 

Photo: Doug Ellis

Q: How do you envision this series inviting people to participate more fully not just in the Mass but in the life of the Church?

A: What I try to emphasize is a very Vatican II idea, with its roots in the liturgical movement: The Mass is the place where all the baptized exercise their priestly responsibility. Vatican II wanted to remind every baptized person that you’re a priest, which means you’ve got a responsibility to enter into this great act of worship, the Mass. The priestly office leads now to the prophetic and kingly office. 

If you read Reynold Hillenbrand, Karl Adam, and Romano Guardini, among others, you see that that’s the point they’re making. The Mass, which unifies and makes the mystical body of Christ, now has implications for the transformation of the world. It sends people out on a mission, and it sends them out as priests, prophets, and kings. 

Q: You’ve spoken often about having catechists on fire with the faith. So this series is probably a way of accomplishing that goal. Catechists are watching and then going into the classroom with that knowledge. 

A: That’s my hope. A lot of my work aims to combine the true and the beautiful. I want the series to be substantive. And there’s a lot of substance in the talks. To that end, we also have an elaborate study guide to go along with it.

But I wanted the talks to also be beautiful and watchable and interesting. Most people under the age of 40 today are geared to a video world. So I wanted to bring substance to bear in a medium that people are now more likely to use, and with a high production value that will attract them. I think we accomplished all that with The Mass series.

Q: With this series and all your programs, how do you go beyond preaching to the choir, the people who are already on board or are already receptive?

A: I always think in terms of concentric circles. I don’t mind preaching to the choir. The choir needs to be lifted up and deepen their understanding, too. That’s very inner circle. But then, I hope, that inner circle of educators, teachers, and adult formators, and so on, will reach out to the second circle. I’m OK with preaching to the choir, because you have to start somewhere, and if you start there, that inner circle will educate the next circle, and that circle influences the wider one beyond it, and so on. 

Now, of course, I do different types of work. Take, for example, my YouTube videos. These videos are on culture — movies, books, current events. Those aren’t designed for the choir, but instead to reach the outer circles. And they do. This is verified by the fact that the comments are perhaps 98 percent negative. They’re mostly non-Catholics of various stripes. But at least through those negative comments you know the videos are going out to this wider world and doing their work.

Similarly, the CATHOLICISM film series was designed to go out to a wider audience, which it did through PBS. So I have different target audiences for the different projects that I do, but I always think of concentric circles.

Q: You also have a great series about influential Catholics called The Pivotal Players. Each episode focuses on a different saint, mystic, artist, or scholar who not only shaped the Church but also changed the course of Western civilization. When choosing whom to feature, do you look for individuals who have a particular relevance for the issues that society faces today?

A: Yes, in every case I was trying to address that. Take John Henry Newman, for example, who so powerfully addresses the faith–reason issue, which is a massive issue for young people today. G.K. Chesterton, this very winsome evangelist, at a time when people were very skeptical of Christianity, found a way to announce it effectively. Just see the substantial number of converts to Catholicism who were led by Chesterton. Catherine of Siena, whom I read as someone who gets us in touch with the mystical and transcendent in such a powerful and surprising way, is needed today, when we’re kind of locked into a very secularist view. And of course there is Fulton Sheen for his relevance for and influence on our contemporary communications.

At the same time, I would say a more powerful concern was to show the chronological sweep of the Church. I wanted representatives from the ancient Church, the medieval Church, from the early modern Church, from the 19th and a couple from the 20th century. At each of these key moments, I asked who were the players upon which things were really pivoting? Of course, we also covered quite a few of these pivotal players, including a number of women, in the CATHOLICISM series, particularly in the episode on the saints. 

Bishop Barron in the choir loft at St. Agnes Church in Manhattan during the filming of “CATHOLICISM: The Pivotal Players — Ven. Fulton Sheen.” Photo: Joseph Gloor

Q: Let’s talk about the CATHOLICISM series, released 10 years ago. What has surprised you most? What has exceeded your expectations?

A: All of us who were involved felt a call to do that series. And we did it on a total shoestring budget. But once it was done, we launched it into the Catholic space and then through PBS into the wider space. It’s been received in a way that we never dreamed possible. I think people responded to the high quality of the production. We knew we wanted that. My feeling is that in the post-conciliar period, when I was coming of age, people were starved for smart and beautiful Catholicism. I think we tended to dumb down the faith, and we rendered it less than beautiful. So a presentation that’s truthful, smart, and beautiful appealed to people. Few things make me happier than hearing people have come back to the faith because of the CATHOLICISM series. 

Q: You have a direct, friendly style that draws people into conversation. Your recent interview on The Rubin Report on YouTube is a good example of that. The interview goes beyond committed Catholics to those who don’t believe or are hostile to the Church.

A: And there are the concentric circles again. Way out there, in the furthest circle, are your militant atheists, though Dave Rubin is not a militant atheist. He’s kind of an interested agnostic. But my goal is always to proclaim the faith in all those circles. Go and preach the Gospel to all nations, the Lord says. So joining him on his show was a tremendous evangelical opportunity. We’ve since heard from dozens of atheists and agnostics who watched the Dave Rubin interview and are now exploring religion.

We heard similar stories after my talk at Facebook’s headquarters and at Google’s headquarters.

You have to be flexible and nimble evangelically. There isn’t one tool, approach, or strategy. It depends who you’re talking to. At the same time, you want to be smart without being polemical, because that’s rarely effective. Being polemical may give you satisfaction, but it’s not effective if the goal is drawing people to Christ. It just pushes people away. So that’s what I try to model in all my evangelical work. 

Q: When you engage in conversation with someone who is hostile to the faith, what do you consider a successful outcome to the conversation?

A: Sometimes, and we have records of this, people have been led from militant atheism all the way to Baptism. That’s the ultimate goal. But I’m usually delighted in the YouTube world if someone were to signal openness to hearing more. I’m very happy with that, and I get that more than you’d expect.

Few people are likely to say, “Bishop Barron, you’re right and I’m wrong; I’m utterly convinced by what you say.” But usually there’s still something happening inside. They may seem opposed outwardly, but something is cooking behind the scenes when they start really thinking about it. In fact, very often I’ve had people tell me, “A very long time ago I argued with you on YouTube, and what you said had an impact on me. I started reading and thinking more about God.” Or I’ll hear from someone else who wasn’t even part of the comment exchange tell me that they were lurking in the background, reading the comments, and it was through those [that] they had a conversion experience. That’s obviously a successful outcome.

Q: What are some new projects we can look forward to from Word on Fire ministry?

A: We recently launched what we’re calling the Word on Fire Movement, which is an attempt to build a community, first online but then on the ground as well, centered around evangelization. It’s been a longtime dream of mine.

The first part of that movement is our new Word on Fire Institute, which contains video courses and training from me and other leading evangelists and teachers. They’re meant to form people in how to evangelize family, work, society, and the wider culture. 

The institute also features a great online community, which we hope will develop offline into study groups and communities. We then hope to launch Word on Fire centers across the country, in Texas, California, New York, and other places. My ultimate dream is even a Word on Fire religious order with people who dedicate their whole lives to evangelizing the culture, reaching out to the “nones,” because I think that’s the central challenge of our time. The crises Ignatius faced in his time, or Francis, or Dominic, or Benedict, the great founders, we’re facing now. People leaving, losing a sense of God, the rise of atheism, and so forth, so we have to be on the frontlines fighting it, and the Word on Fire Movement will play a part in that effort. 


Word on Fire Movement WordOnFire.Institute 

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