Politics & Policy

Catholicism, No Joke

A grand tour of an enduring, transforming story

‘I’d like you to convert Chicago,” Fr. Robert Barron remembers his boss, Francis Cardinal George, archbishop of Chicago, telling him about six years ago.

The result may just be on a PBS station near you this fall.

Father Barron, a Chicago priest and professor, has created a remarkable book and TV series called Catholicism — which, in providing a fresh introduction to a 2,000-year-old tradition, manages to be both elaborate and humble. It is openly a work of evangelization (complete with available study guides and a prayer card), and is done in a way that is welcoming to a wide potential audience.

Barron characterizes his effort as a “guided exploration of the Catholic world, but not in the manner of a docent, for I am not interested in showing you the artifacts of Catholicism as though they were dusty objets d’art in a museum of culture. I want to function rather as a mystagogue, conducting you ever deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation in the hopes that you might be transformed by its power.” He makes excellent use of the vibrancy of technology to reintroduce a vocabulary and tradition that has, of late, been too much hindered by a lack of confidence.

Barron writes: “I have based my life on the knowledge that God speaks with greatest clarity in the Bethlehem baby, too weak to raise his head but more powerful than Caesar Augustus, in the rabbi who, trumping the Torah itself, told all of us how to find beatitude, in the warrior who picked a fight in the Temple precincts, in the young man, tortured to death on a squalid hill outside Jerusalem, with the words, ‘Father, forgive them,’ on his lips, in the risen one who said ‘Shalom’ to those who had abandoned and betrayed him, in Maschiach Ieshoua, Christ Jesus, the Lord of all the nations.”

And while there is no mistaking Barron’s presence as the host, he loves to talk about Catholicism as a team effort, the fruits of the talent and generosity of many (not to mention the gifts of Someone beyond them all). It’s a truly pastoral approach, a good reminder to people of faith who feel exiled by the culture: Don’t stay in exile; engage. Don’t feel like a victim; be a brother. This, too, is Catholicism: a manifestation of God’s glory here on earth, but also a human attempt to seek that which is greater, making use of the creative means to which we have access in the here and now.

“I wanted something that was elevated. Something that was intellectual. But also something that was lyrical. Something that would draw people into the texture and the feel of Catholicism,” Barron tells me. And so he shows us everything from Aristotle and St. John of the Cross to baseball and John Henry Newman.

You don’t have to be Catholic, want to be Catholic, or even like Catholics to go on this journey. It’s not a homily. Barron doesn’t preach at you. Perhaps wowed by the high-def wonder of it all, more than one PBS station agreed it is worth a look.

The series does not challenge just the viewer, but also the author: Barron’s producer occasionally questions him on camera.

In the midst of years of scandal and crisis headlines, what is good and beautiful about Catholicism still remains. Why? And why would you want it? The series presents answers to these questions, too.

And yet, it’s also the best sermon you’ve ever heard. The best class you’ve ever taken. Or the homily you’ve never heard and the classroom you never had available to you.

The ten-part series, to be partially aired on 80 PBS stations and EWTN, and available in a ten-DVD set, takes us on a trip to the Holy Land, Chartres, the Sistine Chapel, Calcutta, and Uganda.

Father Barron says the most memorable of his travels were those last two. He had studied in Paris and taught in Rome, but this was something different. “Calcutta is like the worst, most squalid garbage dump you’ve ever seen writ large. But where people are living. On the sidewalks. In boxes. And in the midst of all of this, here are these women of tremendous joy and dedication.” He celebrated Mass where Mother Teresa is buried and says, “I remember thinking people will be coming here for a thousand years; there will be Catholic pilgrims here in a thousand years.”

The destination in Uganda is Namugongo, where St. Charles Lwanga and 21 companions were martyred in 1886. Barron visits on the feast day, and reports that 500,000 had come to the spot where the martyrs were burned at the stake. “It was extraordinarily moving,” he says. It would have been reasonable to predict, at the time of the executions, that “the end of Christianity in Africa” was at hand. Instead, Barron points to the hundreds of thousands and — recalling Tertullian’s contention that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” — says, “You tell me.”

In a day when discussion of the Catholic Church often turns readily, and understandably, to scandal — “abusive priests, clueless bishops, corruption” — Father Barron has not forgotten that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” in every tabernacle in the world. Or so he believes, teaches, and seeks to live, along with others who truly seek to live Catholicism. While absolutely in favor of addressing the penitential and ministerial difficulties of “the worst crisis of the Church in America,” with Catholicism, Father Barron refuses to “surrender” to a “tendency to reduce the Catholic Church to our present difficulties.”

The story he tells is this enduring belief, that “the Word of God — the mind by which the whole universe came to be — did not remain sequestered in heaven but rather entered into this ordinary world of bodies, this grubby arena of history, this compromised and tear-stained human condition of ours.”

Catholicism is a crash course and, as the cover of the book depicts, an open door. Father Barron takes full advantage here, as he has done in his Word on Fire ministry, of the new schools of our new media. “It’s a way in,” he says.

Catholicism is classic, revolutionary, and plausibly — like the Gospels themselves — game-changing reality TV.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Feature Syndicate.

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