Mundelein Seminary, Ill. — It’s 7:15 on Tuesday morning and, as on most mornings, Father Robert Barron, rector of the seminary here, unassumingly takes an open seat among the seminarians and faculty of Mundelein, and some of the staff and students of the University of St. Mary of the Lake. Father Barron is best known for his Catholicism series, which appeared on PBS not long ago, and his Word on Fire ministry (involving, among other things, YouTube videos); his media work flows from a mandate Cardinal Francis George gave him several years ago to evangelize the culture. But here he is as if an abbot of a monastery, gathered with his community for prayer, on this serene campus outside of Chicago, which today is experiencing something of a Platonic ideal of a beautiful day.
This particular morning, after a brief greeting, the newly announced archbishop of Chicago slips in alongside Father Barron, just a few rows from the back, for Morning Prayer. Archbishop Blase Cupich, currently the bishop of Spokane, will be installed as the successor of Cardinal George, who is suffering from not his first bout of cancer.
“We are people not to worry, but to depend on the mercy of God,” Cupich began as he greeted the men of Mundelein Seminary minutes later, expressing his happiness at being with them, to celebrate their morning Mass with them.
Cupich said that this was one of the first things he wanted to do as the new archbishop: be with the seminarians under his care. In his homily, he urged them to embrace their roles as beacons of reconciliation and healing in their families. “You all are here because you have heard the word of God,” Cupich said. “Be taken by it and share it.”
“You will help members of your family have that desire you have, to want to seek Jesus,” he encouraged and assured them.
He sounded familiar themes from what I had encountered reading some of his columns and homilies just a few nights before. During an ordination Mass in June, he said: “Keep your priesthood sacred, not by separating yourself from people, but by accompanying them and building up the family of God’s people. Be the kind of merciful father in Luke’s parable, who invites others, especially those easily rejected and judged, into the banquet of life. Remember that Jesus’ heart is sacred because he remains in God and God in Him, and because he shares that life of God with us.”
And yet, ever since the news of a new archbishop for Chicago had broken a few days before, all the media and commentary buzz was about politics. A “moderate” replaces a “conservative” was the conventional wisdom. But there were no politics here at Mundelein. Spiritual fatherhood was on display and being cultivated.
As in many of his columns and homilies and speeches available online, Cupich appeared to be something of a radical — that is, pointing to Jesus Christ and the Gospels, which are exactly that.
Here in America we’re approaching our midterm elections, a season that can tend toward polarization. It is good to keep in mind, however, that the backdrop — and what we are stewards of — is something “majestic” about the American Constitution, as William F. Buckley Jr. put it. In a 1979 speech on “What Americanism Seeks to Be,” he praised the Constitution — and in particular the Bill of Rights — for prohibiting government from infringing on human dignity and flourishing. But it wasn’t merely some grand idea, some clever strategy, some brilliant ideology. “It grew out of a long, empirical journey,” WFB reflected, “the eternal spark of which, of course, traces to Bethlehem, to that star that magnified man beyond any power of the emperors and gold seekers and legions of soldiers and slaves: a star that implanted in each one of us that essence that separates us from the beasts, and tells us that we were made in the image of God and were meant to be free.”
That spark was the topic, too, of a conference this past week at the Catholic University of America’s 18-month-old business school in Washington, D.C., co-sponsored by the Napa Institute. Business is a calling, in which sin is to be avoided and solidarity and even preference for the poor is to be pursued. For the Christian in business, said Atlanta businessman Frank Hanna, wealth cannot be seen as merely material. “I couldn’t wall off part of my life from God,” Sean Fieler, a successful Manhattan hedge-fund president, explained, concluding from his own experience that “we need to encourage ethical people in business to put people before profit.”
When Archbishop Cupich met the press in Chicago, upon the announcement of his new post, he said that Pope Francis had just appointed “a pastor, not a message” to Chicago. Rather than distract ourselves with “who is in and who is out” and “up and down” and what that might mean — as if we were scoring a baseball game or a presidential debate — we might consider that sometimes news might be most constructively an occasion for examining our consciences and renewing our most fundamental commitments, rather than for quasi-political ecclesial punditry.
In no small part because of the constant bombardment our senses experience daily, and the busyness of our lives, we often miss the greater context of things. With Word on Fire, Father Barron tries to help with this, renewing our understanding of Christian culture, which which can be a great gift to a civilization. “Keep in mind that Christianity is not a philosophy, it’s not a program, it’s not a theory. Christianity is a relationship to a person, to this Jesus Christ,” Father Barron says in a new DVD, Priest, Prophet, King. It’s “always a good idea,” he says, for the Christian “to return” to Jesus.
Too often, “stupidity and hatred and violence and cruelty and institutional injustice” cast a fog. And as sinners, Christians aren’t always the saints — the leaven — we’re supposed to be in the world. That return — that daily encounter with Christ that Father Barron (and the pope, as if on steroids) encourages — is of an ecumenical value our secular age ought to welcome, never mind tolerate.
If we are to be good stewards, we will consider that ideology and profit are not everything. We can’t let either of those become an idol lest we lose sight of the spark we need, for it is the exercise of virtue that keeps us honest and free. We need holy radicals among us. Priests, pastors, parents, sons and daughters, voters, and, yes, even businessmen and politicians.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.