‘Show, don’t tell,” Bishop Robert Barron emphasizes, trying to do his part to lead by example.
As journalist John L. Allen Jr. writes in the book they’ve collaborated on, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, Barron is convinced that the moral teachings of Catholicism are true, and that people who strive to practice them will live healthier, happier, and more-fulfilled lives.
At the same time, he knows that in a postmodern, secular world, “rule-talk” often comes off as an attempt to limit people’s freedom rather than to free them to become the people God intends them to be. Therefore, the right way to deploy “the good” as a missionary tool is to start by showing people what a genuinely Christian life at its best looks like — and then, gradually, to lead people to appreciate the principles and norms that make that kind of heroic life possible.
Bishop Barron’s chief contribution to leading the way might be the video series he’s been producing via Word on Fire, the media apostolate he founded after the late Cardinal Francis George put him on a mission to evangelize the culture. (John Paul II asked Cardinal George what he was doing on that front, so he put one of his priests, clearly gifted in communicating, on the case.)
That series, Catholicism, puts some of the historic beauty of the faith and its civilizational effects on display. Pivotal Players, a work in progress, highlights some of the people (St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis Assisi, Michelangelo, and G. K. Chesterton among them) whose lives can inspire us today to fearlessly insist on something better than what the world tends to settle for.
In To Light a Fire on the Earth, Barron explains:
There’s a wonderful story told of a young man named Gregory, who came to the great Origen in order to learn the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. Origen said to him, “First come and share the life of our community and then you will understand our dogma. The youthful Gregory took that advice, came in time to embrace the Christian faith in its fullness, and is now known to history as St. Gregory the Wonderworker. Something of the same impulse lay behind Gerard Manley Hopkins’s word to a confrere who was struggling to accept the truth of Christianity. The Jesuit poet did not instruct his colleague to read a book or consult an argument but rather said, “Give alms.” The living of the Christian thing has a persuasive power.
This book was published this week, the same week that Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed by Congress to sit on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. During Barrett’s confirmation hearing, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein expressed concern that “the dogma lives loudly within” Barrett, referring to her Catholic faith. When given the opportunity to clarify or walk these remarks back, amid charges of anti-Catholicism and a rigid secularism that would narrow religious freedom, Feinstein doubled down and then defended herself by saying, essentially, that some of her best friends are Catholic.
I was grateful some years ago now when Feinstein took up the cause of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, which gave poor students in Washington, D.C., a fighting chance in Catholic schools. I don’t think Feinstein is truly an anti-Catholic bigot; she just breathes the same air most of us do.
Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, once described Catholics as having succumbed to one of two choices: becoming turtles or chameleons. We either bury our heads in the sand or blend in with the culture. We don’t want to stand out or be noticed. But to live the Gospel, one’s life should look different than much of what we see in the world. It should look different because you have hope, for one thing, and real, true, love that come from being called by Truth and Love and Beauty Himself.
In To Light a Fire on the Earth, Bishop Barron talks about some of our contemporaries who most famously understood this and lived it in such a way that they became household names:
John Paul II was the second most powerful evangelist of the twentieth century, but unquestionable the first was a woman who never wrote a major work of theology or apologetics, who never engaged s[c]eptics in public debate, and who never produced a beautiful work of religious art. I’m speaking, of course, of St. Teresa of Kolkata. No one in the last one hundred years propagated the Christian faith more effectively than this simple nun who lived utter poverty, and who dedicated herself to the service of the most neglected people in our society.
She showed by living love on a grand scale, but really by doing simply what God asked of her.
In the end, Barron says, if he could teleport someone contemplating the Catholic faith to see anyone, or any group, in action, in order to persuade them of the appeal of Catholicism, he’d send them to India.
“I would take them to Calcutta, and show them Mother Teresa’s nuns working,” Barron says. “I’d bring them there and say, ‘Look, I’m not going to tell you what to think or how to behave. Just look at them. Just watch them for a while.’ In itself, that would probably be enough.”
I’m reminded of a story that New York archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan tells of a man dying of AIDs who was being taken care of by the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s sisters). Cardinal Dolan was visiting the sisters on Good Friday in 1989, taking a crucifix to bedridden patients for them to venerate and to kiss Jesus’ feet on the cross.
Here’s how Cardinal Dolan tells the story:
As I went from bed to bed, I noticed one emaciated man in the corner who seemed agitated, and kept beckoning to me to come to him. As I began in turn to approach his bed, the sister halted me, warning that this man was unusually violent, hateful to all, and had actually attempted to bite the attending sisters a number of times. Of course, you realize the consequences being bitten by one with AIDS. However, the poor man kept signaling for me to come near. What was I to do? What would any priest do? Slowly, cautiously, I approached, and carefully extended the crucifix, which he grasped and kissed — not the feet, I remember so vividly — but the crucified Lord. He then lay back down, exhausted.
The next day, Holy Saturday, the sisters called to tell me that the same man had asked to see me. I went, and, again, in company with two of the sisters as “bodyguards,” approached him. As I got nearer he whispered, “I want to be baptized!”
I moved a few inches closer, and expressing satisfaction, asked if he could explain to me why he desired to enter the Church. “I know nothing about Christianity or the Catholic Church,” he said, with the little bit of strength he had left. “In fact, I have hated religion all my life. All I do know is that for three months I have been here dying. These sisters are always happy! When I curse them, they look at me with compassion in their eyes. All I know is that they have joy and I don’t. When I ask them in desperation why they are so happy, all they answer is ‘Jesus.’ I want this Jesus. Baptize me and give me this Jesus! Give me joy!”
Never as a priest has it brought me more satisfaction to baptize, anoint, and give first Holy Communion to someone. He died at 3:15 on Easter morning.
It’s sanctity that that man saw in the sisters. They radiated holy joy.
In To Light a Fire on the Earth, Allen writes: “Barron is convinced that stories of the saints represent an especially effective way to respond to the Church’s most ferocious critics.” Seeing them is surely even more effective.
“We have to out-narrate them,” Barron says. “Pope Francis says we have to out-love them, but that out-narrate part means that we have a more compelling story to tell. That has an extraordinary evangelical power, and I’ve always had the intuition to lead with the saints.”
He suggests one great way to change the typical conversation, which can become bogged down in caricatures of the Church as patriarchal:
I usually deal with that by talking about the great female saints. Who is truly powerful? What is real power? We tend to identify power with office, but genuine power comes from sanctity, power comes from holiness. In the nineteen century, I’ve argued, the most powerful Catholics were the “Little Flower,” St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Bernadette of Lourdes. The most powerful Catholic of the twentieth century was Mother Teresa, no question about it. Or, think about a Mother Angelica. Talk about power! I think that’s the key to it. Real power comes from holiness, and there’s absolutely nothing preventing a woman from becoming holy. Thomas Aquinas was asked, “What must I do to be a saint?” and he said, “Will it.” Be a saint and you’ll unleash the power of grace and holiness.
At the end of the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul VI issued a message to the women of the world that Pope Benedict XVI reissued verbatim in 2012. It said in part:
Women, you do know how to make truth sweet, tender and accessible. . . . Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.
Women, you do know how to make truth sweet, tender and accessible, make it your task to bring the spirit of this council into institutions, schools, homes and daily life. Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.
That’s what the dying man saw in the Little Sisters of Charity. That’s what the world needs. That’s who Christians have to be. In the face of abhorrent, perverse violence — like that violence done in the name of religion in New York City this past week — Christians must show that same real love, that real religion — it’s a great gift to humanity. Light a holy fire on the earth, and people just might see some transformative faith, hope, and love and want it for themselves and everyone they love. They may even want to be saints, too.