THE INTEGRATING HEART OF THE CULTURE.
An interview with Father Robert Barron about his new TV series on the Catholic faith.
by Father Matthew Gamber
Father Robert Barron (CNS photo/Word on Fire)
Father Robert Barron recently sat down in his Chicago-area offices with Father Matthew Gamber, SJ for a discussion about Barron’s newly released 10-part DVD series, Catholicism. Produced at a cost of three million dollars, all of which was raised through private donations, the series will be shown on nearly 90 public television stations around the US this fall. It will be broadcast on EWTN, as well.
The series covers the major themes of the Catholic faith—taking viewers on a world-wide tour of its doctrines, its past and present, its sights, sounds, and especially its people. Highly experienced professionals from the world of network television helped to produce the series, in which Father Barron serves as the narrator and master teacher.
Father Barron holds the Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary near Chicago, and has been a guest professor at many of the pontifical universities in Rome. He heads the organization Word on Fire, which produced the series and which is dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel through the use of modern media.
CWR: In the midst of one of the episodes you pause to reflect, and seem to utter spontaneously the phrase, “The infinite intensity of God’s goodness.” This seems to be what the whole Catholicism series is meant to display—would you say that is a good summary statement, or perhaps your own motto for the project?
Father Barron: Yes, that would be a way to summarize it. It is because of this time we are going through. This time has been the worst crisis for the Catholic Church in American history due to the sex-abuse scandals. The Church has been on the defensive. I wanted to show the life-affirming message of the Gospel—that God became human that we might become like God. I want that to come through. I wanted that, because the Church has come through such a dark and negative period. The project was born of this dark period, I would say.
CWR: One priest, ordained about a decade ago, who recently viewed the program, said that he has never seen such a confident public presentation of the Catholic faith. Where did that tone of confidence come from in the midst of what you call a very dark period for the Church?
Father Barron: I came of age in what I have called and written about as “Beige Catholicism.” Beige, literally, in the bland design of many of the churches that were built during that era, but also in its hand-wringing approach to apologetics. It seemed that, in the Church, we were willing—almost by instinct—to see the worst side of things. And this has not served us well. I wanted the program to be a bold and confident, but not cocky or off-putting, presentation. But bold and confident has been the way of the Church before me. There was St. Paul, who obviously represented a bold Catholicism. Think of G.K. Chesterton, think of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and their boldness in proclaiming the Gospel and the Church. We have this well-established instinct for self-critique nowadays, but I wanted to present the fuller and affirmative picture of the Church.
CWR: In the various episodes you acknowledge that the Church has detractors and enemies, especially secularism and other elements of the contemporary western mind set—materialism, nihilism, relativism. Are Catholicism and your presentation of it in the series the antidote to these viewpoints?
Father Barron: At its best I think it is. It is the counterproposal. All those “isms” are out there, including American individualism. What the best of Catholicism does is to propose a different vision of life—the vision that life is not about you. It is about God. I would see the program as an antidote to those worldviews, most definitely.
CWR: You have mentioned that you hope to reach three different audiences: inactive Catholics, active Catholics, and finally the wider secular culture. What kind of reaction do you hope to elicit from these various audiences who watch Catholicism?
Father Barron: I hope that the regular Catholic will feel proud and up-lifted and newly informed about their faith. My brother, who is a very successful publisher, born and raised in the faith, watched the film recently and he told me that at the end he was left with a realization that there is so much more that he does not know about the faith, but that he wants to know more and needs to know more.
I hope the fallen-away Catholic, or what I call the “drifted-away Catholic,” will find that it intrigues him enough to take another look. I hope that he will be given a new sense of Catholicism. I am a von Balthasar guy [Hans Urs von Balthasaar, the 20th-century Swiss theologian], so I believe that it is beauty that will bring people to God. You look at La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, at the Sistine Chapel, and you can’t help but be drawn into something outside yourself. The visuals throughout the series are meant to draw people into the message of Catholicism.
CWR: The visuals are stunning in practically every frame. A viewer could turn down the volume and simply watch the screen and learn a lot.
Father Barron: That would be an interesting experiment to do, to watch it with the volume down and see it without listening to it. I am so happy about that, really proud of that. We had the best people we could find working on this project, from the director to the producer to the camera crew. Everyone was excellent and understood the visual medium we were working in so well. I wanted to do it all at the highest pitch of beauty and quality. From the very beginning we insisted on quality. My benchmark was Kenneth Clark’s Civilization series. I showed that and I asked the people we were going to hire to help produce the series, “Can you do that, can you go with me all over the world and do that?” That is what we were aiming for in terms of excellence.
CWR: What about the secular person? How do you hope he or she responds to it?
Father Barron: [The series] is going to be on 90 or so public television stations coast to coast.
It has been shown already in Baltimore and Washington DC, and so far the ratings were considered outstanding.
That is how secular people might see it, on public television. I imagine the guy who stumbles across it and is drawn into it by the imagery or the narration or the music. In my mind I am a sower of seed. I write, I speak, I go on the radio, and spread the seeds around—who knows where they will land? They often land in the funniest places.
CWR: Any statistics on how many people you expect to be reaching?
Father Barron: I hope it will go out to millions and millions. [The PBS stations] are going to show it on Sunday afternoons—not in the middle of the night. We are [airing] on Sunday morning in Salt Lake City—that will be interesting. So PBS will be showing four episodes and EWTN will be showing the other six episodes this fall, and we will see what happens.
CWR: Is that one of the ways you hope the series will “evangelize the culture”? What exactly is the evangelization of culture and how is it different from evangelizing people?
Father Barron: I see it generally speaking as addressing the good, the true, and the beautiful. Justice is a drive toward the good and the institutions of justice include the law, the courts, the judiciary. The truth is proposed in journalism, newspapers, communications of all kinds, at the universities. The beautiful is found in the arts. I see those three great trajectories, and to evangelize culture is to show that Jesus Christ is the proper “lure” of all three of these dimensions of culture. I think Jesus addresses them all. And so you propose Jesus under those rubrics. There are all kinds of ways to do that. In terms of the series, we are using the arts and using the intellectual tradition. They are ways of beguiling the culture. We wanted to show that there is something for those people in those cultural realms in the series. I would hope that any artist would watch it and be intrigued—there is so much art that is Catholic. Anyone interested in philosophy—I would hope that they would also take something away from watching the series.
CWR: And then what?
Father Barron: Well, every knee shall bend! Everything then turns to Christ!
I hope at least that a new symbiosis can take place. A new relationship can take place between the Church and the culture. In modern times the Church has been seen as the enemy of the true and the good and the beautiful. It is one of the great tragedies that we are construed as the enemy of those things. That is so sad. It was definitely not always the case. Think of Chartres Cathedral—the beauty is crying out to you, the justice of a city wholly ordered around a cathedral and its liturgical life. This kind of integration has been lost. We are now seen as something odd—as an addendum to the culture rather than the integrating heart of the culture. I hope that after this we can start to see a new marriage, a new trajectory between the Church and the culture.
CWR: Of the 10 episodes in the series, did you have a favorite?
Father Barron: I don’t know if I do. It is a cliché to say, but they are all like children to me. Number three is the most theological in content. It is like attending the doctrine of God class I have taught for 20 years, so someone with intellectual interest will really like that one. The fourth episode is about the Virgin Mary, and it is the most lyrical. We go to Lourdes. The music, the imagery is all so Marian. The first episode is on Jesus, so that is an important one. I wanted to issue a wake-up call and ask people to look at Jesus in a new way. Each episode really stands on its own. You can pick them up and watch them out of order and still gain the fullness of what is presented.
CWR: Was there one episode where you thought: this is really what I had in mind when I dreamed of this project?
Father Barron: It might be the ninth episode, on spirituality. We filmed a lot of in the Saint-Chapelle in Paris. The cameraman set up his camera in the middle of the chapel and he filmed me walking around it. And I said at the time: “This is what I wanted to do; this is it.”
At one point we were at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for vespers, and there was incense wafting across the north rose window. I turned to the crew and I said, “This is why I wanted to do this, this is what I wanted to catch on film.”
We’ve domesticated the church space and made it into a living room or a bank, or made it so that we feel “at home.” But [a church] is not meant to make you feel at home as much as to help you feel longing for your true home, which is not here. There is a shift in sensibilities going on, though, and people are coming around to that view. But this is a strange period we are passing through right now.
CWR: You’ve said that John Paul II had a large influence on you and on your taking on this project. How so?
Father Barron: He was huge. He was a direct influence. The new evangelization was what he was proposing, which really caught my interest. The idea of trying to evangelize a culture that knows Christ but that has lapsed into a certain forgetfulness was something he highlighted. And he told us that we have to use the new media effectively.
With John Paul II, I saw a non-aggressive but very confident Catholicism. No apologies, but also not aggressive, not violent. Think of what he did in Poland. He was bold and confident and strong. He pops up in the series from time to time because we are always looking at the real people who make up Catholicism. We are looking at the saints.
CWR: You have an entire episode on the saints, and you chose to highlight four of them—all women and all consecrated religious. There is not much done by accident in this series—why did you choose to present the topic of Catholic saints through these women?
Father Barron: I wanted relatively contemporary saints, and these four are from the 19th and 20th century. I wanted an American—so, Katharine Drexel. Edith Stein, from the war era; Mother Teresa, who is practically contemporary, she died in 1997; and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, from the 19th century.
As you know, the Catholic Church is thought to be oppressive to women because women cannot be priests. Well, I wanted to show that real power comes through holiness, that it comes through sanctity and that the most powerful Catholic figures in recent times were Catholic women. Think of the power of St. Bernadette of Lourdes in the 19th century. I wanted to show that in the Church, the real power lies in sanctity and not official positions.
I wanted to show that the Church is very inclusive of women—that it is completely inclusive of women.
CWR: Each episode in the Catholicism series ends with a note of gratitude to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. It seems that she had a very active role in the production of the series. How did that come to pass?
Father Barron: The Little Flower has been a personal friend for a long time. And we adopted her very early as the patroness of Word on Fire. Whenever we found ourselves in a difficult situation—with money, with delays, with getting permissions, with practical problems, etc.—we would call upon her. And a staggering number of times, solutions would more or less present themselves. In time, every member of our team would start to notice these “Little Flower moments.” So we have claimed her as our special heavenly protector, and this is why the series is dedicated to her.
CWR: We often hear that for most Catholics, their affiliation with the Church really begins and ends at their local parish, but you seem to want to expand their horizons.
Father Barron: I want to give a broader sense of what this Catholic thing is about. I hope that Catholics take pride in it. We showed it to a priest, and he came up afterward with tears in his eyes, saying that watching it made him feel extremely proud. The priesthood has been so denigrated. The whole Church has been so knocked around. We needed to tell the story in its fullest sense.
A lot of it was filmed in Europe, but not all. We went to Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, and Turkey. The Church is so much bigger, broader and wider; I want Catholics to see the global quality of it.