October 19, 2012

'Christify the world'

Creator of ‘Catholicism’ documentaries reflects on Vatican II, new evangelization

Father Robert Barron stands on a hilltop overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome during the shooting of his 10-part documentary series “Catholicism.” A priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Father Barron is the founder and president of Word on Fire Ministries and rector of the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. During a recent visit to Indianapolis, Father Barron reflected on the meaning and continued relevance of the Second Vatican Council. The 50th anniversary of the opening of the council, which took place in St. Peter’s Basilca, occurred on Oct. 11. (Photo courtesy Word on Fire Ministries)

Father Robert Barron stands on a hilltop overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome during the shooting of his 10-part documentary series “Catholicism.” A priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Father Barron is the founder and president of Word on Fire Ministries and rector of the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. During a recent visit to Indianapolis, Father Barron reflected on the meaning and continued relevance of the Second Vatican Council. The 50th anniversary of the opening of the council, which took place in St. Peter’s Basilca, occurred on Oct. 11. (Photo courtesy Word on Fire Ministries)

By Sean Gallagher (First of two parts)

Oct. 11 was the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council and the start of the Year of Faith called for by Pope Benedict XVI.

In the past year, few priests in the U.S. have had more of a public witness in their efforts to strength the faith of Catholics than Father Robert Barron.

Catholics across the country have viewed segments of his 10-part “Catholicism” documentary series released in 2011 in which he serves as narrator and shows viewers the beauty of the faith through locations around the world.

A priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Father Barron, 52, is the founder and president of Word on Fire Ministries, an organization dedicated to evangelization, especially through television and on the Internet via online videos and social media.

Last July, he also was appointed rector of the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary near Chicago.

Late last month, he visited Indianapolis for a meeting of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a worldwide organization of clergy and laity that support the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

During that time, he sat down for an interview with The Criterion on Sept. 30. The following is an edited version of that interview.

Q. The 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council will occur on Oct. 11. One of the principal reasons why Blessed John XXIII called for the council was to help prepare the Church to proclaim the Gospel in the 21st century. Yet, as we stand here in 2012, 1962 can seem a world away given the social, cultural and technological changes that have occurred in the interim. How are the teachings of that council still relevant to us?

A. “You’re absolutely right. This is all about Vatican II. People trace the new evangelization back to John Paul II and Paul VI with “Evangelii nuntiandi” [a 1975 apostolic exhortation on evangelization], which isn’t appropriate. We need to go beyond Paul VI back to Vatican II. It was a missionary council.

“Vatican II did not want to modernize the Church. It wanted to ‘Christify’ the world. And I think that comes through in every document of Vatican II, including ‘Inter mirifica,’ the one about social communications.

“It’s about bringing the treasures of Christ’s life out to the wider world. That’s Vatican II. The trouble is, our generation, roughly speaking, got the ‘Let’s modernize the Church’ agenda. And it was a misreading of the council.

“Yes, we needed to adapt the Church so that it becomes a more effective vehicle of evangelization. But the goal was not to modernize the Church. It was to ‘Christify’ the world.

“But that agenda got hijacked a little bit. Certainly, when I was coming of age, when I was in school, it was modernize the Church. Let’s get caught up to the modern world.

“But you see, the modern world cannot measure the Church. Christ has to measure the Church. And any culture is evangelically ambiguous and so they can’t become the measure of the Church.

“That, in my mind, is the root of the malaise of the Church when I was coming of age, what I call ‘Beige Catholicism.’ It kind of lost its way, lost its focus and was embarrassed to say anything too definitive.

“That’s what John Paul intuited, I think, as the great problem—hence the new ardor he called for in the new evangelization.

“So I trace it all back to Vatican II, 50 years ago. Paul VI, who was a Vatican II man in his bones, got that and, hence, ‘Evangelii nuntiandi.’ [Blessed] John Paul II, who was a Vatican II man in his bones, got it and, hence, the new evangelization. Benedict XVI was also a Vatican II man.

“That’s the key to this whole thing. It’s people rightly reading what Vatican II is about.”
 

Q. So after the council, Catholics were focused a little bit too much ad intra, on internal Church matters, and not enough ad extra, how the Church proclaims the Gospel to the world?

A. “Absolutely right. It’s one of the ironies of the post-conciliar period that we turned so ad intra. When I was coming of age, it was all the Church battling with itself over sex and authority. You know?

“Now, they’re important questions, absolutely. Is there a place for them? Sure. But as the central, preoccupying focus? Absolutely not. And that was a mistake after Vatican II.

“We missed the Vatican II élan in many ways in our country and in the West as well. But the recovery of that is really key.”
 

Q. One emphasis in the teachings of the council was on the important role of Catholic laity in carrying out the mission of the Church and on the related universal call to holiness. Many commentators have pointed to the increased role of lay Catholics in parish and diocesan administration, and in the liturgy as an embodiment of that teaching of the council. How well, though, do you see Catholic laity applying their faith in conscious and deliberate ways in the secular world—a place where bishops, priests and religious don’t typically play a central role?

A. “Right. I think that’s what we’ve missed. What you’ve described in the latter part of your question is what Vatican II had in mind, it seems to me. People who have access to the secular world in ways that I don’t as a priest have to sanctify the secular world.

“So journalists who know how to move in that world, and business people who know how to move in the world of finance and investment, teachers who know how to move in the world of education, politicians who know how to move in their world—they’re the ones who have to evangelize.

“That’s another mistake, as you suggest there, that we kind of clericalize the laity, make them more like ecclesial functionaries. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way at all. It’s extremely important that there are lay people in those roles.

“But that isn’t what Vatican II had in mind, it seems to me. What Vatican II had in mind was unleashing this life so that the laity can ‘Christify’ the world in their distinctive way.

“That, I think, was another mistake. Let’s get more lectors. I love lay lectors. Or let’s get more lay people involved in chancery offices. That’s great. But that’s not what Vatican II had in mind.”
 

Q. At the same time, you’re now the rector of one of the leading seminaries in the United States, and have commented in one of your recent YouTube videos on the importance of priests in the new evangelization. As important as the laity are in evangelizing in the vast segment of society where clergy and religious don’t play principal roles, how is the life and ministry of priests still crucial to the carrying out of that mission of the new evangelization?

A. “We’re all in this together. And we’re all in it playing interrelated but distinctive roles.

“So I think the priest is the alter Christus [‘another Christ’]. The priest is priest, prophet and king. The priest is the one that brings to bear the sacramental power of the Lord and the Lord’s presence, especially in penance and the Eucharist, thereby to sanctify the laity, who then sanctify the world.

“So I think that’s the way it works. We’ve got distinctive and interrelated roles to play, but priests, I think, are indispensable for that sanctification through the sacraments—that’s what we’re finally about—and the proclamation of the word.

“That’s our job. And then the laity, having been sanctified, now go and sanctify the world.”
 

Q. In that same video, you stressed the importance of future priests to be conversant with and effective users of the new media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. I presume that the same could be said of lay Catholics. How key is the use of the new media to the new evangelization? What are some of its limits, and how is sharing the Gospel in a direct way, person to person, face to face, still important?

A. “It’s a complicated issue that you’re raising. And I certainly see all of the limitations of new social media. I get that.

“Superficiality is one of them. When I make a YouTube video, I, on purpose, make it short—seven or eight minutes—because I realize that people aren’t going to watch a 35-minute disquisition. But they might watch a seven- or eight-minute video.

“That’s the pro and the con. They might watch it. But the con is that it’s almost necessarily going to be relatively superficial. The challenge is to try to do both those things, at least relatively well. I get that.

“I also get the impersonal quality of it. It’s very easy to think that you’re just throwing letters and words around. I have to remind myself consciously when I’m responding [to a comment on the Internet] that, behind those words, there is some person somewhere out there.

“I don’t even know where he or she is, what country they’re from. I have no idea. But behind those words is a person. So I get that. That’s a danger with it. It can be very impersonal.

“But when I was in Rome a couple of years ago for a conference on the new media, there was this bishop from Poland that got up. He was maybe in his 60s.

“And he said that his grandmother used to say to us that she would never use the telephone because it was an inelegant form of communication. She was a stately, kind of patrician Polish lady.

“His response was, ‘Well, yeah, it’s an inelegant way of communication. But who of us here wouldn’t use a telephone?’

“So it’s easy to talk about all of these negatives about the new media. And they’re all there. I agree.

“Nevertheless, who wouldn’t use them? We’d be silly not to use them. In this fallen and conflicted world, you’ve got to make some compromises. I think it’s well worth the dangers.”
 

(In part two of his interview, Father Barron reflects on the origin of his “Catholicism” documentary series, the importance of Jerusalem in his life of faith and the key role of beauty in evangelization. For more information about Word on Fire Ministries, log on to www.wordonfire.org.)

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!