Robert E. Barron, in a preface entitled “Cultivators of a Flourishing Garden of Life” found in his collection of essays Bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic (2004), states:

I came of age in the late sixties and seventies of the last century, in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. What I witnessed during that period was a terrible war of attrition between two extreme camps (with, admittedly, numerous shades in between): progressives overly in love with the culture and pushing myriad reforming agendas and conservatives desperately trying to recover the form of Catholicism that predated the council. Some of these liberals were so enamored of growth, play, and free development that they allowed John XXIII’s flourishing garden to become overgrown and untamed; while some of these traditionalists were so attached to an outmoded cultural expression of the Church’s life that they effectively killed off the plants in the garden, pressing their dead leaves between the pages of a book. (xiv-xv).

It was in this cultural milieu that Bishop Barron’s first experience of Church was constructed. Although there are a few years difference in age between Bishop Barron and myself, I, too, came of age when there was a great deal of experimentation in the Church and, although I did not know it at the time, a bit of confusion as to some essential elements, like the very nature of the Holy Mass and the role of the ordained priest. I received my First Holy Communion in May 1980, yet, inexplicably, my First Penance in 1982, with the thought that children at the age of seven or eight were too young to understand the nature of sin. When it came to Holy Mass, I explicitly remember telling my teacher in fifth grade at a weekday Mass which we as a class were attending during Lent that I could not receive Holy Communion as I had missed Mass the previous Sunday and being instructed to “always receive Communion at Mass, no matter what.” As for Eucharistic Adoration, this was a completely foreign concept for me until I attended the minor seminary.

In his interview book, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age (2017), written with John L. Allen, Jr., Bishop Barron relates the importance of his high school experience, for him with the Dominican Friars at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois. It opened a whole new world for him intellectually and spiritually. I can relate to that experience of high school (for me at Cathedral Prep Seminary in Elmhurst, New York, taught by diocesan priests) being a place where, for the first time, I met some wonderful priests who encouraged me to take seriously my faith, to be open to a priestly vocation, and who instilled in me the voracious desire to learn everything the Western cultural tradition had to offer. My high school years changed the way I viewed the world, the way I saw the Church, the way I saw the priesthood, and the way I saw myself. Bishop Barron in his masterpiece, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (1998), says: “Christianity is, above all else, a way of seeing. Everything else in Christian life flows from and circles around the transformation of vision. Christians see differently, and that is why their prayer, their worship, their action, their whole way of being in in the world have a distinctive accent and flavor.” And indeed, my perception of the world changed with high school.

As I have previously mention in my first article in this series, I first encountered a young Bishop Barron in a December 1997 interview in U.S. Catholic entitled: “How to Build a Better Priest.” As a seminarian, I found his words and his vision of priesthood so very appealing. It seemed to fit seamlessly with the formation that I was receiving at that time as a seminarian at the Pontifical North American College and yet seemed to fly in the face of what some priests whom I encountered when I was growing up or when I was home visiting from the seminary viewed as the primary image of the ordained Catholic priest.

At the start of the interview, then-Father Barron states: “For too long we've had a preferential option for mediocrity in the priesthood.” He describes the model of priesthood that many priests subscribed to as priest as “organizer of ministries,” a term I actually recall being used at a seminary where many of my diocesan brothers studied at the time. Barron opined: “I want to make the priesthood as exciting as being a brain surgeon, and as difficult and inspiring,” and I, as a young man reading these words, in these exciting and certain days with Pope Saint John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992) as the new, guiding vision for priesthood, with his call for the New Evangelization of culture, with sure and certain teachings like the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) and Veritatis Splendor (1994) being issued (and Fides et Ratio so soon to be released), responded to these words.

Barron spoke of the priest as “doctor of the soul” in a way that inspired me to reconsider my own priestly vocation, to take the theology I was learning and to see it, perhaps for the very first time, as one of the most powerful tools in the New Evangelization in which John Paul II was imploring us to engage in these last few years of the 20th century. Father Barron, in this interview, stated:

On the image of soul doctor, as I researched the great theologians of our tradition, I began to see that they were soul doctors. They were not writing to get their articles published in learned journals. The Fathers of the Church and the medieval theologians wrote as pastors and ministers; they worried about the care of souls. That is precisely what the priest does doctor that deepest part of the person we call the soul. That's something that makes priesthood fascinating and indispensable, without being exclusive or clerical.

All those hours in which I studied and read, and perhaps wondered how applicable my theological and philosophical pursuits might be, made sense for the life of the priest in light of the words of this young theologian. He said:

You use the great doctrines, teachings, spiritual writings, and images of our tradition in a soul doctoring capacity. You do it in preaching. You do it in proclaiming scripture. You do it in your pastoral work-in hospital visits, in preparing people for the sacraments, in counseling. You use psychology and every other tool you can, but in the end what you hold up is the transforming power of Christ, the Incarnation.

To mention again the words of the bishop: “Christianity is, above all else, a way of seeing,” and this changed the way I viewed the priesthood — the priest is called to be the bearer of the gracious Mystery who is God. The priest, according to Father Barron, is called to “first and foremost, a mystagogue, one who bears the Mystery and initiates others into it.” (Bridging the Great Divide, “Priest as Bearer of the Mystery,” 228)

In the interview with U.S. Catholic, Barron, then a professor at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, was asked what a priestly vocation should look like in 1997 (and I believe his answer is still true 22 years later). He responded:

A quick answer is someone of great soul. Someone who is magnanimous in the literal sense: magna anima, having a big soul. Someone who is in touch with human compassion, with love, with justice. Someone in touch with that deepest part of himself and others, and who lives and breathes the great culture that feeds the soul.

That answer certainly inspired and resonated with me as a seminarian and has been the guiding force of my own intellectual life as well as my pastoral impulse as a priest. In And Now I See, Barron describes the pusilla anima (the small soul), something, I think, that has infected the Church and the priesthood for a long time. He writes:

To overcome fear is to move from the pusilla anima (the small soul) to the magna anima (the great soul). When we are dominated by our egos, we live in a very narrow space, in the anguistiae (the straits) between this fear and that, between this attachment and that. But when we surrender in trust to the bearing power of God, our souls become great, roomy, expansive. We realize that we are connected to all things and to the creative energy of the whole cosmos. (5)

I recognize that pusilla anima in myself, time and again — that desire, even as a priest, to cling to the things of this world, with its comforts and honors, to cling to the comfortability that can come with attachments to disordered affections and sin. The priest has to be the man who stands in the midst of the people with whom God has blessed him to serve as the model of the mystery bearer. Father Barron in this interview continued, giving a practical example of how the priest is to live:

To live a life of a mystery bearer is to make a commitment at the level of your behavior-your lifestyle and it involves those questions of celibacy and simplicity. It can't just be a disembodied intellectual exercise. It means I make a commitment of my life, and I'm going to live stubbornly in the presence of the mystery. That means attending to all that language about poverty and asceticism that the spiritual teachers insist upon.

And part of being that man who responds to the radical call of that gracious mystery who is Love Himself is to give over-the-top love as a celibate. Barron describes his view of celibacy in this early interview, saying: “I’d rather see celibacy as a kind of irrational, over-the-top, poetic, symbolic expression of the soul in love. People in love do strange things. They signal their love in excessive and irrational ways. And that's what celibacy is-an irrational expression of love.” He acknowledges that celibacy is not necessarily tied to priesthood, but that there is, across all cultures, an intrinsic link.

Priesthood, for Bishop Barron, is a way of lighting the world on fire. It is rigorous, it is hard work, but it is a heroic priesthood. He states in this same interview:

If you asked my classmates, though, ‘Tell me what a priest is,’ you'd probably hear, ‘Um...’ We don't have the words for that. Our problem is not clericalism-it's the inability to say and celebrate who priests are. We become apologetic, self-conscious. We're worried that if we celebrate priesthood, we'll offend this group or that group. Along the way we forget to ask, "Who on earth would be attracted to this, when we can't even say who we are? Who would find this rich and compelling?"

The image of the priest of bearer of the mystery and as doctor of the soul is essential for us to grasp if we are to understand the role that the priest needs to have in the Church. Barron’s images are exciting and they have enriched my own understanding of the priesthood. In my next entry in this series on the theology of Bishop Robert E. Barron, I wish to continue to explore those two images offered by this theologian, namely, priest as the bearer of the mystery and the doctor of the soul, especially as the Bishop had articulated them in two articles: “Priest as Bearer of the Mystery” (Church, Summer 1994) and “Priest as Doctor of the Soul” (Church, Winter 1995), as well as in his masterful article, “Mystagogues, World Transformers, and Interpreters of Tongues: A Reflection on Collaborative Ministry in the Church” (Seminary Journal, October 1999). All of these articles are collected in Barron’s text, Bridging the Great Divide (2004). I will also comment on Bishop Barron’s excellent video, “Heroic Priesthood” (2014), as well as some of the reactions, both positive and negative to that video.