CHICAGO (CNA) — A high-definition series exploring the beauty and richness of Catholicism is set to air on more than 80 public-television stations across the U.S. this fall.

Father Robert Barron, head of Word on Fire media and the visionary behind the Catholicism series, told CNA his hope is that the films will be used “as a tool of evangelization for everybody.”

“I want the series to go out beyond the walls of the Church,” he said in an Aug. 10 interview. “That’s why we’re so happy it’s going to be on public television.”

Set in 50 locations in more than 16 countries, the series examines major themes within the Church, such as the person of Christ, the mystery of God, the Virgin Mary, Sts. Peter and Paul, the “missionary thrust of the Church,” the liturgy and the Eucharist, prayer and spirituality and the saints, Father Barron said. 

In the episode on the Virgin Mary, for instance, the crew traveled to the Holy Land, France, Mexico and “around the world to see where the Marian faith shows up.”

“The approach I used,” he said, “was just to go to places around the world that visually show the themes I’m talking about.”

Father Barron said that the series comes at a time when the U.S. is going through what he believes to be “the darkest period in the history of the American Catholic Church.”
He added that the “wrong” people are telling the story of what the Church actually is.

He pointed to the secular media’s depiction of the Church “as the place where the sex-abuse scandal happened,” a narrative that he finds “so tiresome and counterproductive.”
“I think Catholics from the inside have to tell a much richer, broader, fascinating story,” Father Barron said, stressing the importance of not allowing the Church to be “reduced to the sex-abuse scandal.”

He noted that during challenging times in Church history, the saints “tended to come forward in the times of crisis and bring things back to their evangelical basics.”

Taking his cue from the saints, Father Barron said he was inspired to show Catholicism for what it really is.

“Whether it’s Francis, Dominic, Benedict or Ignatius — they came forward at a time of crisis and said, ‘What is the Church fundamentally about?’”

Father Barron also said he wanted to address the modern problem of what he called “domesticating” Jesus.

“I see that happening a lot, both in high academic culture and the wider culture too — and that is turning Jesus into one more guru,” along with “sufi mystics, Hindu wisemen, Jewish rabbis or Deepak Chopra.”

“People look around to the spiritual world, and then Jesus becomes one more of those figures,” he explained. “And I just think that’s the way to miss him.”

“The Gospel presents him as this deeply challenging figure,” Father Barron noted. “Jesus is distinctive. He stands out in a sharp profile vis-a-vis other religious founders, and I think Christians have to make that difference clear.”

The Chicago priest, who also holds the Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, in Mundelein, Ill., said the project has taken close to four years to complete.

After getting permission to begin filming the series from the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, the team began the unenviable task of fundraising.

“We had to raise about $3 million to make this possible,” Father Barron said, “so we started in Chicago, where we’re based, but we ended up going all over the country.”

Father Barron said the project was done on a “shoe string” budget, compared to most productions of this size, and that the team traveled in spurts for nearly two years (from 2008 to 2010) whenever enough money was raised to journey to each location.

“The experience was immeasurable, and I’m still unpacking it,” he added.

Noting the quality of the series, he said that top film and production experts from NBC worked with high-definition equipment to capture the lush colors and intricate details of every location. The episodes also feature an original musical score by Chicago composer Steven Mullen.

“That was from the beginning a strong emphasis of mine. I said, ‘If we’re going to show off this beautiful tradition that we have, I don’t want to do it in some second-rate way,’” Father Barron recalled.

He added that a “wonderful study program” has also been created to go along with the episodes and that it is intended for parish use, such as for Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults classes.

The priest expressed his desire that people who are “not religious at all — maybe they’re atheists, agnostics, fallen-away Catholics — would see the series and maybe be drawn in by the beauty of it,
drawn in by culture, drawn in by history.”

“That’s my hope — that it would be used inside the Catholic world, but also as an evangelical tool outside the Catholic world.”