On May 10, Father Robert Barron, director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and creator of the Catholicism Project, was named rector-president of Mundelein Seminary/University of St. Mary of the Lake by Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago.
Father Barron received a master’s degree in philosophy from The Catholic University of America in 1982 and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Institut Catholique in Paris in 1992. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1986 and had been a professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary since 1992. Father Barron was visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame in 2002 and at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in 2007. He was also twice scholar in residence at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
The Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein, Father Barron will assume his new role on July 1. He spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake about the appointment.
Did you anticipate this appointment or was it a complete surprise?
It was a surprise, about three months ago. Cardinal Francis George came to our office to thank us for the Catholicism series. We celebrated Mass, and he preached on the importance of the New Evangelization. Afterwards, he asked to speak privately with me. It was then that he asked me to be rector. It was a surprise, but I’ve had a little time to get used to the idea.
Mundelein is a place I love. I was a student there, and after I got back from Europe, I’ve been teaching there part time, a couple of courses each year. I have a strong sense of Mundelein.
CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) recently reported that the number of seminarians is the highest it has been in 20 years. To what would do attribute that increase?
I think it’s the Pope John Paul II generation coming more into play. He had such a significant impact on evangelization. I also think part of it is counter-intuitive. In the wake of the sexual abuse scandals, many men have come forward to say it’s a time for greatness in the priesthood and heroic priests. In a crisis, people want to get into the Church and be a part of the solution. The revival of numbers is perhaps attributable to that.
For many years Mundelein was No. 1 in terms of numbers of seminarians studying. More recently, it has been overtaken by Mount St. Mary’s. How many seminarians are currently there?
We were No. 1 for the longest time. We’ve had as high as 220 men. We average around 200. Just the last couple of years it has trended downward to 160 men from 26 dioceses, including some in Africa. It’s still one of the largest seminaries, but one of my goals is to take a look at what might be responsible for the downward trend.
What is it that seminarians today most need?
I think that they need a keen sense of the New Evangelization. If I have a focus for my work as rector, that’s it. That is the heroic call of our time. Priests will continue to do the classic work of a parish priest, but they are now doing it in a new setting that’s become indifferent to the faith, at best, and hostile at worst. How do you evangelize that culture? I’d like to make Mundelein a powerhouse of the New Evangelization — a place where the New Evangelization is thought about, where it’s practiced and implemented, and where that ethos is placed in the heart of the students.
In your recent review of the film Bully, you spoke about the lack of mentorship facing modern males and how that often leads to either a lack of direction or bullying behavior. How do you overcome that tendency in men coming to the seminary?
This generation of men is coming to the seminary. The seminary is a place where precisely this kind of male mentoring goes on and turns young men into heroes. That’s what Pope John Paul II did. He inspired young men to become knights. The seminary is a place where young men can use their courage and their intelligence to learn how to help the downtrodden and the innocent. Seminary is where they can learn to be strong men.
Several years ago, author Michael Rose wrote in his book Good Bye, Good Men about an active homosexual subculture at Mundelein. Is that a thing of the past?
I know of the source for the Mundelein part of that book. Much of it came from a disgruntled, unhappy fellow. I was there during those years, and as I read that section it struck me as exaggerated.
I will be attentive to that issue. Anything opposed to the moral integrity of these men, I want to be eliminated. If any of that presents itself, I will do something about it. I want them to be heroic leaders.
It seems as if reform is so desperately needed in so many areas of the Church. How do you see reform taking place?
Vatican II and the way Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have gone about implementing it. The Second Vatican Council was a reform council to make the Church a more effective vehicle for evangelization in the modern world. My generation received an inadequate interpretation of Vatican II. The reform has to recover a correct interpretation — that is to make the Church at all levels a more effective vehicle for the true evangelization. When we go off the rails, we’ve left that vision.
I’m a Vatican II man. In many ways, Vatican II is still a largely unrealized council. It hasn’t been fully implemented. That’s still the call of our time and the matrix for reform. The role of leadership in the Church is to implement it at all levels. Canon law says that the seminary should be the heart of the diocese. The seminary here could be a sort of powerhouse for the New Evangelization.
What’s your take on the Church’s clash with the Obama administration regarding the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate?
We were recently filming in England [to introduce the Catholicism to the UK audience], and while there I realized how prevalent the 16th century still is today. The memories of the persecuted Church and the recusant Church are everywhere in England, and we must remember that that was a matter of religious liberty. Religious liberty is the most fundamental of the human rights. The reason people were so offended was that religious liberty was being attacked, and it’s being attacked again. It’s a secularist ideology that wants us out of the public arena.
How do we prepare future priests to lead in a culture dominated by increasing secularity and hostility to the Church?
This is the work I’ve been involved in these past eight years. One reason I think the cardinal wanted me in this role was to pass on that leadership education. We need a deep soul doctoring language, from the tradition of the Church — the language of Ignatius and Aquinas and Newman and others — to address human beings at the deepest level. That is what theology is about.
I want people who are well-trained soul doctors and who also understand the culture. We cannot hunker down behind a wall. We need men who can identify the dark and the light, who can find the seeds of the Word in the culture and engage that creatively. They need to be able to look out on the culture, see what’s problematic and what’s good, and draw that out.