DENVER — New-media evangelist Father Robert Barron says the dream of Vatican II is still unrealized: that Catholics in every walk of life embrace the missionary call to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world outside their doorsteps.
Father Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, theologian and the founder of the media apostolate Word on Fire Ministry, has followed up his 10-part award-winning documentary series Catholicism.
The second part, called Catholicism: The New Evangelization, will debut this fall and addresses both the challenges the Catholic Church faces in bringing the Gospel to contemporary society and the innovative ways Catholics are helping others encounter Jesus Christ.
Father Barron spoke with the Register June 19 at the Catholic Media Conference in Denver, where he was the keynote speaker, and he shared his thoughts about the New Evangelization and why discovering the authentic spirit of Vatican II is the key to its success.
Father, one thing that’s been on the minds of many Catholics is the “New Evangelization.” We talk about it, but many of us really still don’t quite understand what it means. What do you think is the essence of the New Evangelization?
I agree with you. I think that term has been floating around for a long time, but it’s vaguely defined. What I’ve done is follow John Paul II, who, in 1983, said the New Evangelization is the Old Evangelization — meaning declaring Jesus Christ is Lord — but it’s new in ardor, new in expression and new in method.
The new ardor — I think [John Paul II] saw a new recovery of Vatican II’s missionary spirit. I came of age right after Vatican II, so I know the Church was not an ardent Church. It was dissenting, doubting, wondering about itself and unsure about itself. John Paul, I think, sensed that and said we needed a new ardor, a new fire, a new confidence: the Vatican II missionary spirit.
New in expression — and this is something I think about a lot in dealing with the secular culture, the New Atheists and all that. You have to find new ways to express the age-old faith: so certain areas like how to understand God and Jesus, how to express the Church and how to express salvation in a way that people today are going to find compelling.
What attitude should we have in order to keep the New Evangelization “new” or fresh?
We should have that confidence or conviction that we are entering mission territory whenever we step outside our own homes, even in the United States of America. We have to have this ardor born of the faith in the Resurrection and be finding new ways to express this age-old faith.
Like with technology?
No, that’s more methods. That’s the third step. I would say this one is more theological.
Yes. How do you say that God is worthwhile to a culture that thinks God is a medieval superstition or an afterthought? How do you say the Bible is the central book of your life to a culture that says the Bible is just old superstitions? How do you say that the Church’s sexual teaching is liberating when the culture sees it is as enslaving? So that’s the challenge: to read the cultural signs and, working with those, find a new way to say it.
How is it new in method?
That’s where the media come in, I think. We’ve had this explosion of media, the greatest that’s happened in 500 years. The Church has to be willing and able to use all these methods of communication to get the message out.
So in the video [Catholicism: The New Evangelization], I explore and present a number of those approaches.
You would say the Church ignores these new methods to its peril, right?
Oh, absolutely. We have to be on the cutting edge of it. We shouldn’t be just catching up, and for too long — even though Fulton Sheen was the pioneer — we got behind. I want the Catholic Church to be on the cutting edge of new technology.
It’s interesting. You’ve mentioned how the vision of the Second Vatican Council has not been realized yet, but being on the cutting edge of communications is exactly what Vatican II talked about in Inter Mirifica, the decree on social communications. Why are we so behind?
I think what happened is we lost the missionary verve of the Council and turned inward. Vatican II was an outward-looking Council. It was trying to get the Church to be a more apt vehicle for the “Christofication” of the world. But its focus was not so much inside, but outside. What happened though, in the wake of the Council, for all kinds of reasons, is that we tended to turn inward.
That self-referential Church Pope Francis has been talking about?
Exactly. When I was a kid, it looked like “unsure of this, unsure of that; we’re reassessing this; we’re re-examining that. What do we hold about sex, authority, Jesus?” ... That’s not what Vatican II wanted. If you read the texts themselves, you see this missionary élan, this missionary spirit. And I think that’s the new ardor that John Paul insisted upon.
What did you decide would make Word on Fire Ministries different from existing, traditional Catholic evangelization efforts?
I guess it was the use of the new media. There were some presence of Catholics on radio and TV — and, obviously, EWTN [parent company of the Register] made a huge contribution there — but the new media was not being exploited adequately, and I thought Word on Fire could do that.
How should we see the relationship between the bishops and the laity in the New Evangelization? If the old model was “pray, pay and obey,” then what does Pope Francis and the Council expect of laypeople?
To be a great Catholic businessman, to be a great Catholic businesswoman, to be a great Catholic journalist, a great Catholic doctor, a great Catholic nurse, a great Catholic politician. Not just in name, but that it informs everything that you’re doing.
Bishops and priests can’t do that. We’re priests, prophets and kings: We teach, sanctify and govern, but the governance, the teaching and the sanctifying is for the sake of sending: “Go; now you’ve been sanctified, taught and governed. Go into the world and change it.” But again, that, too, has been unrealized.
Who’s a good patron saint for the New Evangelization?
Ours is [St. Thérèse] the Little Flower. I think she is a saint for the New Evangelization. She wanted to be a missionary. She had that heart of love to carry it out into the world. Fulton Sheen — we have a picture of him in our Word on Fire office — he’s a great patron saint, obviously, for the use of the media.
At Mundelein [Seminary, where Father Barron is rector], we’re redoing our house chapel, which has never been named for a saint, and I’m naming it for John Paul II, and I’m going to fill the windows with 16 evangelists who have some connection to him.
So I claim those three: the Little Flower, Fulton Sheen and John Paul II.
You were appointed rector at Mundelein Seminary. How is that going so far?
So far, so good. I’ve liked it. I wasn’t expecting it at all. It was a complete surprise. We had just come out with the Catholicism series, we were planning this new video, and the office was going strong — when the Cardinal [Francis George] asked me to come out and be rector of the seminary.
But I honestly have enjoyed it.
Yeah, a lot of challenges. We’d actually changed a lot and done a lot the first year. What I’ve tried to do is give the whole seminary a New Evangelization focus. That’s what we’re about: We’re creating priests for the New Evangelization — so the formation program and the academic program I’ve kind of revamped to get them ordered that way.
The John Paul II Chapel has been a big priority of mine. We’ve also changed from a quarter system to a semester system to make it more contemplative. So (there are) a lot of things we’ve done to give it that New Evangelization focus.
We’ve talked a lot about truth in the New Evangelization, but what’s the role of beauty?
I think we should lead with beauty. It’s the Catholic strong suit, and it’s the transcendental that has the least offensive quality today. I think when you lead with the true and the good, people today tend to get defensive in a postmodern context.
But if you lead with beauty, it’s less threatening. It’s more winsome, and that’s our strong suit. We are a beautiful religion.
Thank you so much, Father. And good luck on the second Catholicism series on the New Evangelization. Do you have plans for a third in the future?
Thank you! We have one that we are cooking that I’m calling “the Pivotal Players.” This will take me around the world again to talk about the 10 or 12 key figures in Catholic history who have shaped the Catholic imagination. So that’s something we're thinking about, and we’re looking forward to it.
Register correspondent Peter Jesserer Smith filed this report from Denver.