Illinois priest Father Robert Barron calls his current undertaking “The Catholicism Project,” and with a name like that, you know it’s got to have some heft and depth.
Father Barron’s monumental made-for-TV series covers the faith in all its 2,000-plus years.
Selected media got a taste of the series in March at the premiere at St. Ignatius Church in New York.
Father Barron, a familiar face to those who have seen his DVD retreats, heard him on Relevant Radio or have seen him via his Word on Fire website, podcasts and weekly YouTube postings, has set some epic goals for “The Catholicism Project.”
For one, he wants to tell the story of the Catholic Church in a new way by bringing together what he terms “the intellectual and the visual, the theological and the artistic.”
It’s his version of Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” series and approach.
“I want to show Catholicism,” says the priest. “I want to do an insider’s approach by someone convinced of the Church and who wants you to be a part of it.”
This project is going to be totally positive “to show the glory and reveal the truth and beauty of Catholicism,” he says.
He will film from locations around the world. He started in the Holy Land to give a sense of the texture of places Jesus saw and knew: Galilee, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the desert, the Holy Sepulcher — then off to Rome and St. Peter’s.
Future episodes will travel to cathedrals, shrines and museums on many continents and in many countries.
For this world-spanning, all-encompassing series, Father Barron is telling the story not chronologically but in essential themes. Everything works toward his second equally important goal: “to evangelize the culture using the riches of the Church. We weave in a lot for artwork because the greatest artwork in the Western world is about Christianity.”
Pope John Paul II was a big influence on him. Father Barron explains that “after the [Second Vatican] Council there was bad formation in Catholicism. Frankly, my generation has been taught a watered-down Catholicism.”
Consequently, he wants to re-educate and reintroduce people to the faith intellectually and visually, and then to reach out beyond the Catholic world and evangelize the culture.
Father Barron is no newcomer to teaching the faith. He holds the Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., and has taught at pontifical universities.
With a wealth of experience in front of a camera and microphone, he’s also no newcomer to the latest media.
“That got us warmed up for this project,” he says, adding that Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George willingly gave him permission for “The Catholicism Project.”
“While Word on Fire attempts to evangelize the culture using the media in various ways, this project is, for me, the crown jewel.”
Father Barron’s ability to reach all ages has gotten notable recognition — and help. Longtime “Today” show correspondent Mike Leonard became acquainted with him when Father Barron was a visiting priest at his Chicago-area parish.
As Leonard tells it, “The first time I heard him give a homily I said, ‘This priest is good. Wow! Not only is the matter interesting and challenging, but so is how he delivered it.’”
No wonder Leonard gladly became the project’s executive producer. His son Matt also works on the project with their small production company, Picture Show. They’re shooting the episodes in high definition.
One unplanned development will become part of the episodes. During early filming, Leonard naturally became an everyman. “I will ask a question apart from his structured presentation — a basic question, a skeptical note,” he says. “Did Jesus really multiply the loaves? Walk on water? Why are these churches and artwork so grand?”
“I am the guy with far less intellect than anybody else in the project, but I am an observer of life,” explains Leonard, who was born and raised Catholic. “I will tell everybody how flawed I am and aghast at what I don’t know.” Leonard believes these questions are ones many Catholics have.
These conversations were filmed and will be woven into episodes.
“Father Barron has this way of having an overarching view of life,” says Leonard. “He doesn’t make it easy, doesn’t sugarcoat, but he makes it very understandable why certain tenets are to be followed. I’ve never met anybody who has been so good at describing and explaining that. … He comes back with very profound answers.”
Of similar mind are Patti Heller and Sarah Thorndike. After Heller first heard Father Barron in November, she wanted to help somehow. So she arranged the showing at St. Ignatius.
She had been struggling with the Church, starting with the sexual scandals.
“But Father Barron was that light that started us forward with the Catholic Church,” she says. Now she listens to him regularly at his Word on Fire website. “He has enlightened me again. I have this inner peace again that’s bringing back my old faith I always had before the anger and frustration.”
Heller believes this project is coming at an important time.
“I want the Church to go forward in a positive direction, and he’s that positive influence. He really inspires a lot of hope and love for the Catholic Church.”
From the screening, 24-year-old Sarah Thorndike became an ardent supporter of “The Catholicism Project.” She grew up Catholic, attended church regularly, went to CCD classes, and knows Catholicism on a basic level, yet has never seen anything like this.
“This was a new look at cultural, moral and artistic aspects of the religion,” she says. “It’s like sitting in church and hearing a sermon, but for what you’re hearing about you’re actually there. It’s different and exciting.”
The 10-part series is scheduled for release on TV and DVD in fall 2010. The hope is to use it extensively in schools, universities and adult education. Father Barron ideally would like to see it air on PBS, A&E or the History Channel.
He has raised $2 million through donations for the project’s $2.5 million total cost.
Besides monetary donations, he has a specific request: “Ask people to pray for it. I’m strong on people praying for the success of this.
“At a time in our culture when the Church is under attack — the sex abuse, the animosity toward religion, the new atheism — I’m hoping this can be a more positive contribution.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Visit WordOnFire.org to learn more and see the trailer for “The Catholicism Project.”