Bishop Barron and the Future of UK Catholicism: ‘Stay in the Center, With Christ’

A British one-day conference reveals that today’s coming-of-age millennials, whom the world has assumed would follow its way of thinking, appear to have other ideas...

The one-day conference ‘Sharing the Church’s Story’ gathered a sold-out crowd in London to hear U.S. Bishop Robert Barron and enjoy faith and fellowship.
The one-day conference ‘Sharing the Church’s Story’ gathered a sold-out crowd in London to hear U.S. Bishop Robert Barron and enjoy faith and fellowship. (photo: Catholic Voices)

LONDON — A text from a friend had reminded me.

Her message incorporated a link to register for a one-day conference at perhaps London’s most prestigious conference venues: its star attraction being Bishop Robert Barron of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, and known throughout the Catholic world for his multimedia apostolate Word on Fire

To be honest, I had forgotten that the bishop was coming. There had been much anticipation of the event when it was previously scheduled. Last September, it was due to be held in a different, less impressive, venue; but the death of Queen Elizabeth ended that, and the conference was postponed. In fact, the event had already been postponed once before, in September 2021, because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

Now, at last, it seemed, Bishop Barron was coming to London. Finally, the Word on Fire media bandwagon would arrive in the British capital. And its main event was to take place on Feb. 11.

Making my way through the quiet streets of Westminster, past the Houses of Parliament and opposite Westminster Abbey that Saturday morning, I saw the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. This is a venue that has hosted every kind of conference: political, social, cultural; now, it was to welcome the largest gathering of Catholics in the United Kingdom since the start of the pandemic. 

Catholic Voices (CV), Word on Fire Institute and the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom were the organizers of the day. They had come together to stage a one-day conference entitled: Sharing the Church’s Story.” Its purpose, as explained on the conference website, was: “to bring people together in person for an experience of profound personal renewal and to be equipped for mission.”

The practicalities of the day fell to CV. That organization was instituted on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 U.K. visit. Back then, CV was tasked with improving the Church’s presentation in the media, especially in news programs and debates. 

At CV’s inception, an initial group of 24 laypeople and one priest undertook a six-month training, thereafter, going on to make more than 100 media appearances in those early months; and, with that, a new Catholic media apostolate was born. Today, there are more than 20 CV groups across Europe, the Americas and Australia.

The day’s events on Feb. 11 were scheduled to begin at 10am. On my arrival at 8:30am, there was already a line of people waiting to gain access to the conference center, which holds 1,500 people. The event by now was sold out. Yet, at £50 ($60) a ticket, and with people traveling to it from all over the U.K., this was a day for the committed. 

On entering the center, I was greeted by Brenden Thompson, CEO of CV. He was standing in the main reception area surrounded by 35 or so volunteers all dressed in distinctive dark-green T-shirts. They were being briefed on how the day was to run by Niamh O’Brien, the event’s coordinator. O’Brien’s briefing was the usual run-through of administrative, logistical and safety information, giving what one would expect at the start of such an event. After she had finished speaking, she handed over to Madeline Page, the main volunteer coordinator for the day. She, too, spoke of practical matters, such as registering people on arrival. Observing this, however, there was nothing routine in the sense from all those present in wanting to make the day truly a success. 

The other thing that struck me as remarkable was the ages of all concerned. The two women in charge of the day’s events were in their early 20s, as were most of the volunteers. When I spoke to them later, it was clear that the volunteers were almost uniformly intelligent and zealous, not just that the day would run smoothly, but that its spiritual mission would bear fruit. Coming at a time when recent parish surveys reveal that Sunday Mass attendance has fallen by at least a quarter in much of the U.K., this conference’s volunteer team came as a welcome reminder that the Church’s decline is never inevitable. 

A few days before the event, I had spoken to Thompson on the telephone. He was in the midst of last-minute preparations. Yet he sounded calm and was happy to talk about the day ahead. Given the two previous cancellations of Bishop Barron’s conference in London, this was remarkable. Our conversation moved from considering the practical aspects of the conference to its rationale. Bishop Barron was a name to conjure with, even in the U.K.: He would draw an audience, but the day was not just staged for that. The day, Thompson explained, was about the Church in this country. He also described the team assembled to run the event: “young leaders, with an average age of 26, who have really stepped into lay leadership. They are a credit to the Church in England and Wales and give me great hope.”

This was the first major Catholic event since the pandemic and drew on a number of people and organizations from across the Church in this country. 

Like everyone else in the Church, Thompson was conscious of the demoralization that had pervaded the U.K. Church since the pandemic. All too recent were memories of churches being locked, with no public Masses available other than online. The Church in the U.K. had had to deal with a slower than expected return to something approaching normal Mass attendance, following the relaxation of COVID restrictions. Now was a time for a new beginning, Thompson noted, not sterile lamentation. Listening to Thompson, I was heartened by the fact it was clear that the CV team and the day they had planned was part of this new beginning. 

After the final briefing, the volunteers started their work. They were as eager as the organizers, it seemed, to get the day underway and to play their part in its success. Thompson took me around the conference center and past the Catholic Expo that had been created, where various Catholic and some non-Catholic groups were promoting their activities. 

“We want this day to have fruit,” he said. As we walked through the main auditorium, where 1,500 people would gather later, he explained how the day was to run. There were various smaller conference rooms that would be used for sessions in the afternoon, with one room dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament, where anyone could come to pray throughout the day. 

By now, the doors had opened, and people were being shepherded to the various locations by the volunteers. O’Brien and Page were to be seen with walkie-talkies in hand, dragooning volunteers and answering the myriad questions that would continue to come throughout the day. Surprisingly, given the sheer volume of people and responsibilities that fell within their orbit of responsibility, they smiled unfailingly. Later, I was to learn that they and all the volunteers had arrived at 7am and had begun their day with prayer before the hard work of setting up for the event.  

O’Brien is an upbeat young woman who is well-educated and well-formed in her faith. I asked her why she had donated time to such a herculean task as helping organize the event. She replied that she did it for love of the Lord. It was as simple as that. “I’m so proud of what the whole team has achieved,” she said, “It was exciting to be part of such a dynamic event.” 

Page was equally motivated and shared O’Brien’s positivity. As with O’Brien, her years at university had seen not a diminution but rather a strengthening of her faith. She, too, had an energy about making the day work for all concerned. “I spent the day walking around the venue, getting in over 23,000 steps, and asking delegates how they were finding the day,” she explained when I encountered her at the end. “I was met with a resounding sense of joy and renewal,” she declared. But, like O’Brien, she was not simply a good event organizer. Both women had expressed the need to use their gifts for a purpose: helping to rebuild the Church post-pandemic.

Through CV, these women had found a forum for their apostolic zeal. Both women had been drawn to CV because they wanted to explain and defend their Catholic faith in the bear pit of media. And as with all with whom I spoke to from CV, today’s secular, often anti-Catholic, media was not perceived as cause for retreat and defensive recrimination, but rather as an opportunity: They desired to enter into the media fray so as to evangelize a world largely ignorant of the Gospel. 

As Bishop Barron took to the stage, the 1,500-strong audience rose to its feet. The majority had come to hear him speak in person. They were not to be disappointed. 

“Remember that famous image of Christ at Chartres Cathedral,” Bishop Barron said. 

“Picture life as a wheel with Christ in the center. Don’t live on the outside of the wheel, subject to the ups and downs that life inevitably brings. No. Stay in the center, with Christ.” 

Bishop Barron’s message was that such a way of living was the spur to evangelize — not the Church but the world — and, therefore, to take seriously the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness, bringing the light of Christ to peoples as yet living in darkness. 

This is a message that has been repeated often, since the ending of the Council, whose closure now approaches its 60th anniversary. But a new generation is hearing it afresh. 

Today’s coming-of-age millennials, whom the world has assumed would follow its way of thinking, appear to have other ideas. Meeting young Catholics such as Page and O’Brien gives one hope.

“It was a wonderful event,” said O’Brien at its close. “I hope that it has inspired attendees to feel a little more confident in sharing the Church’s story.” Page agreed, “I pray that this marks a new beginning in the days, months and years following … transforming our culture and pointing people to Christ.”