Bishop Barron on the Spiritual Crisis: Get In the Army of Christ

Bishop Barron emphasizes the urgent need to engage and challenge youth, and for all the faithful to draw strength from the Eucharist.

Bishop Barron offers his homily during Mass at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome on March 9th, 2024.
Bishop Barron offers his homily during Mass at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome on March 9th, 2024. (photo: Bénédicte Cedergren / National Catholic Register)

ROME — During his recent visit to Rome, Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, took the opportunity to address how the Church can provide support to youth amidst the ongoing spiritual crisis.

“By spiritual crisis, I mean the immanentism, the materialism, the secularism that has taken hold of much of our culture, at least in the West, and which I think is haunting the minds of our young people,” Bishop Barron, who is the founder of the Word on Fire apostolate, told the Register.

“If you are told that there is no transcendent point of reference,” the American bishop said, “that there is nothing beyond this world — that produces a deep thunderstorm in the heart and in the soul.” 

To think that “I come from nowhere and I am going nowhere” is also what among other things produces spiking numbers in depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies among young people — “that’s the spiritual crisis,” Bishop Barron explained. 

“The crisis is a materialism that has locked people into this little, tiny space — the ‘buffered self’ as Charles Taylor called it — where we are buffered from any contact with the transcendent.” 

This thunderstorm and separation from God, Bishop Barron continued, “also gives rise to a spiritual longing which you can see in people.” Mentioning the “old idols” of pleasure, power and pride tempting the people of God already in the Bible, Bishop Barron explained that “we try to fill that empty space with anything the world can give us.” 

We know however from St. Augustine and from the Bible, he underscored, that “the heart longs for God” and that “nothing in this world can satisfy the hungry heart.” While we may be able to deceive ourselves for a little while, “the heart knows otherwise, and will rebel against that sort of immanentism and reductionism.” 

“The problem is, as John of the Cross told us, that we have these infinite caverns inside of us. And so, no matter how much you throw into those caverns, it is not going to fill it up. They can be filled only by God, by the Infinite.”


A Church That Challenges

In response to the concern that the Church might be “pitching too hard” and the suggestion that discussing complex theological concepts, such as the spiritual battle, may drive young people away, Bishop Barron rebuked: “I grew up with that nonsense and it has caused nothing but havoc in the Church.”

First of all, Bishop Barron said, young people are today studying science, engineering, law and mathematics at the highest possible level. “Why in the world would we then think, ‘Oh, they can’t understand these themes of theology?”

Bishop Barron celebrated at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome on March 9th
Bishop Robery Barron celebrated Mass at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome on March 9th, 2024.(Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren)

“I just came from a conference on Thomas Aquinas who wrote his famous Summa Theologiae for beginners,” Bishop Barron shared. “It is for incipientes, [Aquinas] says, for beginners in theology,” he added, underlining that in the same way as 18- and 19-year-old beginners in theology were able to read the Summa, so young people today can understand theological topics such as spirituality. 

Second, Bishop Barron argued, “we should challenge them more than we do. I grew up with the Church of relevance and ‘let us make it as easy and user-friendly as possible, and let’s give you no challenges.’ That is why [the young people] left. Because who cares about such a Church?’”

Instead of watering down Christianity, Bishop Barron argued that the Church must intellectually and morally challenge young people, and “give them something to fight for.”


‘You Have to Serve Somebody’

Reflecting on how the Church needs to “be in the front seat, speaking these truths,” Bishop Barron recommended that the youth look at St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises and his meditation of the two standards.

“There are two armies assembled. One belongs to the devil. One belongs Christ. The two standards are raised. Which army are you in? What is going to be your fight?” 

Quoting Bob Dylan, one of his “poetic heroes,” the bishop emphasized that “you have to serve somebody. It might be the devil. It might be the Lord. But you have got to serve somebody. The point is, the ‘autonomous self’ is an illusion. We are always serving some Master.”

Bishop Barron celebrated Mass at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome on March 9th.
Bishop Barron celebrated Mass at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome on March 9th.(Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren)

Reflecting on the meaning of the word Kyrios — the Greek word for “Lord” or “Master” — in the New Testament, Bishop Barron explained: “Caesar was called Kyrios. Caesar is the Lord. And when Paul and company are saying ‘No, Iesous Kyrios’ — Jesus is the Lord — they were proposing another banner. Not Caesar's banner, but Christ’s Banner.”

While we might be able to deceive ourselves by trying not to choose either side, it is imperative that we do so, the American bishop urged: “Fight in Christ’s army. Join his army. Join the cause of the crucified and risen Lord.”

“Look at someone as heroic as John Paul II,” Bishop Barron added. “He was fighting in Christ’s army. He brought down some of the most powerful forces in the rival army in a way that we could not have imagined. When I was a kid, if you had said the Soviet empire would fall apart with barely a shot fired, and that the Pope was one of the main players, I [would have said it was] fantasy.”


Saints as Models for the Spiritual Battle

In order to combat the spiritual crisis and fight in the army of Christ, Bishop Barron urged young people to “not settle for spiritual mediocrity” but rather to look to the saints — not only to ask for their intercessions but also to be inspired by their lives.

“Hold up the Mother Teresas and John Paul IIs and the Pier Giorgio Frassatis,” Bishop Barron said, “these great figures who embody the Catholic way of being and be one of them — be a saint. There’s the challenge if you want.” 

To be a saint doesn’t mean that you have to become a “world famous figure,” Bishop Barron continued. “Follow the little way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and be a saint, and you will, as Catherine of Siena said, set the world on fire if you become the person God wants you to be.” 

“The main thing is not to try to be relevant or try to get ahead of the curve. It is to be faithful to the Church,” Bishop Barron added, using once again the example of St. John Paul II to illustrate the life of someone who was at first “an obscure figure,” who “spent a lot of his life in classrooms,” yet whose “honesty, integrity and the clarity of his message” made people “flock to him like mad.”

“There is this moment of new spiritual interest,” Bishop Barron said, in reference to a recent survey conducted by the Footprints Research Group of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, titled “Young People: Expectations, Ideals, Beliefs,” which showed that interest in spirituality among young people is growing worldwide. 

“Let us take advantage of it. The Church should move into that space and say boldly but lovingly: ‘We have the answers. You have now experienced the hunger. We have got the Bread of Life that will satisfy it.’”


National Eucharistic Revival

While all the greatest saints are “as different as can be,” Bishop Barron noted, “the one thing they all have in common is a love for the Eucharist. Without exception, saints from the first century to the 21st century, all love the Eucharist.”

In contrast, a poll by the Pew Research Center revealed in 2019 that only 31% of Catholics today believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Instead, nearly 7-in-10 Catholics believe that the bread and wine “are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

In response to this “spiritual disaster,” Bishop Robert Barron, serving at that time as the chairman of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, began working on a Eucharistic solution together with other bishops.

Daily Eucharistic adoration at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome
Daily Eucharistic adoration at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome(Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren)

“When I was chair of Evangelization and Catechesis,” Bishop Barron recalled, “I did say to my brother bishops, ‘I think we got a problem here everybody’ because the Pew Forum study had come out about that 70% not believing in the Real Presence, and I just said, ‘I think we should do something.’”

Regardless of whether the questions in the Pew study were asked correctly and whether the numbers in the poll reflect the reality, Bishop Barron admitted that “there are way, way, way too many Catholics who don’t have an adequate sense of the Eucharist” — and so the idea of the 2024 National Eucharistic Congress was born.

Taking place in Indianapolis July 17-21, the Eucharistic Congress — the first National Eucharistic Congress in 83 years — is expected to gather tens of thousands of faithful for Masses, worship and talks to celebrate the True Presence.

Bishop Barron, who will be giving one of the keynote speeches at the Congress, expressed his hope that people attending the congress might experience “a keener sense of the importance of Jesus Christ.” 

“The Eucharist, the Real Presence of the Lord,” he added, “is the great, enduring sign of his presence among us. So I hope it awakens people’s faith.”