Bishop Barron’s New Series Shows How Evangelization ‘Is the Ultimate Act of Mercy’

‘Catholicism: The Pivotal Players’ kicks off with a preview of the episode on St. Francis.

(photo: portrait by Jonathan Sundy)

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — On Aug. 31, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles and his Word on Fire Ministries presented a “sneak peek” of the first installment of their new series, Catholicism: The Pivotal Players on the campus of Christ Cathedral in Orange County, Calif.

Less a companion piece to Word on Fire’s 10-part documentary Catholicism, this new venture, with an initial six segments, is more a natural progression from its predecessor. Whereas the first incarnation of Catholicism covered the “big” picture of the foundation and establishment of the Church, Pivotal Players tells the story of how that same Church was blessed by faith and connectedness to God through intimate stories of extraordinary persons, such as St. Francis Assisi, “The Reformer” (the subject of the previewed installment); John Henry Newman, “The Convert”; St. Catherine of Sienna, “The Mystic”; G.K. Chesterton, “The Evangelist”; St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Theologian”; and Michelangelo, “The Artist.”

Bishop Barron is a born teacher who not only loves his subject, but has the twin gifts of being able to communicate it to others with joy and simplicity. Like Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who used well the most modern technology of his day (television), Bishop Barron makes the complex simple and has developed his own communications strategy utilizing the technology available to him — public television, the Internet and direct DVD sales — that will get Pivotal Players into the hands of the broadest audience possible. The series is scheduled to air on PBS sometime in the fall, but is currently available for purchase.

Though Bishop Barron doesn’t mind preaching to the choir, he also has a pronounced wish to, as he puts it, “reach beyond the wall” and stir people who may be on the outside of the Church and intrigue them enough by the series where they might take a look inside. He also has a strong desire to inspire young Catholics to embrace the programming and become evangelization counterweights to the radical secular world. If the audience at the screening of the St. Francis episode is any indication, Bishop Barron and Word on Fire are making significant strides in motivating young Catholics.

And what better way to counteract pervasive secularism than with an investigation into the life of someone who embraced radical Christianity: St. Francis Assisi.

It was difficult not to be moved by this beautifully photographed examination of Francis’ life, with Bishop Barron as a personal guide on the same cobblestoned streets where Francis walked and inside the same holy places where he experienced God’s transformative touch.

More than 800 years after his death, the story of how this son of a wealthy merchant seeking only fame and glory — but then so utterly transformed by an intimate encounter with God — became an ascetic agent of change and reform is presented in a simple, relevant and powerful template.

Probably the greatest service Bishop Barron lends to St. Francis is to liberate him from the box that many people have placed him: seeing him only as a quaint, if slightly odd, man who was kind to animals and fixated on nature like some kind of countercultural proto-hippie or a harmless bird-feeder statue in a backyard garden.

Instead, in this series, Francis is shown as a man who was every inch a countercultural icon, but in the way that all Christians since the Lord walked along the shores of Galilee should strive to emulate.

Whether he was giving his rags to someone who was naked or stooping to help a fallen bird, it was all done through and for the love of God. Francis’ life and the evangelization campaign he and his Order of Friars Minor undertook were grueling, wrought with peril and not for the faint of heart.

While taping an episode of EWTN’s Bookmark program after the screening, Bishop Barron summed up Francis’ profound commitment to God by referencing another subject of his series, G.K. Chesterton: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

The Francis we meet in this first segment of Pivotal Players tried it, found it liberating in its completeness and became a saint in full through the process. Yes, he had almost a lyrical approach to life and a mystical connection to nature, but it was not his essence, but, rather, just another manifestation of his total surrender to the will of God, as was his work with the poorest of the poor.

Just as Pivotal Players gives us a more intimate and complete picture of St. Francis, it gives a more holistic presentation of the Church in general, by exploring the other five Catholic pillars in the series who, with their own individual gifts and charisms, become integral support beams to a singular foundation. Including saints and writers, Churchmen, soldiers and artists is reminiscent of how the late Father Richard John Neuhaus responded when asked what it means to be Catholic: “Here comes everybody.”

It is no coincidence that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio chose the name Francis for his pontificate and similarly no coincidence that, during his first Divine Mercy Sunday sermon in April of 2013 as Pope Francis, he said, “It is there, in the wounds of Jesus, that we are truly secure; there, we encounter the boundless love of his heart. ... I am by no means lacking merits as long as he is rich in mercy.”

Pivotal Players’ investigation into the conversion of St. Francis — literally someone who exhibited the real wounds of Christ later in his life — points us all to the ever-patient invitation from God to accept that mercy.

As the close of the Year of Mercy looms on the horizon, this new series from Bishop Barron, with its potential for great good when it comes to evangelization, becomes a kind of blessed addendum since evangelization, suggests Bishop Barron, “is the ultimate act of mercy.”


Robert Brennan attended the premiere event. He writes from Los Angeles.