Why Father Robert Barron Filmed 'Catholicism'

The Chicago priest’s ambitious series makes its debut on PBS.

ON LOCATION. Father Robert Barron filming part of Catholicism in Jerusalem.
ON LOCATION. Father Robert Barron filming part of Catholicism in Jerusalem. (photo: Word on Fire Ministry)

Evangelizing the culture is Father Robert Barron’s goal. A television series on the Catholic faith, which debuts tonight on PBS, might just go a long way in helping to achieve that goal.

Father Barron is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the founder of Word on Fire Ministry, a media apostolate. He has authored 10 books and also serves as the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois.

He recently produced the 10-part PBS series Catholicism, which will make its debut tonight in some parts of the country. (Check your local listings for more information.)

He hopes the series will reach both fallen-away Catholics, to remind them of the beauty and the truth of Catholicism, and restoring respect for a Church that is still recovering from the sexual abuse scandal and battling secularism.

“A handful of people did terrible things,” he admitted in a recent interview with Tim Drake, Register senior writer and host of Register Radio, “but we have 2,000 years of beauty, art, architecture, liturgy and the saints.”

Where did you grow up? Tell me about your family.

Between the ages of 3 and 8, I grew up outside Detroit, but then we moved back [to Chicago]. I came of age in the suburbs of Chicago. My father was a sales executive for a food distributor and my mother was a housewife. I’ve got an older brother who is the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times and a younger sister who works as a teacher’s assistant. Both live in Chicago. I’m the well-adjusted middle child.

Do you have a favorite childhood Catholic memory?

I grew up Catholic in the late 1960s and early 1970s — the “banners and balloons” period. In 1974, while a freshman in a Dominican high school outside Chicago, the teacher laid out one of the arguments for God’s existence from St. Thomas Aquinas. I wasn’t particularly interested in things religious, but this absolutely lit a fire for me. I began checking books out of the library to try to figure out this kind of theology.

That was a decisive moment in my life. It led me on a path to try to understand the things of God. Most of my life I’ve been a teacher and writer.

Did that lead to your vocation to the priesthood?

That was the beginning. It led me to a lot of books and thinking. I read my way to the priesthood. I was coming of age in a chaotic time in the Church. It wasn’t my parish that did it, but the books I was discovering and reading.

The mind affected the heart, and the conviction grew that I wanted to serve God and speak of God and the things of God. It deepened and developed into a life commitment to God. I was ordained in 1986 for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

How did you first come up with the idea for “The Catholicism Project”?

That goes back about four or five years ago. I told the Word on Fire board that I wanted to do something like Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, where he showed the beauty of civilization as he talked about it. I wanted to do the same for the Church by going to Europe, the Holy Land, Calcutta, Africa, Notre Dame Cathedral and elsewhere.

One of the board members suggested that I should drop everything else I was doing and do that. The board agreed and approached the cardinal about it. Cardinal Francis George, who had invited me to do the evangelizing-the-culture work, said that whatever he could do to make it happen he would do.

So, with the board and the cardinal behind me, we started raising money locally. It came through a lot of blood, sweat and tears, begging and events. Eventually, we obtained enough to do one trip. The cost was about $250,000 per episode for traveling, housing, filming and editing. We went to the Holy Land first.

I always had a 10-part series in mind. We filmed and continued begging, and once we had the money, we’d take our next trip. In the middle of the project, the economy collapsed, and many of our donors backed out. We continued praying, especially to the Little Flower [St. Thérèse of Lisieux], our patroness, and, in the end, we took 12 trips to 16 different countries and eventually got it done.

What was the high point in the filming?

For me, it was the Holy Land. It was the first time I had ever been there. Being in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was overwhelming. Out of reverence and the religious excitement of being there, I knelt down. Our cameraman filmed that and used it in the series.

Another highlight was visiting Uganda. I teach a number of African students and asked them where I should go to see Catholicism in Africa. All of them said I should go to Namugongo, Uganda. There, on June 3, they have a massive liturgy and procession for the martyr Charles Lwanga and companions on the site where he was burned at the stake.

To see 500,000 African Catholics come with this giant procession of priests and bishops was overwhelming. In the video, I use the line about the “blood of the martyrs being the seed of Christianity,” and the camera pans back to show this massive gathering. That was an emotional highlight for me.

Was there a low point?

The difficulty of some of the trips and moving every day to a new hotel. The low point was also a high point. We were at Lough Derg in Ireland. It was St. Patrick’s purgatory in the Middle Ages. There’s a rocky island in the middle of this large lake. It’s a pilgrimage site where people come for weekend retreats. When they arrive, they remove their shoes, they stay awake, and do other penitential exercises.

When we arrived, it was raining, and here were these barefooted penitents making their way around the island and its beds of stone. It was a dreadful, dismal day, but ended up being perfect for our filming purposes.

How large was your team?

When we traveled, about eight or nine people would come. We would hire people on the ground for light and sound. We had Mike Leonard of The Today Show. His son Matt was the director and did the editing. Nanette, who also worked with The Today Show, was our “fixer.” On one of our trips, she came just after producing the McCain-Obama debate to make all of the arrangements for us in Rome.

We had a great cameraman. He would film me doing our stand-ups first, and then he would wander around and get all these great shots of local people.

How were you able to gather so many folks from The Today Show?

Mike Leonard was a parishioner at Sacred Heart Parish on the north side of Chicago, where I helped out for nine years. I knew of his work, and we began to talk about professional possibilities. He runs a company called Picture Show, and that’s who we worked with for the past three years.

What was the total budget for the series?

It was $3 million — a shoestring budget. We tried to keep it to a small crew. We never got a penny from the Church. All of the money was raised through private donations.

It really was a miracle of a grassroots movement. Catholic laypeople thought this was a good project and supported it.

How long did the filming take for the series?

We began in June 2008, and our last filming trip was in 2010, so it took a little over two years to film.

How many countries did you visit?

We visited about 50 locations in 16 countries. I’m accustomed to giving a talk on a particular topic, but this was like doing a complicated movie.

We had all of the scripts with us all the time and were filming for various episodes at particular locations. Everything — the lighting, camera, sound — had to be carefully crafted. I remember once, while we were filming in Rome, the director yelled, “Cut.” I wondered what had happened. As it turned out, a cloud had passed in front of the sun, and we had lost our light. By the time the stupid little cloud had passed, it was the lunch hour. We were filming in the Vatican gardens, and you could hear all the car noise going by.

Is there anything that you learned about the Church from doing the project that you didn’t know before you started working on it?

I studied for my doctorate in Paris, and I taught in Rome, so my background is more Western. Going to Calcutta for the first time and Guadalupe and Uganda were all great eye-opening opportunities.

None of us had been to the Holy Land before, so when we arrived in Jerusalem, it was this completely different culture. It was great to see the non-Eurocentric side of the Church. I found it very uplifting.

What distinguishes the non-Western side of the Church?

The energy, the color, the commitment. We went to all these great places throughout Europe, and our cameraman, who was Lutheran, would say, “Another empty church.” The churches in Europe are beautiful, but they are empty of people.

Suddenly, there you are in Africa or Poland, and the churches are full of people attending Mass and going to confession. We sent film crews to Brazil and the Philippines, and the churches were jammed with people there as well. There’s a vibrancy and a liveliness in these places.

What do you hope to accomplish with the series?

I think of it as concentric circles. I’m interested in getting fallen-away Catholics — the second-largest religious group in America — to see it and be reminded of the beauty and the truth of Catholicism. I’m also interested in educating the Church.

People can use the series and study program in RCIA programs, adult formation, retreats. And I’m interested in the wider culture. We’re really thrilled that it will be on PBS to get to the wider culture.

Secularism is just wrecking people’s souls and telling them that all of their happiness and joy is to be found in this world. I want the series to reflect the transcendence of life and to speak of a higher reality.

I’m ambitious. I want the series to reach inside and outside the Church. When the cardinal gave me this mission to do Internet outreach, I envisioned this as a kind of crown jewel.

Some have described you as a kind of modern Fulton Sheen. Perhaps more than any priest, you have really taken the Second Vatican Council’s call in Inter Mirifica to heart, utilizing every means of communication to spread the truth of the Gospel. Why is the Church overall so slow to adapt to new-media technologies?

Fulton Sheen was certainly a pioneer, but the Church didn’t follow up. We think institutionally. My generation was the last one that came to the [Catholic] institutions (schools) and was evangelized there by priests and nuns. People aren’t coming to our institutions in the same way. We have to go get them and be proactive. We have media now that Fulton Sheen would have died for.

The explosion in the last 10 years is incredible — that I can produce a YouTube video, put it up, and it’s there 24/7. It was so edifying to be at World Youth Day in Madrid. We were flooded with young people who had seen our YouTube videos. They’re a great way to communicate. I also hear from atheists and secularists. How else would we be able to reach someone like that? I savor the opportunity to reach out to radically unchurched people. That’s what the new media has given us.

In the past few years, the level of hostility directed at the Church has really intensified. Your project was, in some ways, a response to that, wasn’t it?

The sexual-abuse scandal was the worst period in the history of the American Catholic Church. What do we do? We respond institutionally, certainly, as we did with the Dallas Charter. But secondly, and most importantly, we as a Church need to come back to the basics of evangelism.

The Church needs to reassert what it’s about. That’s what Sts. Dominic, Benedict and Ignatius did. They responded to crisis by talking about what we are about — Jesus Christ and caring for the poor.

I saw the project under this rubric and felt we should go forward at this time. A year ago I was on a local Chicago news program and the opening question was: “You represent the religion that has the worst public relations in the world.” I said, “Yes, we have this problem, but I refuse to let 2,000 years of Catholicism be reduced to the sexual-abuse scandal. A handful of people did terrible things, but we have 2,000 years of beauty, art, architecture, liturgy and the saints. We have St. Thomas Aquinas, [Blessed] Mother Teresa, the Notre Dame Cathedral. I don’t want that reduced to the sexual-abuse scandal.” I want our story told, and that’s a reason I did this.

In March 2010, you questioned PBS’ decision to not air religious programming and used examples to demonstrate that they exclude one type of evangelization but allow another type. Now it turns out that PBS has agreed to air your series on more than 80 public-television stations this fall. How did that come about?

We approached WTTW over a year ago in Chicago with the documentary. I was aware that I had done this piece on YouTube, and I stand by it. I wasn’t expecting much from PBS, but they called us down, and we met with their people. To my infinite delight and surprise, they said they thought it was well done, that it was visually compelling, that it would be interesting to non-Catholics and any religious seekers, and that they loved it. We went to lunch afterwards and wondered, How did that happen?

They watched all 10 episodes and chose four — the first episode on Jesus, the episode on the mystery of God, the episode on Mary, and the one on Peter and Paul and the missionary outreach of the Church. It will begin airing during prime time in Chicago on Oct. 13 and will air in successive three Thursday evenings. PBS Chicago marketed around the country, and they’ll be airing it on just over 80 stations.

The other episodes we sent to EWTN, and they’ll be playing them starting in the beginning of November. We’re thrilled.

And the series is accompanied by a companion book and a study guide?

Yes, there’s a study guide and a book. The book is based on the script. It has photos and artwork from the series. That’s being published by Image/Doubleday.

The study guide was written by Carl Olson. He took the scripts and provided a summary, along with elaboration and connections to the Bible, the Catechism, artwork and the Church Fathers.

“The Catholicism Project” is an ambitious and greatly anticipated project. Congratulations!

It was a dream that slowly became a reality. It was the combination of so many good things coming together. The laypeople came together during a time when the institutional Church was in trouble. They stepped up, they funded it, and they made it happen. I find that edifying and encouraging.

Tim Drake is the Register’s senior writer.