Bishop Robert Barron Brings Beauty of Catholicism to a World in Need

Bishop Barron reflects on his new ministry as a bishop in the Golden State, his friendship with the late Cardinal George of Chicago, new plans for his global apostolate and the timely subject of his latest book.

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As the episcopal vicar of Santa Barbara, Calif., Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron is in charge of one of the five pastoral regions in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest archdiocese in the United States.

A leading exponent of the New Evangelization, Bishop Barron’s use of social media, television, commentary, and best-selling books shares the truths and beauty of the Catholic faith all over the world.

The native Chicagoan, 56, took up his post in Santa Barbara in 2015, leaving his high-profile position as rector and president of Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois.

During a July 8 interview at the Napa Institute in California, Bishop Barron met with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond to reflect on his new ministry as a bishop in the Golden State, his friendship with the late Cardinal George of Chicago, new plans for his global apostolate, Word on Fire, and the timely subject of his latest book, Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism.

 

This interview comes just days after multiple shootings of both civilians and police in St. Paul, Minn., Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas that have shocked the nation, and during an election year that has only added to public anxiety about the future of the country. What gives you hope at this moment?

It is a hard moment in our culture, but our hope is never found in political programs. God’s love is more powerful than anything that’s in the world.

So the hope comes from a very deep conviction that we have won through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. God has conquered the powers of darkness.

A further ground of our hope is the Church, the Body of Christ. The followers of Jesus are meant to continue, in some way, the Incarnation. They are meant to continue the dynamics of God, reconciling the world to himself.

Under the guidance of Jesus’ spirit, we become agents of reconciliation, of peace and nonviolence.

Nonviolence is not passivity. As practiced by great figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Pope St. John Paul II and Mother Teresa, it is a way of addressing evil and violence.

The Church doesn’t retreat into privacy. It is meant to be light and salt, and so interrupt the works of a violent society. It is a voice of mercy in a merciless world.

Polls show we are in an increasingly secular society. The Church speaks of God, and that is why the worship of the Church is so essential. The liturgy is the way we most deeply affect the world.

 

Last year, you were the rector of Mundelein Seminary, and now you are a regional bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. What has it been like to go through this change in ministry?

As a seminary rector, I had about 220 students, 40 faculty members, 100 members of staff. It is small, but a hyper-concentrated community. I loved being in that role as a spiritual father for these guys. You see their spiritual progress, and I follow them on Facebook.

Now, I am one of five regional bishops in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Mine is the largest geographic region, and it includes Ventura and Santa Barbara, the area north of the city of Los Angeles, with an estimated 650,000 Catholics.

It is a very diverse region. I just finished confirmation season, with 37 confirmations, and more than half were in Spanish.

My job now is to be shepherd of this region. It was a huge transition, made more difficult because it was so unexpected. (On July 12, [2015] I got a phone call out of the blue.) But Santa Barbara, where I live, is one of the most beautiful places in the United States.

 

What are your plans for your Word on Fire apostolate?

I have also continued my Word on Fire work, and we are moving the headquarters out to the beautiful Santa Barbara Mission. The Franciscans approached me and said, “You have this ministry; wouldn’t it be great to move it here?”

So Word on Fire continues, and we have a big project for this fall: Pivotal Players, about key figures in the Church who changed the world. Six episodes have been completed, and they are made by the same team that made the Catholicism series.

PBS has picked up two of the six episodes, with the possibility of doing two more the following year. They will syndicate the show around the country.

 

You have described the late Cardinal Francis George as a “spiritual father.” What does spiritual fatherhood mean, and how has his example shaped your own efforts to guide and inspire seminarians and, now, priests?

Spiritual fatherhood is the master category for thinking about the priesthood. That priests bear the title “Father” is very telling.

Fathers give life, and the main task of the spiritual father is to give spiritual life. How do you do that? Through the sacraments, like baptism and confession. He is a life-giver. But the priest is also a father who protects and guides.

Specifically, Cardinal George was that for me. I have his picture in my prayer book, and I frequently ask him to help me. I have been home a couple of times this last year, and I went to the cemetery both times to visit his grave and commune with his spirit.

I think he had a lot to do with my becoming a bishop, so in my own small, inadequate way, I am carrying on his convictions.

 

Your popular YouTube film reviews give you an accessible platform for sharing faith-based insights with the culture. Now that you are in southern California, will you engage the entertainment industry directly?

I am interested in evangelizing this part of the culture, and there are interesting people here with a Christian-Catholic background. We will see if we can find more points of contact.

What are your working principles for effective evangelization?

I am a child of the period just after the Second Vatican Council. I went to first grade in 1965, when the Council ended. I was among the first students to receive “dumbed-down” Catholicism — not to blame the Council.

My generation fell away in such numbers because we had a puerile formation in Catholicism.

My catechetical approach is to be positive, rather than negative. I try to find points of contact to uncover something in the culture that is redolent of the Gospel and that speaks of the Gospel indirectly.

My assumption is that a once-integrated Christian culture has exploded, and the pieces are all over the place — you can see them. They may be distorted, but you can still point them out as bits of a once-integrated Catholic view of the world.

I have always believed in beginning with the beauty of the Catholic Tradition — Dante, Michelangelo, the Chartres Cathedral.

Now, however, two generations are clueless about this [religious and cultural legacy], and that is tragic.

 

You are a regional bishop. Do you expect to be involved with local schools, helping to inspire curriculum changes?

I don’t have the authority to say, “Let’s change this program.” But I can cajole, observe and encourage.

I will be speaking to all of the high-school teachers in the five different regions, and I can lay out a vision.

We don’t think of instruction of Catholicism as an academically serious discipline, but it is a topic as complex as math, science or English. I would like to see religion as the toughest class.

We often underestimate what the kids are capable of doing, so let me mention one school in my region, St. Augustine Academy, a K-12 Catholic school. I went there to say Mass, and they had two choirs with kids singing polyphony and chant.

The teacher asked me to take over the eighth-grade class and find out what the students knew. They were studying Dante. I asked the basic questions, then ramped it up a bit, and after we got to high interpretive questions, I told the teacher that I had never seen a class more engaged than these students.

In sixth grade, they recited from memory Tennyson’s Ulysses and then passages from Mark Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar. The class confirmed my view that we have dramatically underestimated what students are capable of doing.

 

In your new book, Vibrant Paradoxes, you explain: “Catholicism is both/and, not either/or. It celebrates the union of contraries — grace and nature, faith and reason.” Meanwhile, Robert George has warned of a “new Gnosticism,” which adopts a dualistic, either/or view of human nature and rejects this both/and vision. Can you explain the difference between these two competing visions of reality?

Dualism will drive this wedge between two things and privilege one over the other — the gnostic privileging of the interior over the exterior, of the spiritual over the material. It is an either/or game.

The vibrant paradox that I write about is a both/and grounded in the Incarnation, in the two natures of Jesus. A fundamental claim of Christianity is that Jesus’ divinity and humanity come together in this vibrant manner.

This both/and is the ground for all Christian paradox. Christianity loves the body and likes what is concrete and physical. Gnosticism is the opposite.

 

How would the both/and of Christian paradox apply to our faith life? Some Catholics impose a false choice between, say, Christian piety and social justice.

In the seminary world, the dualism would take the form of this question: “Are you a liturgy guy or a social-justice guy?”

But take the life of Dorothy Day, a great Catholic. She was radically devoted to social change, care for the poor and an end to violence. Yet she was converted to a very pious Catholicism rooted in the Eucharist, the Mass, the Rosary, Benediction, retreats and an intense interiority. She brought these two [strands] together in her life, and one fed the other; one returned to the other. That is the model you want.

In my judgment, that integrated vision split apart after the Council, and we got our familiar categories. Restoring that integrated vision is one of my passions.

 

Turning to trends in American culture, is the recent attention given to issues of gender another example of this gnostic dualism?

It is a prime example. You find it in the way people talk about it: “I feel trapped in this body that isn’t really mine” — so I will change the body to bring it into line with my interiority.

You privilege the interior and the spiritual and make the physical into something that is malleable, for the sake of satisfying the interior.

This is how modernity developed. The French philosopher René Descartes went deep inside and found the cogito. Everything is brought before the bar of the cogito for adjudication. You see it in Kant, Hegel and Sartre, and today you see it in transgenderism. The body is there for me to manipulate according to my inner compulsion, rather than the body is a given that has its own intelligibility and its own moral logic patterned into it.

 

As people of faith, how should we respond to this kind of dualistic thinking that is shaping our culture?

On an objective level, we try to get people in touch with reality. If your perception is deeply out of step with reality, we would say that you need to deal with that.

But in the spirit of Pope Francis, let me also say that the subjective experience should never be denigrated or discounted. I wouldn’t want to dismiss the experience of gender dysphoria as not real, or as not felt as a deep suffering.

When someone says, “I am feeling this as a terrible struggle,” we need to move with great love and compassion into that space and help him or her. That is the tricky both/and of our faith.