Before all else, an evangelist: A Q&A with Bishop Robert Barron

Bishop Barron to speak at St. John Paul II Lecture Series Feb. 6

Aaron Lambert

One of the Catholic Church’s boldest leaders, Bishop Robert Barron is somewhat of a celebrity in the Catholic world. He’s best known as the host of Catholicism, the groundbreaking documentary about the Catholic faith that aired on PBS several years ago, and this past year, he released a follow-up to that series entitled Catholicism: The Pivotal Players. He’s far too humble to ever recognize it, but Bishop Barron may very well go down as one of the Church’s pivotal players in this era of its history.

Bishop Barron was ordained an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2015, thrusting him from his primary role as an academic into a full-time pastoral job. Even so, Bishop Barron continues to be the great evangelist he is — a title he readily accepts — through his Word On Fire ministry, his TV series, and even his new book To Light a Fire on the Earth, written with John L. Allen, Jr. Bishop Barron will be tackling the topic of relativism at the next installment of the St. John Paul II Lecture Series Feb. 6 at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn. Ahead of his visit to Denver, we caught up with him about his new book, how to live as a Catholic in the culture and what it means to be an evangelist.

DC: Where did the concept for your new book written with John L. Allen, Jr., To Light a Fire on the Earth, come about?

Bishop Barron: It came from the publisher at Image, a guy named Gary Jansen. He called up and asked if I’d be interested in doing a book like this with John Allen. He proposed it to me, and I found attractive a lot of things, but one was that I don’t have as much time as I used to to sit down and write books — I’ve got this full-time pastoral job, so I thought that would be an easier way to produce a book if we did an interview. So then about a week later, he called back and said that he talked to John and John was very open to it, so I said OK, let’s do it. John came out for about 25 hours of interviews – he came to my house here in Santa Barbara – and we just really went after it, talked about everything. John put those together, edited them down a little bit, and we finally produced the book.

DC: In the book, you say that you would happily accept the title “evangelist” above all else. What is it to be an evangelist?

Bishop Barron: Someone that declares the dying and rising of Jesus and invites people to share a life in the Church — I think that’s what an evangelist does. To me, it’s an englobing term. I’ve spent a lot of my life as an academic, as a teacher, as a writer, and I try to bring all of that to my evangelical work because I think that’s the fundamental form of the Church’s proclamations. Everything else that we do — all the different writing and speaking and teaching – is under that rubric finally, is to bring people to Christ. I like that title; I’d be happy to be called an evangelist.

DC: What are the essentials for Catholics today to stay clear from all the noise and distractions and truly live their faith in a compelling way?

Bishop Barron: I think to learn the Biblical story. Our culture is forgetting the Biblical story, and when you do that, then you don’t understand what it means to say that Jesus Christ is Lord, because that makes sense only against the background of the Old testament story. If we forget that, then Jesus devolves very quickly into being a teacher of spiritual truth. You watch all the talk shows and stuff like that, that’s what he’s presented as, and that’s the fruit – the very bitter fruit, I would say – of having forgotten the Biblical story. I would urge Catholics to learn the Bible. Vatican II called for this deep renewal of Biblical theology, and I don’t think it’s happened really, and that’s, to my mind, the single most important thing.

DC: One of the biggest challenges the Church faces is capturing millennials. What gets their attention?

Bishop Barron: [With Word on Fire], we’ve tried to begin where millennials are; so first of all, to move into the virtual space, move into the world of social media just to be there, and then to start not so much with the doctrine, but to start with the things that intrigue people today. That’s where the books and movies and music and all that come in – that’s part of it. Another part of it is that millennials have a lot of serious intellectual questions about religion; for example, the issue of religion and science is a major stumbling block for millennials. So, I’ve done a lot with that. Thirdly, they’ve been very affected by the new atheists. Millennials, or now iGen-ers, the current generation, came of age with this very strong public critique of religion with people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and I find dealing with younger people, they use the language of the new atheists all the time. I’ve done a lot with trying to engage the question of God and why it makes sense to believe in God. Those are all approaches I’ve used.

DC: You’ve always had a way of viewing pop culture through a lens of faith, such as with your commentary on popular films. Do you think Catholics are too mistrustful of getting to know a culture that doesn’t share their same values?

Bishop Barron: The culture is always a mixed bag – it always has been. It’s both good and bad. But we can’t afford to be so squeamish that we just absent ourselves from the culture or cast dispersions upon it, because then we miss all kinds of opportunities. What you find in the culture are bits and pieces of Christianity all over the place. Years ago, I had a great teacher at Catholic University, Robert Sokolowski, and he talked a lot about the explosion of the once-integrated Catholic vision that happened around the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But what we see, then, are the twisted pieces of that once-integrated whole here and there in the culture. They’re not in perfect shape, they’re not perfectly integrated, but they’re pieces of the Catholic worldview, and I think that’s true in films and books and music and all sorts of things. I try to point that out when I can.

But it’s the culture; there’s no one answer. It’s always both/and. The culture is good, the culture is bad. The culture reflects the Church, the culture opposes the Church. The evangelist has to be adept enough to both criticize and integrate, and that can get both sides mad. If you start critiquing culture, then you’re a culture warrior, and if you embrace the culture, then you’re a relativist and an accommodationist. Well, the point is, you’re both a critic and a celebrator of the culture; you’ve got to be able to pivot and weave and make your way through the culture. I learned that from my great mentor Cardinal George of Chicago. He was a great one for the evangelization of the culture. He never liked when people said they were culture warriors; he said it was like a fish saying I’m against the ocean. The culture is, whether we like it or not, the air that we breathe; the ocean is full of all kinds of junk and pollution, and it’s what the fish lives on. The same is true of our culture; it’s full of all kinds of unsavory things, and it’s also the air that we breathe. You can’t just stand against it.

St. John Paul II Lecture series presents Bishop Robert Barron

Feb. 6, 2018, 7:30 p.m.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish
11385 Grant Dr., Northglenn
Space is limited; RSVP at archden.org/lecture.

COMING UP: Celebrate and support the sacred gift of life

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Editor’s Note: This column is adapted from Archbishop Aquila’s remarks to the 2018 Celebrate Life March, which took place on January 13th in front of the Colorado State Capitol building.

As we gather today to celebrate life, we must remember three things: 1) life is a gift, 2) life is sacred, and 3) rebuilding a culture of life requires joy.

We are here today to celebrate our joy over the gift of life. Every minute and every day we live presents us with an abundance of gifts that seem mundane and are often overlooked: our health, the gift of creation, or something as simple as having food on our plates. Above all, we should give thanks for the gift of life!

As people involved in protecting life at every stage, the challenge we face is not just one of providing resources to mothers and fathers in need or ensuring people battling a terminal illness have good palliative care. Our challenge is to also communicate to them that they are loved, that their unborn child or their own lives are gifts, no matter the circumstances.

Many of us fought in 2016 to prevent doctor-assisted suicide from becoming legal in Colorado, and one person who helped in that effort was a courageous man named J.J. Hanson. J.J. was a Marine veteran and father of two young children who was working for a real estate investment firm in Florida when he found out he had glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer. His doctors told him that it was a very aggressive cancer that meant he only had four months to live.

Despite his odds, J.J. resolved to fight. His motto was: “Every single day is a gift, and we can’t let that go.” What’s even more remarkable is the fact that J.J. dedicated his time and energy to fighting the legalization of assisted suicide around the country, all while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments. There was hardly a speaking engagement or trip to testify before a legislature that J.J. turned down. His conviction that life was a gift propelled him to defend that gift however he could. As pro-life people, we need to have that same conviction.

Just about two weeks ago, on December 30th, J.J. was called home to the Father – three years beyond what doctors told him to expect. St. Anthony of Padua church in upstate New York, where his funeral was held, was filled with people who paid tribute to how J.J. inspired them to embrace every moment of life, no matter its difficulties as a gift, not something to be thrown away.

All of us are called to embrace life as J.J. did, and in doing so we will help recover the culture of life that is being neglected or forgotten as people cast God and truth aside.

I have said that life is a gift, and while that is true, it’s more than that. Life is also sacred. Life is sacred because it comes from God, the God who is love and who has loved us first. Our lives are also sacred because our beings are made in God’s image and likeness.

We are called to participate in the love of God and to see that every human being, from the moment of conception until natural death, is invited into relationship with God. We are called to ensure that life is set aside for God, that it is honored and recognized as sacred.

The struggle for so many today is that they do not even believe in a god; their only god is themselves. They truly do not believe in the God who is love. And because of this limited worldview, a person’s life can lose its value if their “quality of life” declines.

In the words of Pope Francis to participants in the 2013 Day for Life, “All life has inestimable value even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”

When Jesus speaks about the Judgement of the Nations in Matthew 25, he tells us that life is always sacred by saying that when we love the weak and vulnerable, we are loving him.

The more that we can love the sacred gift of life and celebrate it with joy, the more we will contribute to building a true culture of life in the U.S.

A wonderful example of concretely loving the sacred gift of life is a story I recently heard about a 15-year-old Colorado teenager named Missy, who showed up with her parents at an abortion clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Missy was a sophomore in high school and was in her second trimester of pregnancy. As they approached the clinic, some pro-life volunteers who were parked nearby in a mobile crisis pregnancy van saw them and invited them inside. The volunteers learned that Missy wanted to complete high school and that this desire was pushing her to consider an abortion. One of the volunteers told Missy about how she was faced with the same choice as a teen and chose to keep her child. “It wasn’t easy, but it was amazing,” she reassured Missy.

Missy also worried about the father of the child not being around, to which her dad responded by taking her hand and saying, “I’ll be that man in your child’s life.”

This kind of accompaniment and willingness to heroically support the gift of life is vitally important to forming a culture that welcomes the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and the dying as a gift.

Building a culture of life begins by first receiving the love of the Father, who loves each of us as his sons and daughters. He never abandons us, even though we might abandon him or reject his love.

A culture of life grows when we share his love with others, helping them to embrace life as a gift and a joy, rather than a burden.

Life is a gift, it is sacred and our celebration of the joy of life helps build a culture of life.

I encourage you to be those who are unafraid to give witness to life. Be not afraid to give witness to life. Even though people might ridicule you, yell at you, or reject you, know that Jesus experienced it all so that you might have life, and life abundantly.

May God bless you and help you celebrate life in 2018!