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: Honored for 50 years of service at Cabrini Shrine, man says it’s been ‘blessing after blessing’

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Every workday, facilities manager Tom Francis starts his morning the same way. He enters the chapel at Mother Cabrini Shrine on Lookout Mountain, turns on the lights and addresses a statue of the shrine’s namesake.

“I tell her, ‘OK boss, this is your place. I’m just a pair of hands. You need to help me or we won’t be able to be here for those who come.’”

On December 1, Tommy, as he is affectionately called, marked 50 years as an employee of the shrine, which is named after St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first U.S. citizen to be canonized. The shrine staff honored the energetic 71-year-old with a Mass and luncheon.

“Tommy has a deep devotion to Mother Cabrini,” said JoAnn Seaman, Development Director. “He has had a huge impact on the shrine and what it has become. … He is very humble and gives all the credit to Cabrini.”

In 1880, the native Italian nun founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to spread devotion to the Sacred Heart by means of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Desiring to do mission work in China, instead Pope Leo XIII urged her to minister to Italian immigrants in the United States. From 1889 until her death in 1917, Mother Cabrini did so, even becoming a naturalized citizen in 1909.

Tommy was recognized for service that started when he was a 21-year-old college student who labored summers, nights and weekends at the shrine and lived with his parents, grandmother and siblings in the caretaker’s house. But in reality, his service began when he was still a child and his father Carl worked as the maintenance manager for Mother Cabrini’s Queen of Heaven Orphanage. Located in north Denver, the orphanage operated from 1905-1967. It was torn down in 1969.

“I was blessed to work with my dad and to be around the [Missionary] Sisters all the time,” Tommy said. “By the time my dad passed [in 1984] he’d spent 54 years of his life working for them. It was from him I learned respect for the sisters and their mission.”

Even after Tommy finished college and was working fulltime as a math teacher, he continued working part-time at the shrine. Upon retiring from a successful 30-year teaching career in 2003, he began laboring fulltime at the shrine.

“Mother Cabrini bought this property in 1910, primarily as the summer home for the girls at Queen of Heaven Orphanage,” Tommy explained. “In 1938, when she was beatified, they started building a chapel as there was a lot of interest in Mother Cabrini…. After she was canonized in 1946, that’s when the real development started. In the 1950s the statue of Jesus was placed at the top of the hill. That’s how the shrine got started.”

By the time Tommy started working there, Mother Cabrini had been canonized more than 20 years and was recognized as the patron of immigrants. The shrine was already attracting pilgrims who wanted to walk where a saint had once walked.

Tom Francis has worked at Mother Cabrini shrine for 50 years, continuing the legacy started by his father, who began working for the Shrine in 1930, when it was operating as Mother Cabrini’s Queen of Heaven Orphanage. (Photos by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

They were also drawn by a spring that was discovered in 1912 when Mother Cabrini’s sisters complained to her about the lack of water on the property. The saint told them: “Lift that rock over there and start to dig.” They did and found a spring that runs to this day. Many pilgrims believe that through faith, the water has brought healing and peace to their lives.

A replica of the grotto at Lourdes, France, was built over the spring in 1929 and replaced with the current one in 1959. The historic Stone House dormitory, completed for the orphan girls in 1914, now serves as a retreat house.

The 22-foot statue of Jesus, which stands on the highest point of the 900-acre site and serves as a landmark for the shrine, is reached by a prayer path of 373 steps built in 1954. At the foot of the statue is an image of Christ’s Sacred Heart made with white stones by Mother Cabrini with help from her sisters and some of the orphan girls in 1912.

The original pump-house is now a charming museum about the saint and the 50-year-old main building housing the chapel, gift shop and convent is constantly busy with visitors.

In his years with the shrine, Tommy, with the help of many volunteers, has further beautified and enhanced the tranquility of the grounds with his landscaping skills.
“Not only does he take care of the grounds and buildings, but he designed and built all of our meditation and prayer gardens,” Seaman said. “He knows every inch of this place like the back of his hand.”

“Our sisters would not have been able to maintain this ministry without Tommy and his family, who worked for the sisters since the time of the orphanage,” said Missionary Sister Roselle Santivasi, noting that when she arrived to the shrine nine years ago, Tommy’s mother Elda, who died in 2012, was still a helpful presence at the shrine.

“Every Missionary Sister knows Tom Francis and his family,” declared Sister Roselle. “Our whole ministry here was so dependent on Tommy and his family and continues to be. They are a large part of why the [shrine] mission has succeeded and has brought the presence of God to so many people.”

A widower for 27 years as he raised two daughters after losing his wife to cancer, Tommy met his current wife Sarah, a speech therapist, in 2005 when she moved to the shrine from Green Bay, Wis., as a Cabrini Mission Corps lay volunteer. The couple will mark their 10th wedding anniversary in March.

Sarah is just one of the blessings Mother Cabrini has brought Tommy as he labors at her shrine.

“You can feel a connection with Mother Cabrini here — you can feel her presence,” Tommy asserted. “Even though we no longer have orphans, about 50 percent of our visitors are immigrants who have great devotion to Mother Cabrini. The sisters still work with the poor and it’s still the Cabrini vision to spread God’s love through the world.”

The shrine remains a prayerful place of pilgrimage to foster one’s relationship with Christ, whether for a day or for a longer formal retreat. Tommy said he loves his work and plans to go on keeping the shrine vibrant.

“Since my dad started working for the sisters in 1930, it’s my goal to continue working to 2030 so we can have 100 [consecutive] years of service to St. Frances Cabrini in Denver,” he said, not satisfied with the 104 combined years they’ve already given. “The shrine is a wonderful place to be. It’s blessing after blessing here.”