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: School scholarships continue legacies, support Catholic education

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With school back in session, Catholic schools are beginning to grant scholarships and provide tuition assistance for well-deserved students enrolled in the upcoming school year.

St. Vincent de Paul School is just one example. In the spring, staff and parents from the Denver Catholic school will select fourth graders going into fifth grade who will receive the McKaila Steffes Scholarship Fund, established by Montgomery and Andrea Sykora through The Catholic Foundation of Northern Colorado.

The memory of the spirited and loving young McKaila, who bravely fought a neurological condition that caused tumors, lives on in the scholarship fund that gives young students tuition assistance.

“I remember McKaila when she was here,” said Suzanne Meyer of St. Vincent de Paul. “She was just so full of life — she touched everyone’s lives. She passed away when she was nine (in 2006). This scholarship is a nice memorial for McKaila.”

Donations to the scholarship fund greatly help current students, Meyer said, who exemplify the same great qualities as McKaila.

Jean Finegan, Gift Planning Officer for The Catholic Foundation, said anyone may give to the scholarship funds held at the Foundation either through a current gift or planned gift.  This allows for these funds to grow and continue providing tuition assistance for generations to come.

Assistance is offered for hard-working families in need at other schools, including St. Catherine of Siena School. The Elizabeth C. Giordano Garden of Hope Scholarship Fund was established by Gwen and Andrew Pomper to help children obtain an education grounded in the Catholic faith.  Giordano was an immigration attorney and active fundraiser for the parish and school before she passed away in 2013. The scholarship fund continues to honor and remember her and her contributions to the community by making a Catholic education more accessible for families.

The Catholic Foundation also holds scholarship funds for families sending their children to Bishop Machebeuf High School. The late Elinor Travis had faith that students at the school could achieve their dreams. She aimed to help them get there by establishing an endowment fund to provide tuition assistance. She named the William and Vicki Lynn Ingram Endowment Fund Memorial Scholarship in memory of her daughter, who attended Machebeuf, specifically to help the 65 percent of students from low-income families in need of financial aid.

“Elinor always valued education,” said her friend, Pat Brewster. “I think she had a passion for people and passion for life, and she was very generous with her money.”

Also benefiting Machebeuf students is the Sister Rosemary Wilcox Scholarship fund, named after the Sister of Loretto, founding principal of the school and later chancellor for the Archdiocese of Denver. She passed away in 2012. Continued support for students can also be made through the Bishop Machebeuf High School Student Scholarship and Financial Aid Endowment Scholarship.

High school students at Holy Family may also be aided by the school scholarship fund designed for tuition assistance at the Broomfield school. The Catholic Foundation accepts donations to this fund, established by Deacon Jim and Karen Doyle, to help students in need of tuition assistance.

Catholic education can also be supported through the Don and Meredith Jung Scholarship Fund, established by Don Jung in memory of his late wife. Jung is an active member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Lafayette and offers the scholarship for students who are parishioners at the church and interested in attending a trade school.

The Annunciation School community won’t forget Sister Jean Panisko, S.C.L., who served as principal for 29 years at the school before retiring in 2010. Martha Diss Sundby started the fund in honor of sister in order to provide tuition assistance to families at Annunciation Elementary School.

Scholarship funds that further Catholic education held at The Catholic Foundation:

  • Bishop Machebeuf High School Student Scholarship and Financial Aid Endowment Scholarship -Elizabeth C. Giordano Garden of Hope Scholarship Fund – St. Catherine of Siena School
  • Holy Family High School Scholarship Fund
  • Don and Meredith Jung Scholarship Fund – Immaculate Conception Parish
  • McKaila Steffes Scholarship Fund – St. Vincent de Paul School
  • Saint Clare Christian Education Endowment Fund
  • Sister Jean Panisko S.C.L. Fund – Annunciation School
  • Sister Rosemary Wilcox Scholarship Fund – Bishop Machebeuf High School
  • William and Vicki Lynn Ingram Memorial Scholarship – Bishop Machebeuf High School
  • St. Joseph Scholarship Fund – Supporting the high schools within the Archdiocese of Denver
  • Elmer Von Feldt Scholarship Fund – Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

To make a donation to the Foundation in further support of Catholic education for young students in need, contact Jean Finegan at (303) 867-0613 or jfinegan@thecatholicfoundation.com.