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

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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”