‘Catholicism’ project goes straight to the heart of the Church

“The most important media project in the history of the Catholic Church in America.” 

When papal biographer George Weigel offers praise like that, you know you’ve done something right. And Father Robert Barron has done a lot of somethings right. 

Between his recently released book, “Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith,” his 10-part documentary of the same name, four episodes of which began airing on PBS last month (check local listings or www.catholicismseries.com/watch/tv-schedule for more information), and an adult faith formation program based on both, Father Barron has overseen what is arguably one of the best and most ambitious undertakings of the new evangelization.  

Both beautiful and accessible, the multimedia project takes readers and viewers on a whirlwind tour of the Catholic Church, illuminating the richness of its teachings, art, architecture, worship and saints. 

Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Father Barron about the nature and goals of the project. Here’s what he had to say. 

Our Sunday Visitor: To describe the scope of the “Catholicism” project as “ambitious” would be somewhat of an understatement. Did you plan on tackling so much, or did the project grow as it developed? 

Father Robert Barron: No, from the start I knew I wanted to do something big. I wanted especially at this time, the darkest time in the history of the American Catholic Church, to come forward with something bold and confident that showed the global reach of Catholicism and the rich texture of the Church.  

What was bothering me was the reduction of Catholicism to its current problems. People hear “Catholic Church” and think “sex abuse scandal.” So, from the very beginning I was thinking this needed to be something big.

OSV: Do you really think this is “the darkest time in the history of the American Catholic Church”? 

Father Barron: Well, 20 years ago I would have said the worst time was the 19th century, when you had convents being burnt down. But today, the clerical sex abuse scandal has undermined the Church in just about every way. We’re under this cloud.  

A little while back, I was interviewed on a TV station here in Chicago. The interviewer said to me, “With the exception of Islam, Catholicism is the religion with the worst public relations in the world. What do you do about that?” Well, what you do is deal with the problem institutionally, but you also need to go back to the basics of evangelization, reminding people what the Church is fundamentally about. You show the richness, the beauty, the real heart of the Church. I think that’s what the great saints did during times of darkness, saints such as Francis and Dominic. They took people back to the basics. That seems to me to be the call of our time. 

OSV: With the show appearing on PBS you’ll reach a fairly wide audience. Was that the intention from the start, or did you have a more specific audience in mind? 

Father Barron: In terms of audience, I was thinking in concentric circles. First, it’s for Catholics who might be beleaguered by the problems the Church faces or who’ve forgotten the richness of the faith. Then, fallen-away Catholics, or, more accurately, drifted-away Catholics, those who left the Church not by storming away, but rather gradually drifted way. The hope is that something they see, a piece of art, a saint, some insight will engage them or re-energize them.  

Then, of course, there’s the secular audience. One of the great heartbreaks of our time is the false idea that you can be perfectly happy with only the goods of the world to satisfy you. I’m hoping someone who feels the emptiness of that promise will be beguiled or intrigued by something they see in the series. 

OSV: I loved that you used the Church’s teaching on the Incarnation as the framework for the book, but what was the thinking behind that decision? 

Father Barron: I’m a John Henry Newman man, and Newman said the principle of principles is the Incarnation. Catholicism is the great religion of the Incarnation. Everything else flows from that. Art, beauty, music — everything is the way the Incarnation gets prolonged over space and time.  

The Incarnation is not this weird thing from the past. It stretches into the present. God became human, he became one of us, so that he might divinize human nature. That’s the Catholic thing. That’s what this is about. 

OSV: You spend quite a bit of time talking about the saints in both the book and the documentary. Why was including them so important? 

Father Barron: Hans Urs von Balthasar once said that the only real theologians are the saints. He meant that the people who are living the Christian thing and practicing the Christian life, they’re the ones who can best talk about it. When you look at baseball or golf, you could say those sports exist to produce great baseball players or great golfers. Likewise, those great baseball players or great golfers exemplify what their sport is about.  

In a similar way, the Church exists to produce saints. The saints sum it all up. Everything about the Church’s history and literature points to the saints. So, with the project, I wanted to concretize the Catholic message, to help people see how it shows up in the lives of the saints. 

OSV: Even more specifically, you help people see how it shows up in the lives of female saints. In the book, it’s holy women such as Mother Teresa, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day, and Katharine Drexel that get the bulk of the attention. Was that intentional? 

Father Barron: Yes, it was. One of the major critiques of the Catholic Church is that it’s oppressive of women. I wanted to counter that by showing that the real power in the Church is not a matter of institutional position; it’s holiness, which means the really powerful people in the Church are the saints, the ones who unleash divine grace in the world. Those four women are more powerful than any priest or bishop I’ve ever known. In fact, priests and bishops exist to serve the saints, to produce saints. I wanted to shift the focus a bit, shift the conversation away from one of power, exclusion and domination. 

OSV: You also spend a great deal of time discussing the Church’s art and architecture. What do those things communicate that theology and apologetics don’t or even can’t? 

Father Barron: Again, this is an idea of von Balthasar’s, one I’ve responded to instinctively all my life. When I was a graduate student in Paris I fell in love with Notre Dame and would give tours of the Church. It was this very secular group that ran the tours and their instructions were not to talk about religion, just the architecture. I completely ignored that. How do you not talk about the faith in a building like that? Every corner speaks about it. Beautiful objects, a painting, a window, they can speak a truth that words can’t. And you never know what will reach people — a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas, a picture of Chartres Cathedral, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Catholicism contains it all. We never throw anything out. It’s part of the Catholic genius. I wanted the book to have that feel and reach. 

OSV: Given the nature and the scope of the project, I can’t help but wonder how on earth you persuaded PBS to pick it up? 

Father Barron: We just pitched it to them. I admit I didn’t have tons of confidence that they would go for the idea. I was afraid it would be too sectarian, too Catholic for them. It’s not your typical PBS documentary where you get four or five scholars to come on and give their unbiased opinion.  

But PBS had a show on about Buddhism where all kinds of convinced Buddhists were featured, and something similar about Islam, so I figured if they can do these shows about Buddhism and Islam, they can have one about Catholicism. And sure enough, they called us down, said they loved it, and wanted to show four of the episodes. That was the local Chicago PBS station. Then, to our delight and surprise, they syndicated the program around the country. About 80 stations picked it up. I think it helps that we don’t take an aggressive approach. It’s not an in-your-face style of documentary. We’re just laying it out, showing how beguiling and beautiful the Catholic faith is. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.