When Pope John Paul II described the New Evangelization back in 1983, he said it required new ardor, new methods and new expressions.
Since then, perhaps no priest has embodied those qualities like Father Robert Barron of Chicago.
Through his “Word on Fire” ministry he has used blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, websites and mobile apps to spread the faith.
He’s evangelized the culture through movie reviews and news commentary. And he released the epic “Catholicism” film series which has been seen across the world on both Catholic and secular television.
|Father Robert Barron. Courtesy of Word on Fire
In May, Father Barron was appointed rector of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, and Our Sunday Visitor caught up with him there to discuss the New Evangelization, the new media, and what’s next for him and his ministry.
Our Sunday Visitor: In your opening message as rector at Mundelein, you laid out the seven great qualities of a new evangelist, of someone living out the New Evangelization. What are these seven marks?
Father Robert Barron: Well, first, you must have a relationship with Jesus Christ. To evangelize is not just to share ideas — any theologian or historian could do that. It’s to share a relationship, and you can’t share what you don’t have. Therefore, you’ve got to be in a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, and this is piggybacking on Pope John Paul II, you’ve got to be a person of ardor. I cited that line from Aristotle where he said, “Finally, people only really listen to an excited speaker.”
I’ve always thought that was dead right. If you’re not excited about your message, you won’t communicate it effectively. So you’ve got to have ardor.
Third, you’ve got to know the story of Israel. Here I’m working with people like N.T. Wright and others who say that at the heart of evangelization is the good news that the story of Israel has come to its fulfillment — that the promises of God, as Paul said, have all met their “Yes!” in Jesus. When you abstract Jesus from Israel, you get the bland, spiritual teacher, the contemporary guru-Christ.
Back in the second century, there was a heretic named Marcion, a crypto-Gnostic who said, “Get rid of the Old Testament and its witness to an unworthy, fallen deity. Just keep Luke, and some parts of Paul.” And the Church said, “Absolutely not!” to that proposal.
I tell my seminarians, “You need to say ‘No!’ to that as well.” Marcion’s Christ is evangelically uncompelling; you must propose the full story of Israel to be an effective evangelist.
Fourth, you’ve got to know the culture. Here is Karl Barth’s famous image of the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. When Pope John Paul II called for “new expressions,” he was looking for new ways to express the faith to a secular society that has grown rather cold to the Gospel, and that has lost a sense of the transcendent.
|The traits of a New Evangelization priest. Rozann Carter, Word on Fire
This requires you to look for “seeds of the word.” Within the secular culture, there will always be signs, seeds and indications of the Gospel. So find these seeds, latch onto them, and engage the culture.
Fifth, you’ve got to love the Great Tradition. We Catholics don’t subscribe to sola Scriptura. We don’t operate by Scripture alone. Scripture is the heart of theology, yes indeed, but as Blessed John Henry Newman said, it “unfolds across space and time.” It’s like a great river that continually broadens and deepens. We know Christ better because we know him through Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, Chesterton, and through Michelangelo and Dante. To know the great Catholic theological and artistic tradition is key to being a new evangelist.
Sixth, you’ve got to have a missionary heart. I told my Mundelein students, “It should bother everyone in this room that 75 percent of our own Catholic people are not going to Mass.”
Vatican II said the Eucharist was the “source and summit of the Christian life.” It wanted more people at Mass, not less. Yet now, 75 percent of our own people don’t even go to Mass regularly? That’s a tragedy.
These are souls who are in serious trouble. And I don’t mean that simply in the ultimate sense of heaven and hell. I mean even now. There are many people who are lost, and it’s because they’ve lost contact with God. As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” There are all kinds of people in the secular world who are suffering, because the secular ideology is shutting down the longing of their hearts. So I told the students, “You must have a missionary heart; you must be passionate for souls.”
Last, you’ve got to know and use the new media. This explosion in technology is really unprecedented, at least since the time of Gutenberg. I tell my seminary students: “Know it; use it; it’s in your blood. Your generation grew up with this. You grew up with computers, so use them and don’t be afraid of technology.”
OSV: What advice would you give people on evangelizing through the new media?
Barron: First of all, don’t be afraid. There’s a lot of fear surrounding this technology. People think, “I don’t know it well enough; it can be abused; I might get negative feedback.” And that’s all true. But anything can be misused — computers, telephones, automobiles — but we wouldn’t hesitate to use those things. It’s the same with new media. So, don’t be afraid.
Also, when you use them, make sure you’re grounded in the old technology of books. You must have something worth saying when you speak. I don’t think it’s a good idea for someone to simply jump into new media for the sake of jumping in. Are you grounded in the theological tradition, in a life of prayer, in the spirituality of the Church? Are you disciplined by the Church’s teaching? If not, then I’d say be careful. But if you are, then don’t be afraid of new technology and don’t neglect the old.
OSV: It must be difficult to follow up your epic “Catholicism” series, but what are you working on next?
Barron: Well, now that I find myself rector of Mundelein, my main task is to run this great seminary and make sure it flourishes. My goal is to produce priests for the New Evangelization.
Having said that, my Word on Fire ministry still exists, and I have a great staff which continues to help me produce blog posts, videos, podcasts and more.
Right now we’re working on our next documentary series, this one on the New Evangelization.
For its structure I’m using Pope John Paul II’s great description of the movement, one that’s “new in ardor, methods and expression.”
I’ve been filming in Australia, England and America, and we’ve gathered a lot of footage of top Church leaders and people on the ground. My aim is to show what’s happening throughout the very secularized world when it comes to evangelization. So that’s the next big project for me and Word on Fire.
Brandon Vogt is a Catholic writer and speaker who blogs at BrandonVogt.com. He is also the author of “The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet” (OSV, $13.95), which you can find at www.churchandnewmedia.com. He writes from Casselberry, Fla.