October 26, 2012

'The power of the Resurrection'

Father Barron reflects on the Holy Land and role of beauty in evangelization

Father Robert Barron walks down a street in Jerusalem during the filming of his 10-part documentary series “Catholicism.” (Photo courtesy Word on Fire Ministries)

Father Robert Barron walks down a street in Jerusalem during the filming of his 10-part documentary series “Catholicism.” (Photo courtesy Word on Fire Ministries)

By Sean Gallagher (Second of two parts)

Catholics across central and southern Indiana became familiar during the past year with Father Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, through viewing and studying his 10-part documentary series titled “Catholicism.”

The videos show him traveling the world to explain the beauty and meaning of the Catholic faith, and how it is often illustrated in paintings, sculptures or medieval cathedrals.

Father Barron’s experience in visiting various historic sites in the Holy Land in part led him to come to Indianapolis late last month for a regional meeting of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem during which he was invested as a member of the order.

Father Barron, who was ordained a priest in 1986, was interviewed by The Criterion on Sept. 30 during his visit to Indianapolis, and spoke about his documentary series, the Holy Land and the importance of beauty in the life of faith.

The following is an edited version of that interview.

Q. You once said that the seeds of your “Catholicism” documentary series go back to when you viewed Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” documentary series when you were young in the 1970s. That goes back a way. Given the long gestation of your series, how did you feel when you saw the enthusiastic response to it once it was released to the public?

A. “I was thrilled and delighted by it. And I guess I had an instinct that people would respond favorably.

“When I got into the whole media work, I was always dreaming about this project. I figured, ‘What’s the biggest, best and most ambitious thing we could do?’

“And it struck me that it was this sort of series. Go around the world. Talk about the faith in its totality. Show its cultural impact. Show the beauty. Show the truth. It was my biggest dream.

“I kind of have what [St. Thomas] Aquinas called, ‘magnanimitas.’ You like big plans. I’m from Chicago. I make no small plans. So when I got into this work and I was doing a lot of smaller things, I thought that this would be the biggest thing to do.

“I saw Clark’s ‘Civilization’ as a kid, and it intrigued me for a long time. So it became a sort of template for what I was thinking about.”

Q. In producing “Catholicism,” you traveled a good bit in the Holy Land and other places in the Middle East that are important to the Church.

What’s it like for you, then, to be invested today as a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, and to make a commitment to have a special care and concern for the Church in that part of the world?

A. “Our first trip was to the Holy Land. I’d never been there before. We traveled extensively and were there for about two weeks. We filmed all over the place, ending up in Jerusalem.

“Of all the places we went—I think we went to 16 countries—there’s no place that calls me back more than Jerusalem, even though Jerusalem, compared to Rome or Paris or other great cities, is not that much.

“There are things of great architectural interest and all of that there. But there’s something about the mystique of Jerusalem that just calls to me. Of all the places, that’s where I most want to go back.

“And being up in Galilee was the same thing. When we filmed along the Sea of Galilee, our Israeli guide took us up to the northeast corner of it to this great height. And you could see the entire lake in one view. We still have a photograph of the whole Sea of Galilee in our office.

“How could that not sing to you if you’re a Christian?

“As I’ve been at this meeting last night and today, it’s conjuring up all those memories. And I do feel a very strong sense of what this order is about. It’s caring for Christians in the Holy Land and caring for the sacred places. Having been there and having seen it, that means a lot to me.”

Q. In your “Catholicism” documentary series and in your book of the same title, you placed a clear emphasis on the beauty of Catholic teachings and practices, and the beautiful way that they have been expressed in various forms of art. The Russian author Dostoevsky wrote that “beauty will save the world.” I think that many people in our society would be perplexed by this statement, holding instead that science, technology or the government will save the world. On the one hand, how important is this appeal to beauty in our society that seems to be so driven by utilitarianism? On the other hand, how challenging is it to make this appeal effective in this cultural context?

A. “The advantage of the beautiful is that it’s more beguiling than off-putting. People hate moralizing even though there’s room for it, obviously. People hate being told, ‘You’re wrong, and here’s the truth.’

“But show them something beautiful and say, ‘Hey, look at that.’ It’s much more beguiling. It’s less off-putting. Beginning with the beautiful is a good way to go. It beguiles them in a way that they drop their defenses a bit.

“You bring someone to Chartres Cathedral and it’s hard not to say, ‘Wow. Look at this. Where did this come from?’ And then you get to questions of the good and the true. ‘What’s the doctrine that stands behind this place?’ ‘What’s the vision of life that made this place possible?’ So you get from the beautiful to the true and the good.

“But you put sugar around it, I suppose. It’s easier to swallow.”

Q. Tied to this relationship of faith and beauty and the challenge it places on our often utilitarian mindset is the role of prayer and worship in the life of the Church. Just as many in our society wouldn’t see the usefulness of beauty, they might also make the same conclusion about worship. How might lay Catholics understand the relationship between prayer, the liturgy—and especially the Eucharist—to the concrete and practical way that they strive to apply the faith in their daily lives and, through this, to spread the Gospel?

A. “I think in our culture, especially, the rediscovery of prayer is indispensable. Without it, you’re not able to share a relationship.

“And that’s what evangelization is. It’s not sharing ideas. That’s theology. It’s sharing a relationship. You are in love with Jesus Christ. You’re a friend of Jesus Christ. That’s only cultivated through prayer. So if you don’t have that, you don’t evangelize.

“You might get into good arguments and even win them. But you won’t evangelize very well. That’s a matter of sharing, ‘Here’s a friendship that I want to tell you about.’ ‘Here’s a person who’s become the center of my life and I want to tell you why.’ That’s evangelization and that’s only cultivated through prayer.

“But that’s really hard in our culture. People love to argue and to argue about the good, moralizing in both directions. Just go see the comments on my YouTube videos. We love doing that.

“So get immersed in this friendship. Spend time with this friend of yours.

“That’s a much harder thing. But it’s absolutely central to evangelization. Without it, we’ll just be arguing with each other and sharing ideas. But we won’t be evangelizing.”

Q. In your travels to so many places around the world to produce “Catholicism,” and in your life and ministry as a priest over the past 26 years, especially in the last decade, you’ve surely seen the multitude of challenges set against the mission of the Church, both by outsiders and, sadly, by those within the Church. Yet, you often seem so hopeful and convinced about the power of the Gospel and the Church’s proclamation of it. In the face of all of those challenges, why do you remain so hopeful and convinced?

A. “I guess it’s because of that friendship with the Lord and the power of the Resurrection that God has won. That’s the ‘evangelion.’ That’s the Good News. God has won. God has defeated the powers of the world.

“The powers of the world are still around, and are always annoying and in your face. But we’ve won. And there’s the cross. That’s what the Holy Sepulchre still signals to me.

“I remember when we filmed in there. We got there super early, like 5 in the morning. And we found this little corner where there weren’t any people. And I talked about the Resurrection and why the Resurrection is the thing.

“I guess that’s what gives you the hope.

“It’s that God has won the victory, and so we can fight the good fight. Even though we’re losing skirmishes here and there, so what? The battle’s been won. So just get into the fight.

“And I’ve always been attracted to the more joyful people, like

G. K. Chesterton and Thomas Merton and people like that. They influenced me a lot when I was coming of age. It wasn’t so much the polemicists. It was the joyful warrior types.

“So I’ve tried, in my own small way, to imitate them.

“Chesterton had a huge impact on me when I was a young man. It wasn’t just the ‘gaudium de stilo’ [‘rejoicing in style’] in his great literary style, but the ‘joie de combat.’ He was a joyful knight. I think that’s the cool model for evangelizing.

“And then there’s the whole [Blessed] John Paul II thing. I entered college seminary as a kid in the fall of 1978 when he became pope. And so my whole time in the seminary and coming of age as a priest was all in the John Paul period.

“So you watch him. Watch how he did it. That’s where a lot of the inspiration for it came from.”

(To read the first part of this two-part interview with Father Robert Barron, click here. For more information on Word on Fire Ministries, log on to www.wordonfire.org.)

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