January 26, 2018

Bishop Robert Barron: A worthy successor to Archbishop Sheen

Reviewed by John F. Fink

Cover of To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular AgeBishop Robert E. Barron has become the most prominent Catholic preacher, author and film producer in the United States.

He first came to prominence with his series of films called Catholicism, which aired on PBS. He founded Word on Fire Catholic Ministries in 2000. Its videos on YouTube have been viewed more than 20 million times, and he has over 1.4 million followers on Facebook. Bishop Barron has also written 14 books.

His most recent book is titled To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age. However, he didn’t write this book; John L. Allen, Jr. did. But Allen, who has been called the best journalist in the Catholic press, wrote it with Bishop Barron, and it’s about him and his ministry.

Allen agrees with me that Bishop Barron is the greatest U.S. evangelist since Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

Bishop Barron is now 57. He had a great theological education at The Catholic University of America in Washington and the Institut Catholioque de Paris. He tries not to get into arguments between the left and right, but calls himself a post-liberal, and he’s more conservative than liberal.

He was a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame in 2002, and scholar in residence at the Pontifical North American College in Rome in both 2007 and 2010. He served as rector of University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., from 2012 to 2015.

In the book, he chose 12 people from the past who have influenced him, shaped the Church in their day, and also changed the course of civilization: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Michelangelo, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Bartolome de Las Casas, Flannery O’Connor and Fulton Sheen. These are in his follow-up series to Catholicism called The Pivotal Players.

He also admires the preaching of Martin Luther King Jr., learned his spirituality from Thomas Merton, and admires the work of St. Teresa of Calcutta.

In 2015, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Newly appointed bishops around the world go to a special course in the Vatican, colloquially known as “baby bishops’ school.” Barron was appointed with two other auxiliary bishops for Los Angeles, who became known as “the triplets.” They were in “baby bishops’ school” with 154 other bishops, and Barron says that he was surprised that Pope Francis met with all of them after giving them a 30-minute talk.

When it was Barron’s turn, he said, “Hello, Holy Father, I’m Bishop Barron.” The pope said, “Ah, el Gran Predicador!” [the Great Preacher] “who makes the airwaves tremble.” Barron wrote in the book, “I chose to take that as a compliment,” and was impressed that the pope knew about him and his work.

The other U.S. bishops also knew about his work. He’s only a new auxiliary bishop, but the other bishops elected him chair of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

It’s not in the book because it happened after the book was published: In November, the bishops elected the four bishops who will represent the U.S. bishops at the World Synod of Bishops that will discuss the Church’s ministry to young people this fall. Naturally, the president and the vice president of the USCCB were elected (Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles), and so was Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia since he is a member of the synod’s planning body.

For the fourth member they chose Bishop Barron because of his reputation as an expert on using media for evangelization. This is despite the fact that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles will have two of the four members.

Hopefully, all Bishop Barron’s other duties won’t hurt Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He would like to make that ministry a movement, and one of the chapters in the book is about that.

It’s hard to see how one man can get so much accomplished while still maintaining a spiritual life. But Fulton Sheen did it, and so is Bishop Barron. A chapter of the book is about his prayer and spiritual life.

Obviously, I recommend the book.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion. To Light a Fire on the Earth is available on Amazon. The cost is $27 in hardcover, and $13.99 on Kindle.)

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