Acclaimed author, speaker and theologian Bishop Robert Barron is one of the most-followed Catholics on social media, his spoken and written words followed by millions.
The founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, which is approaching its 20th anniversary, recently passed 30 million views on YouTube and has 1.7 million Facebook followers. And Barron has sold nearly 500,000 books.
Yet when Bishop Barron, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was doing parish work full time, he said one of the most powerful moments he regularly experienced wasn’t through words, but during silence.
“When I would incense the coffin and in complete silence, simply circle around the coffin…it would symbolize so many things about our prayers for that person going up to heaven, and our deep reverence for the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit,” Barron said.
“I can say (those things) from the pulpit. But to me, it was always so much more powerful when I did that ritual and people would just silently watch the smoke rise and circle around, and watch me bow to the coffin. And so, as a Catholic, to me ritualism is beautiful and it speaks to so many different dimensions (of our faith).”
Barron recently spoke to OC Catholic about what sets Catholicism apart from other Christian faiths and why it’s based on so much ritual.
The Catholic distinction
“I go back to the late Cardinal Francis George (archbishop emeritus of Chicago), who was kind of a mentor to me,” Barron said. “He said the Catholic Church has all the gifts that Christ wants his people to enjoy…gifts of preaching, gifts of teaching, gifts of the sacraments, gifts of the Blessed Mother, gifts of apostolic authority. All of these gifts Christ wants his people to have, the Catholic Church has them all.”
Barron said the cardinal wasn’t arguing for Catholic triumphalism over other Christian faiths.
“It’s more a question of fullness versus participation,” Barron said.
He cited G.K. Chesterson, the English writer and convert to Catholicism, and his comparison of orthodox Christian faith to a key.
“A key is a complex little thing,” Barron said. “If a key was just a straight line, it wouldn’t work. What makes it effective is it’s got this very intricate pattern that enables it to fit just that lock.
“So the church, you might say, is as intricate as it needs to be because it’s the key that opens the door to salvation — and that’s a complex little lock.”
Why does the Catholic Church have so many rituals?
“Thomas Aquinas, my intellectual hero, says we’re bodies and souls,” Barron said. “We’re not just minds, we’re also bodies. And so ritual and…sight and sound appeal to the body, and often it’s through the senses and through the body that we come to a grasp of spiritual things.
“And that’s why ritual — like anything else, it can be overdone of course, and it can be corrupted — at its best is appealing deeply to the senses, to the body, to the emotions.”
Smart and beautiful
Barron said in his online and other media-driven ministries, he strives to espouse how Catholicism is “smart” and “beautiful.”
“I think Catholicism is a very beautiful religion,” he said, “and so we wanted to take advantage of the medium, all this visual media we have, to show it off.”
In one of the first video series Barron did about a decade ago, called “Catholicism,” he traveled the world to find the most beautiful places where the Catholic faith was flourishing.
PBS picked up the series and showed it nationwide on secular TV.
“Make (Catholicism) smart and make it beautiful, and people will find it interesting,” Barron said.
He recently spoke at Facebook and Google headquarters.
At Facebook, Barron talked about how to have a religious argument.
“My experience on the (Internet) is a lot of people shout about religion, they get mad about religion, they get emotional about religion, but very few know how to even have a decent rational argument about religion,” Barron said.
At Google, Barron’s topic was “Religion and the Opening of the Mind.”
Said Barron: “At its best, religion doesn’t shut down the mind. On the contrary, it awakens the deepest inquiry of the human spirit, which is outward toward God. And I explained how a lot of modern rationalism and secularism and materialism actually shut down the mind. It reduces us to a very narrow world.”
Word on Fire is just coming out with a new video series on the Mass, and Barron continues to film a long series called “The Pivotal Players,” in which he looks at 12 major figures from Catholic history, from Thomas Aquinas to Michelangelo, to Pope Francis to Fulton Sheen.
He said he never envisioned his ministry getting so big. It started with a 15-minute sermon at 5:15 a.m. on a Chicago radio station.
“I’ve railed for years against dumbed-down Catholicism, which my generation got,” Barron said. “The last two generations actually have received a very poor, a very dumbed-down presentation of the faith…. We’ve got this very smart intellectual tradition, and I want to share that.”
For more information about Bishop Barron and his ministry, visit WordOnFire.org