Robert Barron: The RealClearReligion Interview

Robert Barron: The RealClearReligion Interview
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Father Robert Barron is a priest on fire. After producing a largely successful television series, Catholicism, he moved north of Chicago, Illinois to the University of St. Mary of the Lake, a seminary in Mundelein. The cardinal archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, appointed him Rector in the summer of 2012. There he continues to run his Word on Fire evangelical ministry and form nearly 200 candidates for the priesthood.

Fr. Barron's office is one building among many on the 800-acre campus. You might not recognize the design as Catholic, and Fr. Barron says this was on purpose. When in the 1920's Cardinal George Mundelein organized the seminary grounds, Catholics in America were suspect. Mundelein ordered the architecture of the buildings to look like colonial America, but inside he made them into Italian palazzos. "We fit into America," Fr. Barron said, "but we're going to Catholicize you when you get in."

Earlier this week, I sat down with Fr. Barron in his office in Mundelein. Surrounded by portraits of Thérèse of Lisieux, Abraham Lincoln, Bob Dylan, and even a first-class relic of John Paul II, we discussed Pope Francis, how to make a good priest, and why Fr. Barron believes God called him to lead a seminary.

RealClearReligion: What do you make of Pope Francis?

Robert Barron: He's a mightily impressive figure. I was in Rome doing commentary for NBC when he was elected, and I can tell you that absolutely no one predicted it. I don't think anyone saw this prophetic figure coming. I think it might be what the Holy Spirit is inspiring us to right now. Maybe we need that in the Church, that back to basics evangelicalism. I think he's got a genius for that and a genius for communication through the gesture. We'll see now what unfolds in terms of concrete things, but his first year was a year of the great evangelical gesture.

RCR: How is Pope Francis a prophet?

RB: Well, this Pope is known as "friendly Francis," but he's a much more challenging figure than Pope Benedict XVI was. Almost every time Francis speaks, he's targeting somebody. That way, he's a bit like Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

RCR: Is it more style than substance?

RB: Style is substance in many ways. I think the substance is the name that he took. The church evangelizes, worships God, and cares for the poor. His emphasis is on the latter in a very big way. That's pretty substantive; I don't think it's a stylistic change.

RCR: Does the "new evangelization" simply mean new style? Or does it also mean new content?

RB: I always go back to John Paul II: it has to be new in ardor, new in expression, and new in method. But, Vatican II is the real ground for the "new evangelization." John XXIII clearly construed Vatican II as a missionary council -- it was lumen gentium! It was getting the light of the Church out to the nations. That's the "new evangelization" and to do it in this context of the modern world. The mistake, however, was to say Vatican II was about modernizing the Church. It was about Christifying the world. To do that in a modern framework, you have to make some adjustments, but the focus is evangelization, not modernization. That's what Paul VI picked up, what John Paul II picked up, what Benedict XVI picked up. To me, the great irony was that the Church before Vatican II was anything but ardent. The Church I knew in this country was handwringing, doubtful of itself, unsure of its convictions, arguing with itself about authority and sex.

New in expression is an important category. It doesn't mean to change the content of the faith, but the manner of expression can and should change. The church has to address the culture. It's like G.K. Chesterton's line about the white fence posts: you want to keep it white, but the worst thing you can do is leave it alone. You have to keep coming back to it and re-painting it, reassessing it.

New in method is especially applicable today. Inter Mirifica saw the new communications and technology -- which at the time only meant radio and television. But now, we have all these new social media methods.

Those three categories are important, but there's also the "old evangelization," which is declaring that Jesus Christ is Lord. That's always what evangelization is.

RCR: What happens when the media co-opts the "new evangelization" and tells its own story about what people will find when they come back to church?

RB: It's true that there's not an area where Pope Francis has changed the teaching, morally or doctrinally, of the Church. To draw people back in with a provocative style and gesture is fine and good, but it's a bit like Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Charles is a sort of cool agnostic, but is brought back in by the beauty of it. But then in the course of that novel, he begins to feel the moral demand of the house. His life has got to become beautiful. And only at the end does he come to full acceptance. That's a great metaphor for how you draw people in.

People can be drawn in by the beauty of one of these Pope Francis gestures. Now, you're drawn in. Now, you'll see the demand placed upon you by the Church which has not changed its moral teaching. If you lead with the moral demand, its not going to work. Say what you want: its true, its right, its courageous. But it won't bring people in. That doesn't mean you drop it. Once they're in, now you bring to bear the full moral demand of the Church.

RCR: What does the seminary do?

RB: We're shaping 192 young men to be good and holy Catholic priests. We follow what's called a Program of Priestly Formation, which in turn is grounded in a lot of the statements of the Church like Pastores Dabo Vobis and the Vatican II documents. There are four pillars: human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation.

We have a very strong academic program where students study all different areas of theology. We have a very strong spiritual program. They all have a spiritual director and a formation advisor. We have a very strong human formation where all these issues in psychology, sexuality, integration, and relationship are covered. Then, pastoral formation. Every first-year guy is doing field education. Everyone at the end of second-year goes for a 10-week internship at a parish. Everybody in third-year goes on a hospital or prison ministry internship.

RCR: Do you teach the guys about confession? It seems Catholics don't frequent the Sacrament as much as they used to.

RB: Most people witness the fact that confession didn't fade away, it just ended. You can almost point to 1968 and see that it just stopped. Was it a Humane Vitae phenomenon? Was it a cultural shift? I would say my generation is a product of the hyper-stress on the love of God, to the exclusion of any kind of moral demand or moral responsibility. My generation got the message -- trust me -- that God is love. We really got that! The trouble is, though, it didn't come with that Brideshead Revisited moment. What happened to a lot of people in my generation was: who cares? God is love; why bother? A certain moral seriousness was compromised after Vatican II. The practical result of that was the drop-off in confession.

The irony is that there are confessional boxes all of the culture now. All the talk shows are basically people in confessional boxes. Some kind of great revelation of your sin, especially sexual sin, is a big part of talk-show culture. That used to happen in the confessional context. It was a healthier context. If you're going to manifest a dysfunction of the sexual order, at least you were doing it within the context of the Sacrament. I bemoan the loss of confession.

RCR: How do you get people back to confession?

RB: Priests need to preach it more than they do. I had a chance to speak at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on the first Sunday of Advent. I gave the homily and at the end I said, "What's the best thing to do during Advent? Go to confession." It is important that priests preach it again, but it's more than that. It's education. It's culture.

RCR: What do you teach your seminarians about the Mass?

RB: I laid out for the students three spiritual paths: find the center, you know you're a sinner, and then you realize your life is not about you. I use the campus as my illustration. Find the center: the worship of God, the chapel in the center of campus. Once you find the center, the rest of the campus is laid out symmetrically. The right praise of God, orthodoxy, orders you properly. That's the liturgy. Your personality is knit back together around the right praise of God, and from that flows everything.

I also tell the students: your number one task as a priest is that you are the chief liturgist. You lead the people in right praise. Biblically, bad worship is always the problem. Bad worship always leads to distortions and problems.

RCR: You tell the seminarians that "your life is not about you," but hasn't turning the altar around made the Mass about the priest?

RB: It can happen: the talk-show host priest, drawing attention to himself and his personality. Would an ad orientem liturgy solve that? I think that's too simple. I think the principles are important. Joseph Ratzinger said that liturgy is cosmic; it compels you outward to the whole cosmos that God has made. The reconciliation we're looking for is not in me or in us, but in the whole cosmos. Its about the worship of God, not about the worship of our own community.

We've come a long way. I came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s. I went through the seminary in the late 1970s and 1980s, and we've come a long way in terms of straitening it out along an authentic Vatican II vision.

RCR: Do you think there is a decline in priests?

RB: Well, there has been if you measure it back to the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, there's been a precipitous decline in numbers. Now, numbers of seminarians have been pretty stable over the past 25 years. It's not fair to say that John Paul II sent the numbers through the roof. But they've been stable, and they remained stable through the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.

I ask candidates, "You were a kid when the sexual abuse crisis broke. What was it like discerning a vocation during that time?" These kids now, their parents don't understand it. Their friends think they're crazy. They have to face all that. It is inspiriting that nevertheless, they come. The vocation is pretty deeply rooted.

RCR: Do you believe you were called to be rector of the seminary?

RB: Yes, in the measure that the cardinal archbishop of Chicago asked me -- which means in Catholic ecclesiology, Christ asked me.

RCR: Some say that because of your successful Word on Fire ministry, you could be better utilized elsewhere.

RB: Well, we've kept Word on Fire going. My wonderful staff comes up here to the seminary once a week to film and record my homily, and now we're planning another big film trip. We're again traveling around the world to tell the stories of ten pivotal Catholics. I think I've been able to handle both roles pretty well, at the seminary and at Word on Fire, but thank God for my staff at both places.

If I were to guess, I would say that the cardinal wanted some of that "new evangelization" focus to come up here to Mundelein.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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