Taking aim at ‘dumbed-down’ Catholicism

  • October 5, 2013

The Church is not on a mission, it is a mission.


Fr. Robert Barron says those words slowly, with conviction. The American priest, a prominent voice in the New Evangelization, is on a mission to take the age-old message of the Bible and present it aggressively in a secular culture. He is using technology and new media to educate Catholics, and zeal and vigour to inspire them.

“Missionary work is not some little subset of the Church’s life,” Barron said in an interview with The Catholic Register. “The Church is a mission to bring Jesus Christ to the world.

“Everything that we’re about is related to and subordinated to that great mission. So evangelization is not something the Church does on the side. It’s what the Church is.”

That missionary fervour is evident throughout Catholicism: The New Evangelization, a 90-minute documentary produced through Word On Fire. Released in September, It comes on the heels of Barron’s wildly successful Catholicism, a 10-hour series that focused on the “beauty and truth of the Church.”

Unlike his first production, which featured only the voice of Barron, The New Evangelization includes observations from others on the frontline of Catholic evangelization. At the heart of the new documentary is defining the New Evangelization.

“The term is used a lot, but often people don’t know what it means,” said Barron, founder of the global media ministry WordOnFire. org and president and rector of Mundelein Seminary University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois. He says the phrase comes from a 1983 speech by Pope John Paul II in Haiti in which the Pope said, “the New Evangelization has to be new in ardour, new in expression and new in method.”

These three thrusts — new ardour, new expression, new methods — are the focal points around which Barron organized his new documentary comprising a four-disc DVD box set.

“It’s the old evangelization, meaning declaring Jesus Christ as Lord, but given the new situation that we’re in — mainly a hyper- secularized culture — it has to be new in ardour, so you have to have a new fire, a new enthusiasm about it,” said Barron.

“Secondly, it’s got to be new in expression. So we’ve got to find a new way to express the age-old truths of the faith... (and) we have to use these new methods. So it’s the old evangelization, but with this new triple twist because of the new cultural situation.”

The documentary takes viewers to Australia, England and the United States, “three increasingly very secularized societies,” said Barron. “We wanted to see how does this play in the secular arena.”

In an address not included in the documentary — given at a Catholic media conference in Denver earlier this year — Barron warned that kids are falling away from religion in high school. So while exploring the issues that connect the three secularized countries, there is a focus on youth, especially in Australia. There, Barron examined the effect of the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney, where the number of youth groups in the diocese went from 23 to 85 after the international gathering.

The film also covers the existence of a newly aggressive atheism.

“They’re not hiding any more; they’re very public, and they’re going after religion,” Barron said. “Not just saying, ‘hey I’m opting out of religion.’ They’re aggressively attacking religion. So I think we’ve got to be very aware of that. And the number of young people in the Internet world, they’re very influenced by the new atheists. So I mean we have to get into that arena too and learn how to fight again,” said Barron.

Barron also says the Church must avoid teaching “dumbed down” Catholicism that even he received as a child. In his Denver address, he said this form of teaching caused many of his generation to leave the faith or not know it well enough to pass it on to their children.

“My work has been sort of warfare against dumbed-down Catholicism. I think you present the faith in a way that people are going to understand, but I think you do it in a way that’s intellectually rich and compelling. We have a smart tradition and want to make sure we bring that to the fore.”

And when sharing the faith, when evangelizing, Barron says the key is to lead with joy.

“People wonder, ‘Well how did you get that way? How did you find such joy?’ And then we’ll tell you,” said Barron.

Barron’s presentation of the faith is filled with joy, intelligence and frankness. Those qualities are among the reasons many parishes use his original series Catholicism as a teaching tool. Paul Howard has been an organizer and participant in a course based on Barron’s DVD given at St. Patrick’s Church in Markham, Ont.

“It’s a combination of a travelogue across Christianity,” said Howard. “So all of a sudden, you’re seeing the sacred places, the sacred people, the sacred sites, the sacred eras come alive.”

Fr. Barron’s style is what the original series and new documentary have in common.

“I like Fr. Barron’s style for a couple of reasons,” Howard said. “First of all, he doesn’t talk down to you, and secondly, he’s not a finger wagger. He invites you to the faith with almost a comparability to Pope Francis. There’s a warmth, there’s a genuineness, there’s a keenness.”

Barron is keen on sharing the faith across all forms of communications. The film mentions that Christ met the people where they were, and these days many people are online.

Barron, who broadcasts his video messages and commentary on YouTube, thinks that the Church in North America is becoming better at using the Internet as a tool of evangelization. In the film, Barron doesn’t skimp on emphasizing the danger of watering down the image of Christ.

“One of the dangers of the secular world is that we domesticate Jesus, we turn Him into a mildly interesting first-century spiritual teacher. And the whole point of evangelization is that Jesus is not just that. Jesus is the Son of God incarnate, crucified and risen from the dead and therefore Lord of the world.

“There’s a very strange, off-putting, disturbing, unexpected sort of message,” he said. “If you domesticate Jesus, you take all the evangelical bite out of Christianity.”

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