Telling the Church's Story: Bishop Barron's Interview with NPR
NOTE: Today we share the full transcript of Bishop Barron's recent interview with NPR. You can listen to the shortened audio version at NPR.org ("Social Media-Savvy Bishop Brings Fresh Approach"), but below you'll find the entire transcript.
NPR: So you're now "Bishop Barron". You were in Chicago, as a priest there, but then you were named a bishop. How did this whole thing happen? Was it a surprise?
BISHOP BARRON: Oh, a total surprise. You get a call from the Apostolic Nuncio, who’s the Pope’s representative in the U.S. Out of the blue, one Sunday afternoon, I had said Mass and was back home watching golf, and this call comes. He says, "The Holy Father has appointed you Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles." Just like that. And then, basically, he asks, "Do you accept?" So that was the phone call.
I was director of Mundelein Seminary at the time, so I was running the largest Catholic seminary in America. Prior to that I’d been a professor for many years. I’d done this evangelical work with Word on Fire. So I was pretty ensconced in my life and pretty comfortable and happy. And suddenly this phone call comes.
But a sermon I give all the time is about how your life is not about you. If you’re a believer, the Holy Spirit controls your life, not your own will. I preach that all the time, and I remember, in the wake of that phone call, feeling that. I though, okay, I need to listen to my own sermon.
NPR: You can’t really say no to a phone call like that, can you?
BISHOP BARRON: Well, you can, in principle. And I think some people do say no, for all legitimate reasons. But yes, to your point, it’s very difficult when someone tells you the Holy Father has appointed you. It’s not like the Holy Father is asking you to think about this, you know. He’s appointed you. So it is difficult, if you’re a Catholic priest, to say no to that.
NPR: From what I understand, you’ve had a pretty meteoric rise in the Church. Would you say that’s accurate?
BISHOP BARRON: Well, I don’t know, it depends on how you construe it. You know, I was in parish work for a time, then I did doctoral studies. Then I taught, for a long time. I was a professor for a long time, and did a lot of speaking and writing and traveling around. And then from that the evangelical work kind of grew - I became more of a better known figure nationally through the media and all that.
In terms of Church office, I was made Rector of Mundelein Seminary a little over three years ago, which was a surprise, too. I was doing the full time teaching and evangelical work, and Cardinal George of Chicago made me Rector. So that was a surprise. And then three years later this position. So I don’t know if that’s meteoric or not, but that’s what happened.
NPR: How would you describe the work you're best known for. Is it a digital ministry?
BISHOP BARRON: Yeah, that’s part of it. It’s primarily evangelical, so I aim to announce the Gospel, especially to a more secularized society. There is a great need to announce the Gospel to faithful Catholics or Catholics who have begun to drift away. That's so important and I've focused on that mission.
But then beyond that, the wider audience of an increasingly secularized society, especially with younger people. As I get older, the younger figure goes up (laughs). But let’s say 45 and younger. I’m very interested in reaching them, because I think secularism is a real sickness in our society. Secularism suppresses the deepest longing of the human heart, which is for God. And we can articulate that in different ways, but when you suppress that desire, which secularism does by saying life is just about the goods of this world, then a deep sickness obtains in people. I see it all the time. And the minute you start preaching the Gospel in a compelling way, that heart is opened up. So that’s what I see my ministry as doing.
I also lean on this explosion in new media, new technology to address people in that situation. It’s under the rubric of what St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI call the New Evangelization. Pope Francis has continued that mission to evangelize, especially, people who are from a Christian culture. In principle they’re Christian, but perhaps they’ve drifted away or they’ve forgotten the Gospel and have become deaf to it. So those are the three big parts of my work: reaching out to a secularized society, the New Evangelization, and using the new media.
NPR: Where did you glean all these skills of social media? I mean, I’m still trying to figure out Twitter.
BISHOP BARRON: Well, for a long time, I've known content. I’ve been studying the Catholic faith all my life. I know how to communicate. I didn’t really know the ins and outs of the new technology. In fact, years ago now when this friend of mine said, "Hey, you should put your sermons up on a website!", I said, what’s a website? I didn’t even know what it was. And even now, I’m not particularly adept at manipulating all the media. I have these wonderful younger people that do that for me. But I think what I bring is the content. I bring some skill in communication. I know the Great Tradition, and I think I know something about relating it to people’s lives today. But then I get all these young kids who grew up with this stuff and know how to use it to share that content through the new media.
NPR: Before this interview, I read a bunch of your stuff and saw some of your videos. The CATHOLICISM series must have been the coolest job ever, getting to travel the world and check out all these places.
BISHOP BARRON: It was, it was wonderful. I’m quick to add that it was also very hard work. But it was a great privilege to do that. It was an intense two-year period - we filmed from 2008 to 2010. I was still teaching during that time, so I would teach a class and then we’d get on a plane. I’d fly to Uganda, and then I’d come back in time for my next class session, maybe it was six days later. So it was a great adventure, and it took us all over the world.
I think that's what I loved most about the project. We tend to have a pretty myopic view in the Western world. We see the Church through the lens of the American experience or the Western experience. But we have to keep reminding ourselves that America is just 6% of the Catholic Church worldwide. We tend to see our issues as the only issues. But then you travel the world and visit somewhere like Namugongo in Uganda, during the Feast of the Ugandan Martyrs, and see half a million people descend on the site where this courageous young man gave his life in 1886. At the time, everyone would have thought that’s the end of Christianity. And now half a million people come there to worship the Lord. This explosion of Christianity in Africa is extraordinary. A hundreds years ago, the continent had very few Christians and now there are hundreds of millions. I think that’s a cool story.
Another great example is my trip to World Youth Day in Madrid 2011. The big story from a Western perspective was the protesters in Madrid, who were mad at the Pope over several hot-button issues. I remember watching a CNN report which showed a handful of protesters. And then the camera pulled back a little bit, and you saw the protesters were far outnumbered by the camera people covering them! Then, in the meantime, out in a large field outside Madrid, one million young people were there to greet the Pope. It was a driving rainstorm, and Benedict the XVI was this old man without an immediate charismatic appeal to young people, but he came out and offers the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s a very solemn ritual. And in the rain, in the mud, one million young people knelt in utter silence, adoring the Blessed Sacrament. And I’m reflecting back on the CNN report, thinking, "And that’s your story?" A handful of protesters surrounded by twice the number of reporters? In the meantime a million kids are kneeling in the mud in front of the Blessed Sacrament. That’s what I mean about telling the wider story of Catholicism. I’m interested in that.
NPR: It seems like that’s the best part about using YouTube or social media. You can tell your story anywhere and everywhere.
BISHOP BARRON: Yes, that's right. And I discovered that almost by accident. Early on, I would do these YouTube videos and then people would suddenly know me on the street or at an event. And I would ask, how do you know who I am? They would respond, "Your YouTube videos." People see them everywhere: someone from Australia, someone from Netherlands, someone from Japan. I love that the videos are available 24/7, all over the world.
I think teaching is so key right now. The Church is going through a rough time with the sex abuse scandal. We’re having a very hard time convincing the political establishment to see things our way. When the Church comes forward on a lot of the hot button issues we tend to get knocked down politically. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I think what’s called for now, especially, is deep teaching of the faith, especially to the next generation. It might not be that the political engagement is the best way to go right now. It might be that we teach, we witness, we show these deep truths. And what I try to witness to, which I mentioned earlier, is this innate longing and hunger of the human heart, which is a hunger for God.
We’re not going to win any political battles as long as the culture has forgotten about God. Many of our positions won’t make sense unless you believe in God. And so to convince people of the reality of God, I think is the compelling task of our time. So that’s how I look at it: I try to be a teacher of God to the next generation, and the new media is pivotal to that task.
NPR: So in a way, you're using the new media to get back to the basics, to teach fundamental truths about God and faith.
BISHOP BARRON: Yes. And the most fundamental truth is that we belong to a power that’s beyond ourselves. We belong to God. Our lives are not about us, they’re about God and God’s purpose. And the more you realize that, the more joyful you become. That’s what all the saints witnessed to. So that’s what needs to be taught now, it seems to me, which is why I tend not to lead with the hot button issues. If we do that, we get immediately distracted. We become quickly involved in fire fights about those. Instead, I would rather say, "Let’s pause, let’s look at the really deep, abiding longing of the heart and what answers that, which is God."
One way to do that is to lead with beauty, which has been a main preoccupation of mine. Today, if you lead with the True or the Good, people get very defensive. If you say, "Oh, here’s a truth I want you to believe," or "Here’s the way I want you to behave," then people say, "Back off! Don't tell me what to think or what to do." But if you show something beautiful, you're much more effective. You say, "Hey look, look at that. I’m not telling you what to think or how to behave, just look at that."
A good example is the Namugongo gathering I mentioned earlier. Five hundred thousand people come to this site. Just look at them. I’m not telling you what to think or how to behave. We’ll get there, you know. But for the moment, just look: isn’t that beautiful or compelling?
Or look at Mother Teresa’s sisters. We filmed there in Calcutta. You visit this extraordinary place, which is the strangest, most disturbing city I’ve ever been in my life, and you go to the worst parts of it, and there you find the Mother Teresa sisters beaming with joy as they’re caring for the poorest of the poor. Look at that. I’m not telling you what to think, I’m not telling you how to behave. Just look at that.
Then there's beautiful architecture. Think of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris or Notre Dame. I just recently saw the renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. These are all examples of evangelizing through beauty. On Fifth Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan, in the capital of the world, there’s this gleaming monument filled with the saints and filled with the Gospel and filled with Jesus Christ. Again, I’m not telling you what to think. Just come in, look, look at it. Let me point things out to you. Let me show you. I think that’s a good evangelical strategy today. Start with the beautiful, and that’s a way in.
If you’re teaching someone music, you don’t start with the most intricate moves of the fingers. You might begin by saying, "Just listen, listen to this person play, listen to that violin." Or when it comes to baseball, you don’t begin with the infield fly rule. You begin with the beauty of the game. Watch the people play. Look at the rhythm. Look at that curveball, what a beautiful pitch that was. Look at that double play, how deftly it was turned. See how they did that! And then you gradually draw people into the beauty of the game. Only then are they going to want to know about it. They’re going to want to understand its history, its background, its dynamics. They’re going to want to play well. They'll say, "Teach me how to do that. I want to do a double play like that; I want to hit that well." So I use that strategy with religion - lead with beauty.
NPR: You're widely known for looking at pop culture and history and all these things that we look at all the time, but looking at them through a Catholic lens. Can you talk about that?
BISHOP BARRON: That’s another favorite strategy, which I call the "seeds of the Word." It's an old phrase from our tradition, semina verbi, the seeds of the Word, which suggests that elements of God’s revelation are everywhere. They might be in somewhat distorted form, but they’re everywhere in the culture, because everything’s touched by the Logos, by God’s reason. Therefore in a movie, in a book, in a song, in something in the popular culture you can find a seed and say, "Oh, look, there's an echo. That’s like what we hold, an icon of the True." To point that out is a more positive strategy for evangelization rather than shaking your finger at the culture.
Some of the best examples are the remake of True Grit, by the Coen brothers, and Gran Torino by Clint Eastwood. Both are filled with the Gospel motif. In fact, Gran Torino is one of the very best presentations of the Christ figure. So I love pointing that stuff out, to find and point out these elements within the culture, because they really are everywhere.
NPR: What’s next? I mean, you obviously are going to be very busy as a bishop. Are you going to continue your work at Word on Fire?
BISHOP BARRON: Absolutely! I will be busy, you’re right. I’ve got a pastoral region here in Los Angeles, namely Santa Barbara, which includes Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
NPR: You could have worse regions.
BISHOP BARRON: [Laughs] I could have worse regions, yeah, you’re right. But I have a lot of basic administrative tasks there, which include going to Deanery meetings, meeting with the priests and leaders, doing a lot of liturgical functions, going out on Sundays to the parishes. In the springtime I’ll be doing lots of confirmations of the kids. And then there's the general administration of the Archdiocese. But I do intend to keep this evangelical work going, as well. And I think we can do it.
NPR: Let's switch topics here. Do you think the Catholic Church will be able to meet the challenges of the 21stcentury?
BISHOP BARRON: Yes. Because we’ve been through a lot worse. I mean, the Catholic Church has been around for 2,000 years. The cultures come and go. And that’s why I maintain that Church history is really important, to go all the way back to Peter and Paul, who were killed by the culture - Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified by it. When the culture is deeply opposed to the Church, you have martyrs, and that’s been evident from the beginning to today.
The greatest century for martyrdom in the history of the Church was the 20th century. Look at the persecution of Christians all over the world. We have been down this road many times. When a culture becomes massively opposed, you get martyrdom.
We have strategies for dealing with it. I would say what you do is in season and out, when the culture is with you, when it’s against you, when it’s kind of for you, when it’s kind of against you, you do the same thing, namely, embracing the three-fold call that every Christian has to be priest, prophet, and king. You witness to holiness, you speak the truth in love, and you try to guide the society. The church has always done that and it will continue. That's how we meet the challenges of the culture.
In the 1960's, Pope Paul VI said the Catholic Church is an "expert in humanity." It’s a wonderful statement and there's a great deal of wisdom in that. The Church has two thousand years of watching the human condition unfold - two thousand years of saints and sinners, two thousand years of confessions, two thousand years of great artists, mystics, and scholars. The Church is an expert in humanity. It understands the human heart, what gives it joy and how it get off the rails. That’s something the Church brings to the wider world, this great expertise in humanity.