After spending most of his life and career in Chicago, Bishop Robert Barron is preparing to become a stranger in a strange land.
The Tidings spoke to Barron in late August, when he was still reeling from the decision — which came as a surprise to him — that he was going to be appointed an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
He’s never lived here, and he wasn’t particularly well-acquainted with Archbishop José H. Gomez, who tapped him for the job. Also, until he arrived in L.A. for the announcement in late June, he knew nothing about the two other priests — Bishops Joseph V. Brennan and David G. O’Connell, both longtime L.A. residents — who were joining him as new auxiliary bishops.
Although Wikipedia claims Barron is fluent in Spanish, he disputes that.
“I’m really working on Spanish,” he said. “I’m working with one of my fellow faculty members; he’s from Peru, actually. I’ve been trying to read up as much as I can on the region, on the history, on the Church. … That’s what I’m doing — a lot of Spanish, Spanish, Spanish. I’m really big on that, and I want people to know I’m dedicated to getting that down.”
Bishop Barron is famous far beyond the Windy City for his Word on Fire media ministry (www.wordonfire.org), which produced the acclaimed “Catholicism” miniseries in 2011, and has since put out many more documentaries and YouTube videos.
Also a frequent lecturer and TV commentator, Bishop Barron has made good use of his mellifluous voice and calming screen presence as the face of Word on Fire, but he’s also spent the last few years as rector of Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, near Chicago.
Although Bishop Barron is a media celebrity, the move to the L.A. Archdiocese won’t entirely separate him from priestly formation. He’s been given the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region, which covers Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and includes St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo.
But he won’t be a stranger to L.A. proper, either.
“In fact,” he said, “I’ll have a little room at the Cathedral [of Our Lady of the Angels in Downtown L.A.]. I’m happy about it. I have a place I can stay when I’m there. That would also ground me there. I’ll discuss it a lot when I arrive, and the archbishop and I will work it out.”
First, though, Bishop Barron had to figure out where exactly Santa Barbara was.
“If you would have said, three months ago,” he said, “‘Santa Barbara,’ I would say, ‘Oh, yeah, the city in Southern California.’ I wouldn’t know where it was. I would’ve guessed that it’s in between San Diego and Illinois. I had to look on a map.”
As for his own vocation, Bishop Barron, 55, said he was drawn into the Church as a teenager because of St. Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God.
“That lit my mind on fire,” he said, “and eventually it moved in the rest of my person. By the time I was in late high school, early college, I was thinking pretty seriously about it. Keep in mind, too, when I was doing it, it was pre-sex-abuse scandal.
“The priesthood was still very much of a noble calling. For me, it seemed like a very radical, complete giving of self. That attracted me when I was a young man. Give your whole life to God; give your whole life over to the Church. That appealed to me in a romantic, radical way.
“That was part of it, but it took a long time, years of prayer and thought. It began with Aquinas, which is why he’s so important to me.”
Seeing the young men coming into the seminary — more than a decade after the sex-abuse scandal broke nationwide in 2002 (mostly involving adult victims of abuse decades earlier) — has had a profound effect on Bishop Barron.
“After the sex-abuse scandal,” he said, “it’s a much different game. These guys who are coming here, they’re 23, 24, they were all just discerning their calling during this time. They were kids when all this was happening. I find, first of all, that it’s a miracle of grace that it still happens, that the Lord still calls people to follow him, and these guys still listen — despite much more opposition from family, friends, the culture.
“I ask them that question, ‘What was it like to discern during this time?’ A lot of them want to be part of the solution. They know it’s a crisis time in the Church; they know we’ve been through a rough patch, but they want to be part of the solution. That’s what I hear from them, and it’s fascinating.”
While having a relatively famous face, Bishop Barron has also noticed that just walking through the world in his clerical garb is an ongoing source of revelation.
“I find it’s a very edifying experience,” he said. “People don’t look at you, like, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ That was a hang-up of an earlier generation that somehow we think we’re better than other people. I don’t think that’s true at all.
“They find it uplifting, that there’s still a priest around, and, ‘Oh, there’s someone whose life is dedicated to God.’ They reach out to you. I get asked all the time, as I’m going through an airport, ‘Can you hear my confession? Could you give me a blessing? God bless you, Father.’
“My experience is very positive. I think it’s because priests have muted themselves publicly too much. We shouldn’t need to remind people that we’re still here. We should be more public in showing ourselves, so people are reminded of God and the things of God.”
Bishop Barron says the work of Word on Fire is to continue in Chicago, although he will now be taping his videos in Southern California. It’s similar to the adjustments that had to be made when he was named rector of Mundelein.
“I think it will be a non-issue,” he said, “not a problem. We’ll continue as before.”
Bishop Barron is heading to Philadelphia to give a keynote address at the World Meeting of Families, which starts Sept. 22. Then on Sept. 23, he plans to be in Washington, D.C., to attend — and comment on for NBC — the canonization of Father Junípero Serra, the Apostle of California, which is part of Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to the U.S.
“I’ll see the pope,” Barron said, “but it’ll probably be across a crowded room. … I’ve been reading a biography of Serra, to get ready for the move to California but also for the canonization. I’m well aware of the controversy around him, and the book was a very thorough presentation of him. I really got why Pope Francis wants to canonize him.”
Lastly, as a bishop, Bishop Barron has a personal coat of arms. He says his motto — “Non nisi te, Domine” (“Only you, Lord”) — comes from his spiritual mentor.
“I’m a priest because of Thomas Aquinas,” Bishop Barron said. “I spent most of my academic life studying him and writing about him.”
According to the story, St. Thomas had a vision of Christ on the cross, asking the surprised cleric what he wanted as a reward for having written well of him. St. Thomas said, “Only you, Lord.”
“I’ve always felt,” said Bishop Barron, “that it’s a great way to sum up the spiritual life. It’s the way our desires should be properly ordered. ‘I want you first; I want you alone,’ and then everything else will fall into place around that.”