Facebook headquarters might be a surprising place to find a Catholic bishop giving a talk.
Nevertheless, earlier this fall, Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was invited to give an address at the social media giant’s headquarters, where he talked about “How to Have a Religious Argument.”
By argument, he didn’t mean a fight in the comment boxes - “I mean something very positive,” he said. He meant evangelizing Facebook followers by presenting the beauty and wisdom of the faith.
That’s Barron’s forte, and the reason he was invited to the heart of Silicon Valley in the first place. His intelligent yet understandable, compelling yet approachable style has in many ways allowed Catholicism to be re-proposed to a culture that is becoming increasingly hostile to faith.
Mention Barron’s name to Catholics, and they’re likely to know at least some of his work, whether that’s his popular CATHOLICISM series, his online movie reviews, or his social media presence. Put Barron at a Catholic conference, and he’s treated like a rockstar.
But whether you’re a Bishop Barron aficionado or you’ve never heard of him, his latest book will offer new insights into the life and mind of one of the most compelling American Catholic figures of the 21st century.
The book, “To Light a Fire on the Earth,” is the collaborative product of interviews with Catholic journalist and author John Allen, who flew out to California to spend time with Barron, and who narrates his story. The result is part Barron memoir, part how-to evangelism guide, part cultural commentary and everything in between, covering everything from the transcendentals of beauty, goodness and truth to Barron’s love for baseball and Bob Dylan.
“(I wanted) to introduce my work to people, like this is the one book you could hand to someone and say, this kind of sums up what I’ve been about, as a theologian, as a teacher, an evangelist,” Barron told CNA.
“So I see it that way, as an attempt to introduce my work to a pretty wide audience.”
The book’s title, “To Light a Fire on the Earth,” is part of a bible verse that has played a central role in Bishop Barron’s philosophy and ministry, which he named “Word on Fire.”
The phrase comes from Luke 12:49, in which Christ says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
“I’ve always loved that line from Luke’s Gospel, because I just love the drama of that image, the power of it,” Barron told CNA.
“There’s something wonderful, illuminating, a little bit dangerous, a little bit destructive, a little bit overwhelming about the word of God, and the purpose of the Church is to light the whole world on fire with that word,” he said.
That power and edge has been something that’s been essential to his “Word on Fire” ministry, which Barron saw as a direct response to “beige Catholicism” - a weak and uninteresting presentation of the faith that he and his contemporaries experienced in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II.
“In many ways there’s still vestiges of (that) in our education, our catechesis,” Barron said.
“I’m opposed to a dumbed down Catholicism, I don’t like a culturally accommodating Catholicism. I like when it’s bold and colorful and confident and smart and beautiful, so in that sense, I’m opposed to falling back into beige Catholicism,” he said.
In many ways, Barron thinks the Church has turned the corner on “beige Catholicism,” especially due to the influence of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
“Word on Fire comes out of a Vatican II vision of bringing the light of Christ out into the world, reading the signs of the times, using the new media...to move into the new evangelization of John Paul II and company. That’s the tradition I’m standing in, from Gaudium et Spes, all the way to Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, that’s the tradition I’m exemplifying, I hope,” Barron said.
In the book, Barron proposes that the most effective way to evangelize today is to lead with the beauty of the faith.
“There’s something more winsome and less threatening about the beautiful,” Barron wrote in a 2015 essay quoted in the book. “‘Just look,’ the evangelist might say, ‘at Chartres Cathedral or the Sainte Chapelle, or the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or the mosaics at Ravenna.’”
“‘Just read,’ he might urge, ‘Dante’s Divine Comedy or one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems, or Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.’”
Catholics hoping to learn and draw from what Barron considers to be a canon of great Catholic works of art will not be disappointed - throughout the book, he mentions what he sees as some of the best works of film, literature and art - including many works of American Catholic art - that can be employed to draw people deeper into faith and form them to be better evangelists.
And the need for a renewed desire to evangelize couldn’t be more urgent, Barron said.
“Our numbers are shrinking, especially among the young, there’s no question about that,” the bishop said.
“People are kind of leaving the Church in droves - for every one person that joins the church, six are leaving, so that’s a very discouraging thing.”
But rather than draw back in fear, Barron said these disheartening statistics awaken his instincts to “go out, and set the world on fire, and evangelize and do it with confidence.”
“Go out with fife and drum to meet the culture,” he added, borrowing a phrase from German Lutheran Paul Tillich. “I like that attitude, I like the John Paul II kind of swagger.”
Barron said he hopes that his book will do just that - inspire people to learn their faith, and to tell others about it.
For Catholics looking for practical advice on how to be better evangelists, Barron’s first recommendation is: “Read.”
“Read. Get to know the faith,” he said. “Because we have a lot of enemies now who are smart and they’re trying to convince people that religious folks are not too smart. And I think people have got to get informed.”
Barron’s intellect and ability to debunk arguments against the faith, Allen notes, is a key factor in his appeal.
“Barron...probably incarnates the classic Catholic synthesis between faith and reason more thoroughly and overtly than virtually any other living figure - or at least one with a Facebook following of 1.5 million, a Twitter following of 100,000, and more than 20 million views on YouTube.”
Another piece of advice that Barron would give to wanna-be evangelists - “Find a none.”
By “none,” he’s referring to the increasing number of people who claim no official religious affiliation.
“Whether it’s a child, a friend, a colleague, a co-worker, a parent who’s Catholic but not going to Church - make it your goal this year to bring that ‘none’ back to Church,” he said.
“I also think wearing a symbol of your faith on your person is not a bad way to evangelize. Let people know, not aggressively, but let people know that you’re a Catholic,” he said.
“And it might cause them to question - ok you’re a Catholic, tell me about that. How do you reconcile whatever their question happens to be? I think those are simple, positive things people can do.”
Ultimately, he said, he hopes that Catholics who read his book are inspired to recover their mission to evangelize.
“I’m hoping...that they’d see that their baptismal mission is to bring people to Christ,” Barron said. “Maybe they’d take some inspiration from the work I’ve done, and the people and things that have shaped me, and then say ok, I’ve got a similar task and I’m trying to find my way.”
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