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The Chicago high school kid who is Pope Benedict’s evangelical successor


WITH the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI we have lost the most acute theologian of the last 100 years. He combined the unlikely bedfellows of intellectual brilliance and humility. His final words were an announcement of friendship, ‘Jesus, I love you.’ He died, by all accounts, a few minutes later; he seems to have known that the intimacy of that friendship is worth more than a million words.

To be an evangelist requires an understanding of the intellectual tradition of the Catholic faith. Benedict had that in spades, which is how he was able to shape that same tradition, most particularly in his warnings about the dangers of religious and cultural relativism.

The intellectual tradition needs both protection and development. Who is available to carry that cross? I have a candidate.

In the early 2000s, the time of the nascent social media revolution, Father Robert Barron, an academic and parish priest in Chicago, was sent on mission by his mentor, the late Cardinal Francis George. This is what he was told: ‘We think you have the skills to go out and evangelise the culture.’

Barron was not sure what that meant. Having expressed that uncertainty, he was met with the less than consoling clarification from Cardinal George: ‘Neither do we, work it out! You have the smarts.’

Robert Barron had been a high school kid whose interests were baseball and popular culture – Dylan, films etc. But he fell in love with the writings of Thomas Aquinas, an intellectual love which led him into the priesthood.

Barron seized on the embryonic tools of social media to ‘evangelise the culture’ by attempting to bring the wider culture into the comforts and difficulties of the Church. His 2011 documentary series Catholicism connects several things in beautiful ways: history, doctrine, geography and philosophy. The underlying metaphysical assumption is that God expresses himself through the categories of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In a world subverted by the conceits of post-modernism, where we are acculturated into a suspicion of truth, maybe beauty is the better evangelical tool.

As a postgraduate student in France, Barron would contemplate the Rose Window in Chartres Cathedral.

The centre he took to be the stillness of Christ, the message of which is available to everybody. Because we are, each of us, able to receive the grace of Beauty.

Not everybody can appreciate the complexity of a theological argument, but a six-year-old can appreciate the beauty of a bedside story which conveys the same essential meaning.

I will identify a couple of Bishop Barron’s main intellectual concerns.

There is a false conflict between faith and science. Science requires that the universe is intelligible. Faith requires that we know where that intelligibility comes from. The appropriate –and scientific – way to address this mystery is to think of God not as an architect who has retreated, but as a conductor who is always involved. Science is the mind of God in play and faith requires an acknowledgment of that. The first violin?

More important perhaps – and Bishop Barron makes this point – is Christianity a ‘religion’? A theology is a collection of beliefs. Isn’t Christianity more than that? Isn’t it a friendship? Doesn’t that make it available to everyone? To the well-educated types as much as to the young child who is learning the unique value of friendship? Am I more deserving of the friendship of Jesus because my wonderful Dad worked to get me an education I would not otherwise have had?

These are just two things Bishop Barron writes about. His essential insight is that God is ever-present, especially in the culture. He is a conductor, not an architect. He is as present in a pop song as He is in the most abstract theological argument. That is what it means to evangelise the culture: to draw the beautiful into an ordination with God.

We shall miss Pope Emeritus Benedict, but we should be grateful that he has bequeathed an intellectual tradition which Robert Barron is eminently qualified not merely to defend, but to revitalise.

You can find Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries here.

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Sean Walsh
Sean Walsh
Sean Walsh is a writer.

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