To Light a Fire on the Earth
The Barron Story
One charming aspect of Bishop Robert Barron’s personality, though it is frustrating for an interviewer, is that he doesn’t really much like talking about himself. I’ve come to think the reason is not only genuine humility but also impatience to get on to what he thinks is the far more important element of any conversation--namely, the Catholic faith, and why it’s the best answer to the questions that well up from every human heart.
Yet it’s important to begin with some basics about Barron’s life and background, not only because doing so helps us get a read on where he’s coming from but also because it provides fodder for one of the towering questions about the ministry of evangelization: Are great evangelizers born, or made? That is to say, can the kind of missionary talent Barron possesses be taught, or do you just have to be gifted with it?
As we’ll see, Barron’s own answer to that question is the classic Catholic “both/and”--natural talent helps, he concedes, but he also firmly believes that certain techniques can be taught that will make anyone seriously interested in evangelizing better at doing it.
Also as we’ll see, the basic “technique” Barron proposes is doing one’s homework. He’s convinced that one can’t defend and extol the nearly two-thousand-year intellectual history of the Catholic Church without mastering it oneself. Understanding how he went about that, and what drove him to do it, may help others find their own path.
Today, an equally important component of Barron’s life and self-understanding is his role as a bishop. Precisely because it’s so fundamental, we’ll cover his thoughts on that front in a separate chapter, Chapter 9).
Robert Emmet Barron was born on November 19, 1959, in Chicago. His father worked for John Sexton & Company, a wholesale grocer and food supplier serving restaurants, hotels, and institutions, which had been founded in Chicago in 1883. Robert has a younger sister and an older brother, and he says he was especially tight with his brother growing up since their ages are only fifteen months apart. (Communications run in the Barron gene pool, since his brother would go on to become the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times. His sister worked in PR for a while, took a break to start a family, and is today a teaching assistant in a Chicago-area high school.)
Barron says his was a “good, solid” Catholic family, if not overly demonstrative about their faith.
“My parents are Catholic to the core,” he says. “It would never in a million years occur to them not to go to Mass on Sunday. We weren’t superprayerful . . . my parents had respect for the rosary, for example, but we didn’t always pray it. When I was a little tiny kid, my mother would come in and pray with us before we went to bed.”
Echoes of that deep Catholic faith passed on by his parents have stayed with Barron over the years.
“My mother gave me, and I still have it, a crucifix belonging to my uncle who was a Christian Brother, and who died many years ago. He had this pectoral cross–type of thing that he probably tucked into his habit, and I slept with it under my pillow when I was a kid. My mother told me that was a good thing to do, and I had little prayers I’d pray. Sunday Mass, holy days and all that, were absolutes, plus going to Catholic school and regular Confession.”
Barron says his parents were never really part of the debates over the changes in Catholic faith and life introduced by Vatican II, content with the philosophy “If the Church wants it, it’s okay with me.” Apparently, they passed that spirit on to their son.
“I remember being trained as an altar boy, it would’ve been about 1969, right when the novus ordo Mass came,” he recalled. “For us it was like, ‘Oh, hey, this is a new Mass, and you guys have been trained to serve, so off we go.’ There was no sense of ‘Oh, I’m going through a rupture with the old and this is a challenging change,’ none of that. It was just like, that was the way it is.”
The family moved to Detroit in 1963, when Barron was four, because his father’s job took them there, and they would remain in Detroit until 1968. Among other things, it was during that period Barron acquired his lifelong love for baseball.
“Our last year in Detroit was when the Tigers won the World Series with Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich . . . that was the era when I first learned baseball. My first professional baseball game was a Tigers game in 1967, so my earliest memories of pro baseball are the Tigers,” Barron recalled. (Like the good Chicagoan he is, however, Barron says he cheers only for the Tigers these days only in the American League--overall, he’s a die-hard Cubs fan.) The next year he moved back to Chicago just in time to agonize through the Cubs’ legendary collapse to the “Miracle Mets”--an early lesson, he now ruefully concedes, in how life often blends elation with heartbreak.
Barron’s period in Detroit occurred in the middle of the drama in Catholicism unleashed by Vatican II, though he says he had little awareness of it at the time, despite attending a Catholic grade school. One experience from that time, however, did leave an impression.
“When I was in third grade, the nuns went to a modified habit. I remember vividly how it caused a near riot when Sister walked into third grade and we saw her in the new habit; we all went berserk,” he says. “We loved her. Her name was Sister Jean Marie, and she came in with the shorter veil and the dress that showed her legs, we just freaked out. That’s a transitional memory, I suppose you could say, of moving to the postconciliar period.”
Later on, Barron attended the Dominican-run Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois, the only high school in the United States directly operated and staffed by the Dominican order. It was during that time, as an intellectually precocious teenager, that he discovered what he calls the “two Thomases”--Merton and Aquinas, who would become touchstones for his entire career.
Here’s how Barron tells the story on Merton.
I worked at Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore chain. It’s gone now, but it was a big deal at the time. There was a huge store in Chicago and about sixteen satellite stores in the area. I worked at one of the branches, and the policy was if a book got too worn out, the manager could tear the cover off and we could take it home. My brother worked there as well; he was seventeen and I was sixteen. He saw that The Seven Storey Mountain cover had been taken off, so he threw it at me and said, “I bet you would like this. It was written by a Trappist monk.” I said, with completely unconscious irony given Merton’s interests later in his career, “Oh, I don’t want to read a book by some Buddhist.” My brother shot back, “Trappists are Catholics, you idiot!” With that, literally landing in my lap was The Seven Storey Mountain. I brought this mangled book home with me, no cover, and I read it with full teenage passion . . . Merton filled in the spiritual content for me. It was like, wow, if there really is a God, you can be in relationship with him, and you can explore that friendship in all sorts of interesting ways. I read The Seven Storey Mountain like a romance novel. I loved the Beatles, and I have a very vivid memory of reading The Seven Storey Mountain with the sound track of the Beatles behind me.”
As for Aquinas, Barron has the Dominicans to thank.
It was at Fenwick High School. I’m a freshman and it’s springtime, so the end of my first year. We were out at the playground horsing around, so we all come in kind of sweating, and it’s time for religion class. We had this young Dominican, Father Thomas Paulsen. That day, he laid out for us the Aquinas arguments for the existence of God, beginning, I think, with the motion argument. There I was, a fourteen-year-old Catholic kid just going to Mass, and I still don’t know why, but I was captivated. I think it was a movement of grace, and I’m sure no one else in that class was all that interested. For some reason, however, it struck me as, Wow, that’s right, that’s correct. No one up to that point in my experience really had thought seriously about God, you just went to Mass . . . That exposure to Aquinas showed me you could actually think deeply and clearly about God. Not that I didn’t believe in God, I did, but there was rational depth and clarity to Aquinas that hit me like a revelation.
From there, the young Barron was off to the races.
I guess it never occurred to me to go to the teacher and say, “Hey, I want to know more,” so I started going to the library, where I found this volume of Aquinas’s writings in Mortimer Adler’s Great Books series. I took it out in my little fourteen-year-old hands, and I brought it home like a treasure. I didn’t really know what I was reading, but I knew it was wonderful. It was similar to the experience I had when I discovered Shakespeare that same year. I read Romeo and Juliet and understood precious little of it, but I thought, There should be such a thing! I just knew that Aquinas, like Shakespeare, was someone I could study for the rest of my life.
After finishing high school, Barron put in one year under the Golden Dome at the University of Notre Dame, and after discovering a vocation to the priesthood, he finished his undergraduate work at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Since his early attitudes took shape in the context of Vatican II, sorting through how the young Barron reacted to the tumult generated by the council is key to understanding what he would later become.
Vatican II and Its Aftermath
Although some Catholics pine for the period before Vatican II, Barron says he’s never shared that instinct, mostly because he’s too young to remember the Church before the council. What he does remember with great clarity, however, is the postconciliar period of experimentation and change, and that left a deep impression on him.
“It was the high-water mark of what I call ‘banners and balloons’ Catholicism,” Barron says.
“When I was getting religious instruction as a young man, it was the period right after the council: 1969, ’70, ’71. We did a lot of very experiential kinds of things,” he says. “I remember vividly one of the sisters at my grade school played James Taylor’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ and told us, ‘Now as you hear this song, I want you to just draw what you’re feeling.’ I didn’t think it was anything weird, I just did what they told me, but that was religion class. The formation was a little superficial.”
Barron says that tendency to reimagine religion largely in terms of emotion and social relevance may have been especially pronounced in Chicago, given all that was going on during that time.
We arrived back in Chicago in August 1968, which is when the riots were going on around the Democratic convention. You had the Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy assassinations. So, the big thing when I was going to school was social justice, the rights of the marginalized, worrying about the poor. If I were to say what they taught me about the spiritual life, I’d probably say it was a deep commitment to social justice. We got that message for sure as kids. What I reacted against, without knowing it at the time, was the reductionism. If that’s all that the spiritual life comes down to, then we have an impoverishment on our hands.
Though Barron says he wouldn’t have been able to formulate his thoughts quite that way at the time, part of the direction his life and career would later take was in reaction to the reductionism he sensed as a youth: “I think most of us do that, most of us kind of react to whatever we were formed in and we begin to see the other side, the shadow side of it,” he says.
It was while studying at Catholic University in the early 1980s, under legends such as Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, Monsignor John Wippel, and Thomas Prufer, that Barron says he began to articulate to himself what his instincts told him had gone wrong.
By that time, I had begun to see there’s a disconnect, there’s something that’s not making sense [in some elements of how Vatican II was being implemented]. I saw that there was something relatively superficial about the liturgical dimension, for instance. There was also a tension between the way we were living the faith and the more substantial intellectual grounding we were getting at the university, and the discrepancy began to grate on me. Mind you, I arrived at Catholic U in 1979 and John Paul II had just been elected, so the “John Paul effect” hadn’t happened yet. Around that time, though, it became clearer to me what the demarcations [in the Church] were.
Looking back, Barron says his reaction to the post–Vatican II period left him with not so much opposition to the liberal Catholic project as a strong sense that on its own, liberalism is not quite enough.
What I emphasize is that I’m not “antiliberal,” I’m “postliberal,” and that’s on purpose. There’s something permanently valuable in the liberal project, there’s a critique that’s permanently valuable. We don’t want to reject that, but we do want to move through it on to something else . . . I’m a [Cardinal John Henry] Newman man. He emphasized the development of unfolding things--a plant doesn’t just uproot itself and start over again, it’s always coming forth and sending off new branches and shoots. I believe in moments of criticism and moments of new growth, but not of rupture. That’s my own experience of learning to be in the Church.
Barron was ordained to the priesthood in 1986 by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who had taken over from the flamboyant Cardinal John Cody in 1982 (once described by Father Andrew Greeley, a novelist and sociologist, as a “madcap tyrant”). Barron met Cody only twice, once as a young man when Cody gave him a John Paul II key chain, and the second time toward the end of Cody’s life when he visited Catholic University and Barron and a fellow student picked him up at the airport. As they drove by the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, he remembers Cody telling him, “I built that place!”