Published October 20, 2016
I have been a Catholic for half my life.
Prior to my conversion, I was raised in a fairly progressive Southern Baptist church, pastored at one time by one of the clergymen to whom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
I was taught then, from childhood, not only a solid foundation in Christianity, but also principles of empathy and engaged inquiry. I was taught not only to believe, and to love; I was also taught how to think.
It’s no surprise therefore that I was raised as well with a strong skepticism about Christian “media personalities.” I grew up in the age of Ernest Angley’s healings and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s public shenanigans. I watched Jimmy Swaggart make his tearful and hyperbolic confession of his adultery on national television. I listened as my father criticized the narrow-minded and self-absorbed views of Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts. I was led to believe that all televangelists—besides, of course, Billy Graham—were hucksters and charlatans.
When Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry was launched in 2000, I observed its rapid ascent to popularity with a skepticism similar to that of my youth. Then, like most people—and not just Catholics—I was amazed by the achievement of his 2011 film series “Catholicism,” which aired on public television nationwide and which impressed almost all who saw it with its breadth and ambition.
“Catholicism” was no 700 Club. It was a defining moment in American Catholic culture, and in the wake of the abuse scandals, served as a means of healing and a source of pride. Watching “Catholicism” made people proud to be Catholic. More importantly, the series served as a powerful means of New Evangelization. Who knows how many people entered the Church because of then-Father Barron’s film? It had an influence similar to that of Pope Francis.
So I waited with high expectations for his next big project. That series, “Catholicism: The New Evangelization,” was a disappointment. I found it uninspired, even a bit dull. It lacked the passion and intellectual depth of “Catholicism.” It played well for parish audiences, I suppose, but it seemed to be little more than that: a mini-series for Sunday school.
For the past several years we have been promised a proper sequel to “Catholicism,” and now at last we have it. Bishop Barron’s “Catholicism: The Pivotal Players” lives up to the promise established by the earlier series and represents a complete return to form for the bishop and his filmmaking team. The series is simply fantastic.
“Catholicism: The Pivotal Players” was released in early September, just in time for parish adult education fall programming. My parish is screening the series, and I am sure that others in the Archdiocese of Atlanta are as well, or will be in the coming months. PBS has already contracted with Bishop Barron to screen the films in wide release on public television beginning in November. Still, the films merit individual purchase and would make an excellent Christmas gift. They are available for sale at the Word on Fire website as well as on Amazon.
It is important to note that we have now only the first of two installments; when the project is complete, it will consist of two volumes, containing portraits of 11 principal men and women who shaped and preserved the Church throughout its first 2,000 years.
Volume I, which is available now, includes films devoted to St. Francis of Assisi: The Reformer; St. Thomas Aquinas: The Theologian; St. Catherine of Siena: The Mystic; Michelangelo: The Artist; Blessed John Henry Newman: The Convert; and G.K. Chesterton: The Evangelist.
The second volume, which should be available late next year, will consist of films based on St. Irenaeus: The Martyr; St. Augustine: The Teacher; St. Benedict: The Monk; St. Ignatius: The Founder; and Bartolomé de Las Casas: The Activist.
“Lead with beauty”
One could quibble, perhaps, over the choices, but such debate is inevitable whenever one comprises a collection or list of key figures in any subject area. A few of the choices belie Bishop Barron’s own tastes and experiences. Aquinas was the subject of his doctoral dissertation. Newman, an academic as well as a cardinal, is much like Bishop Barron himself, who has worked for years as an esteemed professor and author and who is rising in the hierarchy of the Church. Chesterton, also like Bishop Barron, is a popular figure who stands as a focal point for the Anglo-American Catholic literary and intellectual revival of the 20th century. I personally am delighted that St. Benedict will be the subject of a film, and I am especially pleased that Michelangelo is included; in fact, the film dedicated to him is the longest in the series. It runs at 80 minutes, while all the others are an hour.
The inclusion of Michelangelo is testament to one of Bishop Barron’s key principles: “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. One way to show people 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. That’s good evangelical strategy today. Start with the beautiful, and that’s a way in.”
I think this is absolutely true, and indeed this truth is at the heart of the ancient Catholic intellectual and aesthetic tradition. If one thing is apparent in the films of the “Pivotal Players” series, it is that Bishop Barron not only values this tradition; he loves it.
The ultimate goal of the films is to bring people closer to Christ. Bishop Barron makes this clear by stating that the saints and other holy men and women are, above all, representatives of Christ whose lives act as an invitation to greater communion with Christ and his Church. In the “Pivotal Players,” he has managed to blend the depth of “Catholicism” with the practical message of the “New Evangelization,” and the result is a series of films that is engaging, provocative and compelling.
How does one condense St. Thomas Aquinas?
The style of the films is similar to that of “Catholicism,” and credit must be given to the cinematography of John Cummings and the high production values achieved by Brandon Vogt and his team. As in “Catholicism,” Bishop Barron travels the world so that the viewer is not only told about places important to the people’s lives, he is actually given the vicarious experience of being there. And the viewer does indeed feel as if he is there. The pace of the films is slow enough to allow for contemplation, yet informative enough so that the viewer finishes a film feeling not only as though he has learned something, but yearning to know more. I completed each viewing of the initial six films with a kind of disappointment: I really didn’t want them to be over.
I’ve noticed this same reaction in watching the films with an audience in adult education. Attention is riveted to the screen. The actual settings are beautifully photographed; we see places most of us have never seen, only heard about, and yet here we are, in them. Bishop Barron narrates the films, but some of the best parts are when he becomes more than a voiceover; he literally addresses the camera and teaches. These moments reveal Bishop Barron to be a sincere, passionate and brilliant professor. He is a true teacher whose love of the subject inspires the viewer.
A 60-minute film can in no way exhaust the subject; how, for example, does one condense St. Thomas Aquinas into an hour? But Bishop Barron’s work is so good that it serves as both introduction and invitation. The supplemental study materials that he has assembled to accompany the films are splendid and represent the work of well-known contemporary Catholic scholars and theologians. Most people who view the films will also want to have the study guide.
Obviously, Bishop Barron has a legion of fans. He has become a prominent, even famous, Catholic public figure, one as well known and admired as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Bishop Barron’s usual audience will be delighted by “Catholicism: The Pivotal Players.” Yet it is a testament to the legitimacy of his ministry that the audience he most wants to reach should also be engaged and intrigued by these films. Bishop Barron has made it his calling to reveal to a secular humanist culture the reality of God’s revelation to humankind. In these wonderful films, he has managed to further enrich the lives of faithful Catholics while also extending a sincere invitation to those who most need to hear again the joy and truth of the Gospel.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.