Bishop Robert Barron: A Fulton Sheen for the 21st Century?
Catholics in the United States have been awaiting the second coming of Fulton Sheen ever since the archbishop and legendary television apologist died in 1979, and in recent years Bishop Robert Barron has emerged as arguably the strongest candidate for that role. It is easy to see why. For more than a decade, Barron—a Chicago priest who taught for years at Mundelein Seminary outside Chicago before being named an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles in 2015—has built up a remarkable multimedia platform for his Word on Fire ministry. Through social media, YouTube, blog posts, DVDs and television appearances, Barron has been a relentless evangelizer, using wit, warmth and a Sheen-like talent for easily communicating complex ideas. His goal is to push back against what he sees as the insipid “beige Catholicism” of the 1970s and offer a more colorful and bracing religious tradition to an increasingly secular world.
Now Barron, a youthful 59, has packaged his new wine in a decidedly older wineskin—a printed book. To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age seeks to present Robert Barron and Word on Fire as a new ecclesial movement on par with Communion and Liberation or the Neocatechumenal Way.
Through social media, YouTube, blog posts, DVDs and television appearances, Barron has been a relentless evangelizer, using wit, warmth and a Sheen-like talent for easily communicating complex ideas.
It is an ambitious undertaking that Barron unveils at the end of the book, an extended and enthusiastically laudatory profile of Barron by the well-known Vaticanista John Allen, founder and editor of the Catholic news site Crux. With characteristic brio, Allen hits the high points of Barron’s many passions, from Bob Dylan to baseball to Brideshead Revisited, with periodic passages in Barron’s voice as he explains how he tries to reach people where they are, and then bring them the Christian message of truth and beauty and salvation.
Whether To Light a Fire on the Earth will find an audience beyond Barron’s fan club is unclear. Then again, this book may not be so much about converting others as it is about pitching Word on Fire as a new kind of ministry, one that might outlast Barron himself, something not even Sheen could manage. That would arguably be Barron’s greatest conversion yet.
The main challenge for Barron is that both Catholicism and the media have been transformed in recent decades. A year before Sheen died, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland was elected Pope John Paul II and quickly became a barnstorming global sensation whose popularity and visibility changed the way the papacy was viewed and earned him the moniker pontifex massmediaticus. Pope Francis has similarly captured the public’s attention, a development that seems to leave little room for another celebrity Catholic.
Moreover, media has fragmented, or, more accurately, shattered into splinters since Sheen’s day. The same varied platforms that gave Barron’s ministry a boost also turn anyone with a Twitter feed or Facebook page into an armchair apologist—often to the detriment of apologetics, not to mention the Catholic witness. That seems to be especially true of the traditionalist Catholic audience, which is often characterized by clanging cymbals that can drown out more winning voices.
At this point, perhaps the best chance to boost Barron’s ambitions would be for the “cyber-militias” to turn on him and make him into a breakout media figure. But digital martyrdom is a high price to pay for growing your brand.