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Maurice Timothy ReidyNovember 21, 2011

Even by the standards set by Ken Burns, 10 hours is a hefty length for a documentary. Then again, the series under review is not telling the story of baseball or the Civil War but of Catholicism, an enormously rich tradition that, 10 years into a career in the Catholic press, I am still learning about. When you consider that The New Catholic Encyclopedia clocks in at 12,000 pages, 10 hours seems almost slight.

Produced by Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, Catholicism is written and hosted by the Rev. Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago who teaches at Mundelein Seminary. Father Barron is best known (at least until now) for Web videos in which he engages with various cultural trends, from the new atheism to the theology of “The Dark Knight.” He is both a genial host and a stout defender of the church, who is not afraid to acknowledge its failings.

“Catholicism” is a media project far beyond anything Father Barron has done before. In addition to its impressive length, the documentary boasts exquisite cinematography and enormous range. Teaming up with Matt Leonard of “The Today Show,” Father Barron set out to convey the universal nature of the church. The film hops from Mexico City to Israel to Uganda to Rome to the Philippines and a handful of other destinations, with a not unexpected stop in John Paul II’s Krakow along the way. More than once, I was put in mind of Niall Ferguson striding across Europe to explain World War II or international monetary policy. (At times, the production can play like “Where in the World is Father Barron?”)

Father Barron has a talent for television: He speaks confidently and cogently on camera. (And shots of him gazing contemplatively into the distance are thankfully few.) He is an engaging conversation partner, though not one with whom everyone will always agree. Students of Ignatian spirituality, the Second Vatican Council or contemporary theology, for example, may find his treatment of the faith incomplete. Of course, no documentary, even of this length, could touch upon every tradition within the church. Yet with such a grand title, “Catholicism” invites some argument about what should be included.

A shortened version of “Catholicism” aired on several PBS affiliates in October, though at least one station declined to show it because of its explicitly Christian content. And this documentary is, indeed, a work of apologetics. It may look like your standard slice of public television, but Father Barron is not interested in an objective, clinical examination of the faith. He wants you to, as he says several times in the film, “fall in love with Christ.” And few media projects can claim they came about thanks to the intercession of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. (Watch the final credits.)

The series, then, is an exercise in evangelization as much as education, and one of its chief accomplishments is that it is, in the words of George Weigel, “rooted in friendship with Jesus Christ.” Every element of this story, from the Annunciation and the conversion of St. Paul to an examination of the Eucharist and the history of the saints, is refracted through that lens. At a time when the church sometimes seems as polarized as the political culture, “Catholicism” is an essential reminder that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

From a production standpoint, “Catholicism” is nearly flawless. The Parthenon, St. John Lateran in Rome, Lourdes, the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Lough Derg—these are just some of the sites the production team visits. (No green screen for Father Barron.) The documentary is a little heavy on European cathedrals, though the team does visit the United States, with a particularly moving visit to the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in Louisville, Ky., to discuss the spirituality of Thomas Merton. Father Barron also tells the American stories of Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day and St. Katharine Drexel.

Individual believers play a large role in “Catholicism.” This is not a documentary about councils and papal encyclicals but about men and women who sought to follow Christ in the unique circumstances of their times. The project’s patron saints, if they may be so called, are Thérèse of Lisieux and Thomas Aquinas, doctors of the church whose paths to God could not have been more different. Pope John Paul II also plays a leading role, not only in the story of his own life but also in the spirit of heady evangelization that infuses the series. Father Barron is not interested in dwelling on the problems facing the church. There is nothing here on the priest shortage and only passing mention of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Instead, he focuses his energy and obvious passion on the graces the church provides. His discussion of the Eucharist is especially affecting, the only time I noticed that his voice cracked with emotion. How appropriate.

“Catholicism” is likely to find its way into parish halls across the country. It is being heavily marketed in the Catholic press, and the filmmakers clearly hope it will be used as a catechetical tool. Some of the episodes will work nicely in that regard. In particular, the introduction to Sts. Peter and Paul and the theological explanation of the liturgy are superb. Other episodes, like “Ineffable Mystery of God,” may require a bit more background in the Catholic tradition. The soul-searing images of Catholic art and architecture might even prompt some viewers to consider conversion, just as, for centuries, a trip to Europe often awakened searchers to the beauty of the Catholic tradition.

One virtue of Father Barron’s easygoing style is that it invites conversation, even disagreement. After spending 10 hours with him, I am comfortable enough to mount a few friendly arguments. I was puzzled, for one thing, by his decision to highlight the church’s teachings on angels and devils. Are these essential to our faith? Including them seems like a deliberate move to emphasize the “otherness” of Catholicism. In discussing the doctrine of purgatory, Father Barron visits Lough Derg in Ireland and commends the spiritual athleticism of the pilgrims who walk without shoes on the island’s harsh terrain and stay awake for days as a form of penance. Yet why feature Lough Derg and not any other retreat house or movement, unless to reassert the value of a certain pre-Vatican II Catholicism?

The Catholic Church presented in “Catholicism” comes across as a bit old-fashioned. Consider the art and music. After 10 hours of stained glass windows and Gregorian chant, I found myself yearning for kitschy church mosaics and the strains of the St. Louis Jesuits. The cathedrals of Europe are awe-inspiring, but they can seem far removed from the reality of parish worship today. It is wonderful to contemplate that we share a faith with the men who crafted the rose windows at Notre Dame and the African martyrs who died in Uganda. And “Catholicism” is a valuable reminder of this rich patrimony. Yet in general the film fails to convey that the church is a living tradition, one that continues to inspire artists, musicians and writers, as well as young theologians and lay ministers. Shots of worshippers in Mexico and the Philippines are not enough to capture the vitality of the church today.

At several points, Father Barron argues for the importance of spiritual heroism; he believes that Catholics should actively seek to be saints. He is right that out of false humility, we often shy away from seeking spiritual greatness. Sometimes in his telling, however, spiritual heroism is presented as a kind of warfare against the world. In explaining Jesus as the “Davidic warrior,” Father Barron argues that Jesus went mano a mano with the powers of his day and won. Later he cites the Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter’s Square—probably the last thing Peter saw before he was crucified—as a “gentle, in-your-face” reminder that Christianity prevailed over its enemies. Setting aside the question of whether the hedonist spirit of early Rome is really dead, this portrayal has the unfortunate effect of presenting Christianity as fundamentally in opposition to the world.

Of course, there are times when the church must take a stand against the culture; but the world is full of riches, too. In his commentaries for “Word on Fire,” Father Barron deftly engages with that world, offering incisive cultural analysis of books, journalism and film. Yet “Catholicism” offers little indication that its heroes found wisdom outside of the tradition—that Thomas Merton, for example, was studying Eastern religions when he died. Nor does it give much sense that sometimes the church itself stood in opposition to its most fervent believers. These details make for a messier story, but they also show how truly alive Catholicism is.

Like the church itself, “Catholicism” is sometimes a source of frustration; but it is also a testament to the beauty at the heart of the tradition.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Robert O'Connell
12 years 5 months ago
It seems to me that if America magazine had been at the Birth of Christ, the reporting would have been negative.

If you do not like Fr. Barron's work, do the job yourself - and do better.
12 years 5 months ago

I agree somewhat with the author that Fr. Barron was unable to cover more aspects of our Catholic faith, but he did a fine job of presenting considerable information of how our faith came about and what sustains it to this day.  For that, I am grateful.

The tv program was beautifully filmed.  Thanks.  Anna M. Seidler
12 years 5 months ago
It was a fine article. I think the criticims about what is lacking in Fr. Barron's program are not wrong. However, those things that are omitted are thing that I have seen emphasized so much already, this form a good counterbalance.
Fr. Barron emphasizes how subversive the Gospel is.
diane penney
12 years 5 months ago

"Yet in general the film fails to convey that the church is a living tradition, one that continues to inspire artists, musicians and writers, as well as young theologians and lay ministers. Shots of worshippers in Mexico and the Philippines are not enough to capture the vitality of the church today."

Are you kidding me?  Unfortunately for North America and Europe, the vitality of the church today is precisely in Mexico and the Philippines.  Does the United States halt daily at 3:00 to pray the Divine Mercy?  Filipinos do.  Do penitent North Americans crawl for miles on their knees in supplication to the intercession of the Blessed Mother? The pilgrims to Our Lady of Guadalupe do and we would be wise to follow.
C Walter Mattingly
12 years 5 months ago

A good article that wets the appetite.  I hadn't even heard of the series. Thanks.

Just a small point. The "spiritual heroism...presented as a kind of warfare against the world" appears to this reader exactly congruent with the spirtual life of Ignatius Loyola in his role as the Knight fighting against the snares of the Evil One.  Perhaps Ignatian spirituality is not as absent from the series as Mr Reidy suspects?
12 years 5 months ago

As fairminded a review as could be expected from America magazine, but very revealing in what it wanted omitted - angels and demons (too "other') - and what it wanted to see represented - kitschy mosaics, the St. Louis Jesuits, etc. – and in a series about goodness, truth and beauty. Also missing, thankfully, were contemporary churches with auditoriums in the round which focus everything on the priest as master of ceremonies or talk show host; 'hymns' from the 1970s and 1980s that are all about me or us; and what the review calls 'contemporary theology' (not meaning thereby the work of Ratzinger or Barron himself, but dissidents who reject the Church's teaching while cashing the Church's paycheck).

Chet Johns
12 years 5 months ago

I had never heard of Father Barron before the release of this series having been brought back to Catholicism by the converts Scott Hahn, Steve Ray, and David Currie to name but a few. I saw this series available through Amazon and took a chance figuring the ten hours of video would be superior to the normal trash which comes across the TV screen. I was so taken in by the series that I watched all ten hours in two sittings. Father Barron's ability to relate the basic tennants of the Catholic Faith, along with photos of places I may never see in my lifetime and history of my faith which I was not aware made for a grand performance. The media is in too great a hurry to remind us the faith is full of sinners and fallen men. What makes Catholicism so great is that it continues to stand in full sight 2000 years after it's creation. If this series doesn't open some hearts and minds to the Catholic Church, then they are fully hardened by our culture. The rejection by some PBS affiliates and others offers proof that this is a message and a truth that many are afraid of.

12 years 5 months ago
Delighted to see many of the comments which echo my own thoughts...I have been awed by the beauty of "Catholicism". The Church is in trouble, just look at the numbers of the unchurched. It is my belief that it is the very movement of the church away from its basic tennants that has brought us to this place. Precisely the reason I did not renew my subscription to "America."
Anne Chapman
12 years 5 months ago

I have only seen the four episodes on PBS and agree that the videography is spectacular. It's a great travelogue for those who have never visited these places. The summary history of Christianity was good also.

But, the narrator is somewhat annoying to watch.  Instead of directing his conversation to the audience (the camera), he's constantly looking up or down or sideways as though there were someone hidden from view that he was talking to. Now and then he looked directly at the camera, but not very often.  If I were sitting there in front of him listening to him talk, it would come across as rude. In the videos, it comes across as a nervous mannerism.  Maybe he didn't have a director to remind hin to talk to the audience. After a while, I didn't watch him directly, because this mannerism started to distract me from what he was saying, so I looked at the background while he spoke and tried not to watch him directly. The other annoying part of it was the short question and answer period after. He didn't really answer the predetermined questions very well, even though he obviously knew what they would be. He seemed to use them as a pretext or springboard to do a little editorializing instead of actually answering them. That part can be skipped without missing anything of importance. 

Thomas Hennigan
12 years 4 months ago

Interesting that the reviewer finds fault with Fr. Barron's presentation for little openness to other traditions, whilst he is certainly a great fan of St. Thomas Aquinas, who was open to other traditions, such as Aristotle, a pagan phiosopher, as well as other non Christian thinkers. At the same time he complains about Fr. Barron's visit to Lough Derg and the penance related to this place, -unless to reassert the value of a certain pre-Vatican II Catholicism?- One wonders why he would complain about the value of so called pre-Vatican II Catholicism, while at the same time criticizing Fr. Barron for not being open to other traditions. There is no doubt that post-Vatican II Catholicism might well learn something from the likes of Lough Derg which stresses fasting, which the latter type of Cathilocism seems to have excluded, something unthinkable for the Fathers of the Church or any other Catholics over the centuries or any Biblical author. The truth is that there is no such thing as pre or post Vatican II Cathoicism, or post-Vatican II Castholicism, but simply Catholicism. Iny any case, it does seem that the actual documents of Vatican II in any support the notion that the council intended to invent a new type of Catholicism. 

Dan Cawthon
12 years 4 months ago

Like Maurice Timothy Reidy, I have watched all ten episodes of Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism series.  I agree with much of what he says in his review of the series (Nov. 21, 2011).  However, I take issue with his insinuations that Barron is portraying a “pre-Vatican II Catholicism.” 

In his book, Bridging the Great Divide, Father Barron describes himself as a “post-liberal, post-conservative, evangelical Catholic.”  His antidote to the poison of polarization in our contemporary church is to focus attention on Jesus’ searing question:  “Who do you say that I am?”   The story of Catholicism, according to Father Barron, is the way each generation, each culture, each historical epoch has responded. 

The subtitle of the series is “A Journey to the Heart of the Church.”  Father Barron strives in each episode to understand Christian faith as a response to God’s invitation to love.  Karen Armstrong, in The Case for God, reminds us that the word “credo” derives from two Latin words—cor (heart)and do (I give).   When we give ourselves away in love to others, as Christ did on the cross, we unleash the eternal—the divine life—within ourselves.  That is the rock on which Christ builds his church; that is the underlying theme of each episode—and Father Barron pulls it off beautifully.   His perspective transcends the pre/post Vatican II dichotomy.

 Mr. Reidy doesn’t clarify why he thinks “students of Ignation spirituality, the Second Vatican Council, or contemporary theology, for example, may find his treatment of the faith incomplete.”  Is he suggesting that Father Barron is not steeped in these important areas of Catholic theology, or that an essential dimension of Christian faith is missing in Barron’s understanding of the faith ?

Mr. Reidy writes that the “Catholic Church presented in Catholicism comes across as a bit old fashioned.”  He complains that “after 10 hours of stained glass windows and Gregorian chant, I found myself yearning for kitschy church mosaics and strains of the St. Louis Jesuits.”   Funny, I had just the opposite response.  I am grateful that the series invites Catholics to “think globally,” to understanding ourselves as part of a world-wide community that, 2000 years later, continues to “act locally”—trusting in the power of self-giving love, made manifest in the cross, to dispel the darkness of our existence.   To my mind, and I think Father Barron’s, that’s what the New Evangelization is all about.

 Dan Cawthon. Professor Emeritus

Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, California


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