Fr. Robert Barron Offers Seven Ways to Share the Gospel
Fr. Robert Barron is one of the Church’s leading evangelists. But he doesn’t want to remain in the slim ranks of those who shoulder this burden.
In his lecture titled “Pope Francis and the New Evangelization” given on May 8th at the University Club of Chicago, Fr. Barron (Rector, Mundelein Seminary/University of Saint Mary of the Lake; founder, Word on Fire) encouraged his audience to learn about the faith so that they too can share it.
With Pope Francis as a model of how to spread “the joy of the Gospel,” Barron argued that Catholics have a duty to awaken the faith of the baptized and bring back those who have drifted. To become evangelists on fire for the Gospel, Barron suggested Catholics focus on seven areas.
1. Lead with the beautiful
Especially today, in our post-modern relativistic world, “to begin with the truth is a non-starter,” said Barron. Worse yet is to tell people how they should behave. “Begin with the beautiful.” It is “less threatening and more winsome.” Barron gave an example from his childhood. When he was seven years old, he was taken to Tiger’s Stadium in Detroit. He was captivated by the bright green grass and the crisp white jerseys. He immediately wanted to play baseball. But if someone introduced him to the game by telling him about the “infield fly rule,” it wouldn’t have been as appealing. Begin with Chartres Cathedral, the stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle, the work of Mother Teresa’s sisters, the music of Mozart, urged Barron. Draw people into the good and the true through that door. The debates in the Church after the Second Vatican Council have been similar to the “infield fly rule.” That’s not how we’re going to lure in the next generation. We have to start with beauty, as Pope Francis has said, “begin with the merciful face of Christ.”
2. Don’t dumb down the message
Among Barron’s greatest frustrations is when parishioners approach him after Mass complaining that they didn’t understand his homily. “Father, you’re speaking over our heads.” Barron pushes back against this kind of ‘the faith is too complicated’ mentality. Catholics today are doctors and lawyers, bankers and investors. They read high-level medical journals and complex case histories and take over businesses. “Why do you expect your religion to be spoon-fed?” Barron probed.
Urging his audience to take pride in coming from “the oldest intellectual tradition in the West,” he told them to learn about great thinkers such as Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Bonaventure, and John Henry Newman. Catholics should know that Vatican II was produced “by the cream of the intellectual crop at the time.” “Read those documents,” prodded Barron, “you will be struck by their intellectual richness.”
Indeed, Catholics need to stubbornly think about their faith, need to take it as seriously as any other aspect of their life. He insisted that we take example from those who elevate, who educate, who inspire: “I first read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when I was fourteen-years-old. Though I understood about ten percent of it, I was taught that there was such a thing, that there was rhetoric at that level.” He encouraged a similar approach to our passing down the faith: “Why aren’t we teaching fourteen-year-olds Dante and Augustine?”
3. Preach with ardor
John Paul II called for a new ardor, a new fire in preaching the faith. “Aristotle said long ago that finally people only really listen to an excited speaker,” Barron said, pointing to the TV advertisements where people muster “enormous enthusiasm” for second-rate products. He drew a contrast to his own experience at Mundelein where some of his students preach their sermons like they just rolled out of bed.
Where does the fire come from? The early Church was marked by a certain kind of fiery missionary ardor. Barron argues it comes from clarity about the Resurrection. Christianity isn’t about some “blandly abstract reflections” proposed by another spiritual guru. Neither is it about arguments, about people bickering about authority and sexuality (“that’s not going to be intellectually compelling,” he said). It’s about an experience so overwhelming that people want to “grab the whole world by the lapels and tell them, ‘Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!’”
“We’re here to let the light out. Christ is the Lumen Gentium: The Light of the people.” We understood Vatican II all wrong. “It wasn’t primarily to modernize the Church…it was to Christify the world,” he said. “Evangelization is about sharing that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”
4. Tell the great story
Catholics should know their Old Testament. After all, “evangelization is that the great story of Israel has come to fulfillment,” Barron said. The story of Jesus Christ cannot be understood without placing him within the history of Israel. We have a thousand spiritual teachers, but Christ is the “New David, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, the New Moses, New Adam.” Barron argued that evangelization takes on a sparkle and a snap when you realize that the Church is the new Israel.” Sadly, for many Catholics today, Israel has little relevance. “If you don’t get Israel, you don’t get him.” Is the Old Testament with all its genealogies and strange references to people and places we often cannot pronounce too daunting to tackle? Barron recounted that he once met an eight-year-old child who had memorized every subplot and character in the Stars Wars saga. Our children are capable of learning the timeless stories of Scripture.
5. Stress the Augustinian Anthropology
As Augustine famously stated: “Our heart is restless until it rests in You.” We all have been wired for God. There is nothing in this world that satisfies. “Secularism is soul destroying,” Barron said. It tells us that “we can find satisfaction in the goods of the world; it denies this hunger that can’t be met by anything in this world.” When we fall for the lie of secularism, “we hook the desire for God onto wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. We spend our lives hopping around those altars.” The destruction of our souls is a life and death matter. We need to stand up against this idolatry and “speak the language of the true God,” tell the world that only God can satisfy our deepest desires.
6. God Does Not Need UsGod’s love is perfect. St. Irenaeus—the 2nd century bishop of Lyon in today’s France—understood God to have loved the world into being. He can only relate in a loving way to the world. Unlike the destruction wrought by the ancient gods, our God is not a rival, nor does he want something out of us. Barron explained with the story of Moses who sees a bush that is on fire but not consumed. “When the true God comes close to us, we are set on fire, not crushed or incinerated. God’s love is perfectly selfless,” said Barron. He wants us to be “fully alive.” It is unfortunate that atheists are unaware of this deeply liberating view of God.
7. Use the new media
Before using new media, Catholic evangelists should have knowledge of the old media, namely books. “Stay with the old media so you have something to say,” he said. But once you have an intellectual foundation, figure out how to use these new tools. Barron shared several stories of how young people came across his website (and later came into the Church) through a random Google search. One young lady googled Charlie Sheen which brought her to Martin Sheen and then Fulton Sheen and then Barron’s website and then eventually into the Church. Kids become atheists today because they come across a great deal of secular content online, but usually very little Christian content.
Barron concluded his talk with John Paul II’s observation that “the new evangelization is really the old evangelization.” Throughout history, the Church preaches Christ. However, for us to evangelize in today’s world, our approach “has to be new in expression and method.” In other words, we are telling the same truths, but in different ways.