Half a century ago, Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s weekly television series Life Is Worth Living (and later The Fulton Sheen Program) commanded an audience of millions of Americans of all stripes. Sheen was “America’s Priest,” and since then there has been no comparable figure in American culture — and there may never be again.
That said, Father Robert Barron, a priest of the Chicago archdiocese and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary, is making inroads into mainstream media in a way not seen since Sheen. On Sunday, October 3, Chicago-based superstation WGN America launched a weekly half-hour television series, “Word on Fire with Father Robert Barron” — the first regular commercial television show hosted by a priest since Sheen. Then there’s Catholicism, an ambitious ten-episode series, episodes of which are now airing on PBS affiliate in over 85 markets across the country.
Inspired by Kenneth Clark’s groundbreaking 1969 BBC series “Civilisation,” which ushered in a generation of globe-hopping documentaries, Fr. Barron and his crew employ a worldwide backdrop that includes the Holy Land, Europe, Africa, India, the Philippines — at least 50 locations in 15 countries. Unabashedly a work of advocacy, even evangelization, Catholicism offers a confident, upbeat overview of the scope of 2000 years of Catholic history, belief, thought and practice.
Much of this is the common heritage of all Christians, and Fr. Barron’s approach is catholic as well as Catholic, name-checking C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright alongside Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. Evangelicals will feel very much at home for the first few episodes as Fr. Barron expounds upon the disorienting, challenging uniqueness of Jesus, the revolutionary power of his teachings, and the fathomless mystery of God. Other episodes, particularly those dealing with the Virgin Mary and the Eucharist, will challenge non-Catholic sensibilities, but Fr. Barron’s emphasis on Scripture and reason establishes a broad common ground, and open-minded Evangelicals will appreciate his presentation even when they disagree.
Fr. Barron makes an engaging, appealing spokesman for Christianity and Catholicism, and his method is consistently positive and nonpolemical. He discusses topics like Aquinas’s ways of proving God and Catholic Marian spirituality without going out of his way to oppose challenges like “God is a delusion” or “Catholics worship Mary.” The settings are more than window dressing; Fr. Barron goes to Auschwitz to discuss the problem of evil, and magnificent locations including Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the tomb of Mother Teresa help to bring the Faith alive to the senses and the imagination.
Check television listings at the “Catholicism” series website and/or check local PBS listings. “Catholicism” is also available as a five-disc DVD set with or without study program aids and a companion book.
Here is the trailer for Catholicism: