The last decade has been a horrendous one for our Church. Scandals have lead to more people leaving the Church, so that now 10 percent of Americans claim to be ex-Catholics. Others have become "cruise-control Catholics" taking their morality from the current fashions of our secular culture.
It is against this background that an extraordinary trumpet burst through the clouds. "Catholicism" is a new 10-part DVD series conceived and narrated by Father Robert Barron, now rector of Chicago's Mundelein Seminary. While he has the physical stature of an NFL linebacker, Father Barron gently addresses complex issues with candor, clarity and passion.
We watched the first episode four times before we could let it go. It traces the steps of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land nearly a year ago. Father Barron begins at the beginning, following the footsteps of Christ and the Apostles, but then takes us to 50 locations in 15 countries. Along the way, he opens up the Church's rich patrimony of science and art with visits to the Vatican Observatory outside Tucson, Ariz. to Glacier National Park, Mont. and to Santa Sabina in Rome.
It was not until watching several episodes of "Catholicism" that we put together as one entity the religious reference to "Catholic" with its small "c" catholic meaning of universal. With breathtaking cinematography (thanks to its producer, Providence College grad, Mike Leonard), the series shows us the varied and global reality that is our very universal Church.
The 10 presentations highlight our legacy of religious art and reflect how different cultures at different times portrayed the face and life of Christ. They take us, too, to the great cathedrals, such as St. Peter's in Rome, St Chapelle in Paris, and St. Patrick's in New York, and to holy shrines and sites, such as Lourdes and Fatima. When flower pedals float from a towering cathedral ceiling, we are enveloped again in Catholic splendor. But "Catholicism" is no mere travelogue of the Church's glories. All of this inspiring art, music, science and architecture are in the service of the series' central mission: explaining what being a modern Catholic all is about.
At its bare bones, the series is about the Church's doctrine. Father Barron is a gifted explainer. Moreover, he is fearless, addressing with head-on directness modernism, the secular world's message and its critique of our religion. He digs into the essential questions of Christ's claim to be God, the mission of the Church in the world, Christ's teaching on happiness and the meaning behind familiar, but not well understood, phrases such as "the communion of saints."
Father Barron avoids overly-simplistic stereotypes and trite spiritual cliches, making the words of the Catechism come alive. He is neither "progressive" nor "conservative." Rather, he speaks respectfully to us as an audience ranging from true believers to agnostics, but all as seekers of truth. And while his love for the Church is evident throughout, he avoids cocksureness and triumphalism. Father Barron is never too steeped in theology not to be aware of the mystery of the burning bush, Sinai, or the wonders of space.
The one-hour presentations are laced with the lives of our saints. Among them are the spiritual journeys of Sts. Peter, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, and Augustine. But there is much on the lives of more modern figures, such as St. Edith Stein, Blessed Mother Teresa and Blessed John Paul II. Particularly illustrative of two strains of American Catholicism are the detailed commentaries and footage of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.
Whether we Catholics like it or not, we are part of a media-taught generation. We like to be entertained as much as the next person. The quality and power of modern media dramatically grips us. Many popular series such as Ken Burns' "Civil War," the incomparable "Brideshead Revisited" and PBS's recent "Downton Abbey" regularly captured our attention. In our view, for sheer beauty and intellectual power, "Catholicism" leaves them in the dust.
Father Barron founded Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, a global, non-profit media organization as a means of evangelization. We urge that this series, some of which has already appeared on PBS and EWTN, should be part of the instructional program in every Catholic junior high through university. It should have a place in every parish's youth and adult education program. Further, that this five disc set should have its rightful place beside the Bible in every Catholic home.
For years Catholics have been urged to "bring Christ back to Christmas." Now with "Catholicism," we have the perfect Christmas gift...for your sons and daughters, your parents, for your school and your parish. But enough from us. See for yourself.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.