SANTA BARBARA, California – Part of the charm of Catholicism is that it’s full of quirks that belie its image, one of which is that despite its reputation for top-down systems of command and control, its mid-level managers are almost never told why they were chosen, or, for that matter, what they’re supposed to do.
Here’s how the appointment of a bishop typically works.
A priest is minding his own business somewhere when his cell phone or private line rings, and it’s the apostolic nuncio, meaning the pope’s ambassador in the country, on the other end of the line. (It’s often mysterious how the nuncio gets those numbers, but probably when the pope’s man wants someone’s digits, it’s a “no questions asked” situation.)
The nuncio informs the cleric that the Holy Father has appointed him to a particular post, perhaps offers some boilerplate words of encouragement, and then asks if he accepts. Once he says “yes,” the conversation is generally over – no explanation, no directions, nothing.
That, certainly, was the experience of Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, who will mark the one-year anniversary of his ordination on Sept. 8.
Barron was the rector of Chicago’s Mundelein seminary a year ago, relaxing on the couch in his room on a lazy Sunday afternoon watching golf on TV, when his private line rang and he heard the voice of Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, at the time still the nuncio to the United States. (Viganò was later replaced by French Archbishop Christoph Pierre.)
Barron told me this week that the call informing him of his appointment lasted maybe a minute – and the only reason it took that long, he said, was because Barron, born and bred in Chicago, thought perhaps Viganò was confused, mixing L.A. up with the Windy City, so he interrupted to be sure.
(Barron’s perplexity was understandable, since about 95 percent of the time, when a priest is named an auxiliary bishop it’s in the diocese where he’s already serving. That was the case, for instance, with the other two new auxiliaries named along with Barron. In fact, Viganò did indeed mean Los Angeles, telling Barron, “We’re sending you a long way from home.”)
When the moment came when he was asked if he accepted, Barron said he flashed back on conversations he’d had over the years with the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, with whom Barron lived for a while and who acted as a sort of mentor. George, he said, always told him that he didn’t like it when someone turned down a bishop’s appointment – rather than finding it humble, he said, George always regarded it as “cowardly and disloyal.”
Bottom line, Barron took the job.
By last July, Barron was already one of the best-known Catholic priests in America, a sought-after speaker and media commentator best known for his 10-part video series “Catholicism,” which aired on virtually every public television station in America beginning in 2011. He’s an accomplished theologian in addition to his pop culture savvy, the kind of guy who can veer back and forth from talking baseball and Bob Dylan to Friedrich Schleiermacher and “scholastic neo-Aristotelianism” without missing a beat.
As a result, he probably could have figured out for himself what he was supposed to do, but as it turns out someone filled the gap for him – his new boss, Archbishop José Gómez, the Mexican-born prelate of the sprawling Los Angeles archdiocese.
Gómez named Barron to head the Santa Barbara pastoral region, and after he arrived he told Barron he’d drive him out to Ventura to meet the priests who acted as deans of the region. In the car on the way back, Barron recalls, he asked Gómez, “What do you want me to do?”
Barron says Gómez pondered the question for a while, and then gave a response that, for those who know Gómez, is vintage in its directness and clarity:
“Be present to the people,” Barron says Gómez told him, “give them hope, and teach them doctrine.”
“I remember saying to him, ‘Good. I got that’,” Barron recalled. “‘I can do that’.”
In terms of the presence part, Barron said he’s tried to implement it by adopting what one might call the Woody Allen rule – 80 percent of success is showing up.
“I make sure I get out of this house,” he said. “During the school year when things are really busy, from September to June, I visited someplace basically every day. I was at schools, hospitals, parishes, and deanery meetings.”
“I did 38 confirmations. I felt very strongly about that. I wanted not only to get to know my region but to be personally present, so people could see me,” he said. “I’m big on the bishop as a symbol.”
Typical for Barron, that’s not just a gut instinct but the product of a carefully-thought-out chain of reasoning.
“I go back to Johann Adam Möhler,” he said, referring to a 19th century German Catholic theologian whose writings were influential for the generation that shaped the Second Vatican Council (1962-65.)
(Barron is so intoxicated with theology and the life of the mind that he always seems slightly surprised when someone doesn’t immediately recognize one of his references, like a baseball fan who can’t believe anyone doesn’t know who Ron Guidry or Ernie Banks was. When I asked “Who?” after he cited Möhler, he launched into a passionate footnote about how he was a “Schleiermacherian” who later changed course.)
“Möhler said that you need to have a single person who symbolizes the unity of the faith in a given area. The parish needs a pastor, because without a pastor they don’t know who they are. The region, in this case, needs a bishop to know who they are. I represent the apostolic faith, I represent the archbishop, I represent the Church, and I take that really seriously, just my physical presence,” Barron said.
He said that policy of showing up has opened his eyes, helping him see Santa Barbara beyond the good life stereotypes.
“I’ve discovered a lot of economic inequity, a lot of poverty,” he said. “The gang violence really surprised me. You know about Southcentral and east L.A., but out here I didn’t realize. I’ve also discovered the degree of homelessness here.”
Gómez’s injunction to give hope, he said, was obviously set against the backdrop of the sexual abuse scandals that have been such a cancer for the church in Los Angeles. In 2007 the archdiocese reached a settlement with 508 abuse victims of $660 million, a record-breaking amount.
How’s he going about it?
“I think by being joyful and reminding people that there’s more to the Church than the sex abuse scandal,” he said.
“The Church is an ancient community going back to Jesus himself, and bearing the hope of the Cross and Resurrection. I try to get that across with a joyful, confident presence … and a smile goes a long way.”
“I hope people see in me a joyfulness in being Catholic, that there’s more to it than the scandals we’ve been through, without for a second denying them or how terrible they were,” he said.
As for doctrine, Barron said that was already right up his alley.
“I’m a teacher by nature, and I’ve taught doctrine for years,” he said.
“I remember doing a homily for Holy Thursday down at the Ventura Mission. It was great … we had a Eucharistic procession through the streets, and it’s a beautiful place. I gave a rip-snorting homily on transubstantiation, without using the word, but I talked about the real presence. I did it in a doctrinal way.”
Barron said that doctrinal emphasis resonated with his own sense of what the Church today needs.
“I do think there’s been drift on that side, not just in L.A. but across the board. We’ve been so strong on the experiential that we’ve undermined the doctrinal,” he said. “I’ve tried to teach and preach here in a more doctrinally conscious way. Who is God? Who are we? What’s the Cross? What is sin? What’s redemption and eternal life? What’s the Eucharist, what’s the Mass?”
“I always think when I get someplace that I want to teach while I’m there,” he said.
When news of the Barron appointment broke a year ago, many assumed that perhaps the “media bishop” was being sent out to evangelize Hollywood. Barron said no one has ever told him that’s part of the gig, but he’s taken it upon himself to try anyway.
“We’re trying to look at things like retreats and days of reflection for people in the industry … screenwriters, producers, actors, all of the above.” He said. “I think the quieter, more behind-the-scenes direct evangelization of those involved in that world is a better path.”
Finally, Barron rejected speculation that another logic for the move was that he was too “conservative” for Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, and thus that this was a case of what Romans would call promoveatur ut amoveatur – “to promote in order to remove.”
“I worked very well with Cupich,” Barron said. “When he arrived in Chicago, I was rector of the seminary. He never said a word to me about anything he thought was out of line. There was a very difficult situation, I had to make a tough call, and Cupich was right with me all the way. There was even a lot of flak afterwards, and he was right in my camp.”
Barron pointed out that Cupich also has supported his decision to relocate his “Word on Fire” media ministry to Santa Barbara, including allowing his longtime aide, a Chicago priest named Father Stephen Grunow, to be on loan in L.A. to help lead the team.
Moreover, Barron said, he “barely knew” Gomez before the appointment was made.
“If there was some ideological confluence, nobody ever told me about it,” he said. “I exchanged a handful of words with him. I can’t imagine there was some grand scheme, at least not that I know of.”
In general, Barron said he really doesn’t like the whole liberal/conservative dichotomy anyway. As always, he’s got a more nuanced way of putting things.
“I would talk about a relatively anthropocentric approach versus a relatively theocentric approach, a relatively correlational method versus a relatively revelation-heavy method, a thin description of Christianity versus a thick description,” he said, suggesting he’s on the second end of each of those contrasts.
“I’m not an either/or guy with those distinctions,” he said. “I kind of take a major key/minor key approach,” suggesting the second elements should always be in the major key.
After Vatican II, he said, “the trouble is that the minor key became the major, and that caused mischief. It produced what I’ve called ‘beige Catholicism,'” meaning a sort of watered-down, ‘hyper-experiential’ approach to the faith.
“I lived through Catholic liberalism, I took it in, and I get it, but I think it ran out of steam to some degree and it needed to be revived,” he said.
“I want to get you into my world of Catholicism, because I think it’s great,” he said. “It’s like baseball. I don’t want you to be just a ‘sports’ person, I want you to be a baseball player. When we’re talking about God, salvation, and redemption, then man, even more do I want you in my world!”