IN the midst of this global pandemic, Bishop Robert Barron says: “Turn this time of waiting into an evangelical opportunity…”
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Zenit, the Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, made this suggestion, as he reflected on various ways faithful can reconnect spiritually during this dramatic time.
In the interview, the American reflects on the situation in California and the United States, and how–despite the death and suffering caused by COVID19 worldwide, and the restrictions imposed as a result–to live our faith fully, and how to stay holy despite difficulties.
He reflects on important gestures of the Pope in this time, and how virtual resources can help us during this time, but are not a replacement, as Pope Francis stressed recently.
“I think this time has re-awakened the Eucharistic hunger in a lot of Catholics,” he says.
In addition to giving fellow priests some brotherly council Bishop Barron also responds frankly to questions about how to not let this time pass in vain, offering concrete spiritual advice. He also shares what he has been up to lately, and offers his thoughts, following his own experience and time in Paris, on the recent anniversary this month of the devastating fire that struck the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
Question: What is the situation of the faithful in California, which was among the first states to declare a ‘State of Emergency,’ and in the United States as a whole?
Answer: I think the faithful in California have been remarkably co-operative with the instruction to shelter in place. They have appreciated the importance of this ordinance. At the same time, they’re getting antsy, especially in regard to the Mass and the Eucharist. I think this time has re-awakened the Eucharistic hunger in a lot of Catholics. They have come to appreciate the “source and summit of the Christian life” in a new way, now that they have been compelled to fast from it.
Question: Among much polarisation among Catholics about the most appropriate, Catholic and prudent way (in order to prevent contagion) to live the faith, what–in concrete terms–do you believe is the right way to bridge the gap, if you will, and achieve the delicate balance of safety and living our faith fully? And what do you say to those who say that certain restrictions are infringing upon religious freedom?
Answer: I don’t agree with those that say these restrictions are attacks on religious liberty. As someone who was involved in making the decision here in the Los Angeles archdiocese, I can honestly say that it was done out of concern for our people. There was no caving in to the demands of the secular state. There are indeed some real church-state conflicts, for example the attempt last year of the California legislature to violate the seal of confession, but this is not one of them. The Church has rather massively responded to the crisis by providing Mass, instruction, and inspiration online. To give just one instance, my own Word on Fire ministry has been doing daily Mass online for the past month, and we’ve had around five million visitors from over one hundred countries around the world. I also applaud the way some dioceses have provided blessings and Blessed Sacrament adoration in ways that preserve social distancing.
Question: On Friday morning, April 17, Pope Francis during his daily morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta warned that this is not the ‘real’ Church, everything virtual, what does he mean?
Answer: He’s right, of course. None of the virtual offerings that we’ve put forward are a substitute for the Mass or the sacraments. We are a stubbornly incarnational church, and we know that the body, touch, gesture, communal togetherness all matter enormously. And actually, receiving the body and blood of Jesus is infinitely greater than watching Mass on a screen. These things are fine during the interim. We just shouldn’t get used to them.
Question: To fellow priests, how is it feasible to courageously go to the sick when so many fellow clerics now have died from COVID 19?
Answer: I am profoundly moved by so many of my brother priests who have, quite literally, given their lives to serve their people in this crisis. They did what so many of the saints have done in similar circumstances. I would urge all priests to reach out to their suffering parishioners, but always using whatever means of protection they can. Pastoral zeal does not involve recklessness or imprudence.
Question: What has struck you about how Pope Francis has been responding to the crisis?
Answer: I honestly think that, in a hundred years, what people might remember most about Pope Francis is that extraordinary blessing that he gave, on a rainy night, in an empty St. Peter’s Square. His words, his presence, his presentation of the Blessed Sacrament were just mesmerizing. I thought that that evening summed up many of the great themes of his Papacy.
Question: Before Easter, there was a sense of anticipation; now, even if the Easter Season has really only begun, there seems to be somewhat of a letdown, with little giving much of a bright light at the end of the tunnel. What recommendation do you give to prevent this negativity?
Answer: Well, I do think there are positive signs. The curve seems to be flattening in many parts of our country, and the politicians and medical professionals are beginning to talk about ways to get things back to normal. I think people should be patient for a while longer. One suggestion I would make is this: turn this time of waiting into an evangelical opportunity. In anticipation of the day when we can all come back to Mass, find someone who has been away from Church for a while and bring him or her back. Make this your evangelical project during this interim.
Question: In order to not let this time, pass in vain, what ought we be doing? And what should we take with us from this period, afterward?
Answer: I’ve thought a lot these days about Blaise Pascal’s line to the effect that all of humanity’s problems are caused by man’s inability to sit quietly in a room by himself. What he meant is that most of us spend most of our time diverting ourselves from the great questions of life, death, meaning, and God. We seek distractions, what Pascal called “divertissements.” When we have the opportunity to put away our distractions—and the shutdown has forced this upon many of us—we can then entertain the more serious issues.
That’s why I’ve encouraged people during this time to read the Bible, slowly and prayerfully. I’ve urged them to pick up one of the spiritual classics that they’ve never found the time to read: Augustine’s Confessions, Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul, Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. I’ve also reminded them that it might be time to take up Fulton Sheen’s recommendation and do a daily Holy Hour. Perhaps you can’t do this in front of the Blessed Sacrament, but you could spend the hour praying the rosary, doing the Jesus Prayer, or practicing Lectio Divina.
Question: Please reiterate, Bishop Barron, to those reading your resources which they can tune into, appreciate or use.
Answer: Well, just go on Wordonfire.org and you’ll find a plethora of materials, from YouTube commentaries, to podcasts, to sermons, to the daily Mass, to the entire archive of my articles, all offered free. And if you are so moved, you can join the Word on Fire Institute and get access to specialised courses in theology, spirituality, culture, and practical evangelism—as well as all of my films, books, and other materials.
Question: Are you working on any new books or projects? Are there any new ways you have been spending your time?
Answer: Like so many others, I have found this period more than a little discombobulating, but one silver lining for me has been the opportunity to return to some writing projects, including a book on the Nicene Creed that I had commenced many months ago but on which I was making only slow progress, due to my many pastoral and administrative responsibilities. I have managed to write a good bit of this text the last several weeks. I’m composing it at a fairly high academic level, since, as you know, I think that dumbed-down Catholicism has been a pastoral disaster and has contributed mightily to producing an army of the disaffiliated among the young. I’m trying to lay out the fundamentals of Christian faith, knowing full well that what many, many people receive today is a deeply inadequate version of Christianity. It was my friend, Fr Paul Murray, the great Dominican spiritual writer based at the Angelicum in Rome, who first proposed the idea of this book to me.
Question: You studied in Paris, a few days ago marked the one-year anniversary of the devastating fire. What progress has been made there? What do you think must be done or identified?
Answer: The Notre Dame fire broke my heart, for that great Cathedral meant so much to me when I was a student in Paris. As I type these words, I can see, just above my computer screen, a lovely print of Notre Dame that I bought at a little shop along the Seine many years ago. In terms of the practicalities of the repair/renovation process, I just don’t know. I realise that the scaffolding, which was hugely affected by the fire, has proved to be a block to progress. But I can only pray that they find a way forward—and please God, restore the building as much as they can to the way it was. I was rather alarmed by some of the modernist designs that had been submitted.