Though already the leader of Word on Fire Ministries in Chicago and rector of nearby Mundelein Seminary, Father Barron has recently been asked by Pope Francis to take on the new challenge of becoming an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. Though it came as an “an enormous surprise,” Barron has accepted “with a humble and joyful heart.”

While he is widely known as a “social media star” and “technologically savvy priest,” Father Barron is also a highly trained Catholic scholar and theologian, with a Masters degree in Philosophy and a doctorate in Sacred theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris. A wordsmith of the English language, he is also fluent in French, Spanish, German and Latin. His homilies, columns, books and YouTube commentaries are hugely popular and demonstrate a gift for making the most complex religious issues vivid and engaging, and in particular for bringing out the splendor and beauty of the Church’s tradition. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his masterful ten-part documentary, Catholicism, which premiered on public television in 2011.

In an era in which the Church can easily be seen as merely a finger-wagging institution concerned with culture war issues, Father Barron has sought to fill in the gaps—he takes a “back to basics approach” toward evangelization. As he told a recent interviewer:

What most people know of the Catholic Church are the moral positions, especially on sexual issues, and the trouble with that is, it gives you an extremely narrow take on what it means to be a Catholic Christian. . . .One of our problems is, we just launch the moral teachings without the proper context and background. So, the establishment of the context and background has been a large part of the work I’ve tried to do.

This is analogous to what Pope Francs said in his famous—but much misunderstood —interview with La Civilta cattolica:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. . . .When we speak about these issues, we need to talk about them in context. The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. . . .The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow. {Emphasis added}

None of which means, as some have suggested, that either Francis or Father Barron want the Church to fall silent on the burning moral issues of our time. Anyone who has read Francis’s powerful statements against abortion, euthanasia, contraception and same-sex marriage, or his vigorous defense of religious liberty, knows that they are every bit as powerful as his declarations on social justice and the environment. As for Father Barron, he has never shied away from criticizing wayward politicians, destructive Supreme Court decisions, harmful gender ideology, or the horrors of Planned Parenthood. Both are joyful evangelizers; neither are cultural appeasers.

As for his view of engaging with the popular culture, which he will continue to do through his Word on Fire commentaries, now from Los Angeles, Father Barron’s words at a Los Angeles press conference sum it up well:

One thing I’ve tried to do in my evangelical work is to reach out to TV and to movies and to popular culture, and try to find what the Church Fathers called seeds of worth, the signs and echoes of the faith that you see in pop culture, and to point those out, so as to lead more positively.

Father Barron has said that he hopes to gain a large audience with his “affirmative orthodoxy”—especially in heavily secularized Los Angeles. The key to succeeding—and the great challenge—will be to reveal the substance and richness of the faith and to put it in dialogue with popular culture without “compromising the message.” Let us keep him in our prayers, and learn from his example.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.

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