October 12, 2011: The Chicago Tribune's Manya Brachear reports on Father Barron's epic documentary project about the Catholic Church, CATHOLICISM.
The Rev. Robert Barron opens his documentary "Catholicism" with words one might expect to hear from a skeptic or scholar, not from a Roman Catholic priest. He calls Jesus a strange and dangerous historical figure and alludes to his potentially divisive nature.
After all, you're either with him or against him, right?
"I wanted to get people's attention and draw their attention to the fact that Jesus is a very distinctive and disturbing figure because of the claims he makes about himself and the claims the church makes about him," said Barron, 51. "He's not just another bland spiritual teacher among many."
The decision by so many PBS stations across the country to air what amounts to a piece of evangelism comes as a surprise to Barron, who conceived the project to tell the church's "true story," a narrative he and other church leaders believe has been hijacked by the American media in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal.
"Today, the Catholic story is being told … by the wrong people in the wrong way," Barron said.
Dan Soles, chief television content officer for WTTW, acknowledges the documentary is an evangelical tool. But it holds its own next to many other historical documentaries aired on public television in recent years, including last year's two-hour broadcast about the Buddha.
"Catholicism" offers an effective model for religious traditions to tell their story, Soles said. Think Ken Burns in a priest's collar.
"It's modeled after the old 'Civilization' series (Kenneth Clark's 1969 BBC television series). You could see that sensibility throughout," Soles said. "There's certainly a point of view in the film in the perspective of Father Barron. But it's also a history and a real understanding of who Catholics are and what they believe."
Filming and editing for the project spanned three years — time granted by Barron's boss,Cardinal Francis George. Barron serves as the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.
George said he gave Barron the freedom to make the film so Americans could hear what "Catholics say about themselves" and counter the media's portrayal.
"If you can't walk in someone else's shoes, you can't judge them very well," George said. "This is a walk through Catholicism from the viewpoint of faith."
With the help of executive producer Mike Leonard, a veteran correspondent for NBC's"Today" show and parishioner at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Winnetka, the documentary offers an enticing high-definition travelogue through 15 countries where Catholicism has thrived.
The first episode airing Thursday takes viewers to key locations in Israel where Jesus and the church were born. Filmmakers also trekked to India to meet Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, and Uganda, where the church has experienced explosive growth.
Just as Burns peppers his documentaries with historical photographs and footage, Barron draws from the bounty of religious iconography produced throughout the centuries. Four of the 10 episodes will air on WTTW, including the life of Jesus, the Catholic vision of God as the Trinity, the missionary movement that began with Peter and Paul, and the reverence of Mary. The remaining six episodes will air on EWTN Global Catholic Network starting in November.
Barron said he wants the documentary to be a balm for Catholics who are going through a dark time and a draw for lapsed Catholics who have drifted away from the church. While "Catholicism" does touch on the various scandals and controversies that have plagued the church during the last 2,000 years, it also explores the theology, art, architecture, saints and what Barron believes is the uncompromised holiness of the church.
"I hope this is shot in the arm that reinvigorates Catholics' sense of faith," he said. "I want the beauty of the church to come through."
In essence, viewers watch Barron's own unexpected spiritual journey. Though he was aware that the film would be a form of pilgrimage, he didn't fathom just how much it would move him.
Though he has studied in Paris, taught in Rome and served as a priest for 25 years, he had never traveled to the Holy Land.
"The vivid sense of the concrete reality of Jesus is something that you know, but when you're there in his country and you see what he saw and you're at the place where the psalms were sung, it roots you in the facticity of Jesus," he said. "The more international manifestations of the faith fills out another half of your soul. I have a Western soul. You see another side of the church, and it fills out another dimension of your soul."
See a live interview with the Rev. Robert Barron on Chicago Live! at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 20, at the Chicago Theatre and listen again at 11 p.m. Oct. 22 on WGN Radio. For tickets to and more information about Chicago Live! go to chicagolive.com.
Read the Chicago Tribune article here.