CHICAGO — Inspired by Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC television series Civilization, Father Robert Barron always dreamed of doing something similar to showcase the beauty of the Catholic Church.
More than two years and 12 trips to 16 different countries later, the result is an ambitious 10-part documentary series called Catholicism. Parts of the unprecedented documentary will start to air nationwide on PBS at the end of September through the fall. (Hear him talk about the series today, Sept. 9, at 2pm Eastern on “Register Radio.”)
“This is the most important media project in the history of the Catholic Church in America,” said papal biographer George Weigel. “Catholicism could well become one of the most significant efforts ever to advance what Pope John Paul II called the New Evangelization.”
Beginning Sept. 22, four of the 60-minute episodes will air on PBS in the Maryland market, with later airings on PBS in Chicago and elsewhere beginning Oct. 13; the show will air on EWTN in November.
Utilizing high-definition cinematography, the documentary explores the beauty and the truth of the Catholic faith by journeying with Father Barron to more than 50 locations to illuminate the spiritual and artistic treasures of the Church. Father Barron uses art, architecture, literature, music and all the riches of the Catholic tradition to explain what Catholics believe.
Among the episodes, the series explores a variety of topics: Christ, the mystery of God, Mary, Peter and Paul, the Church, liturgy, the communion of saints, prayer and “The Last Things.” Viewers are brought to the Holy Land, Uganda, Italy, France, Poland and Spain, as well as the streets of Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, Calcutta and New York City.
Yet, unlike a typical documentary, occasionally Catholicism breaks from the narrative as Mike Leonard, the show’s executive producer, asks Father Barron compelling questions.
“Mike was the voice of the skeptic. As I did the stand-up commentary, Mike was always listening, and he would begin questioning,” explained Father Barron. “We taped tons of these and used a handful in the episodes. They’re informal moments that break up the solemnity of the series.”
Said Leonard, “As I was behind the camera, questions would pop into my mind, and we thought perhaps the viewer might have those same questions, as well.
“Most of my knee-jerk objections, that I sort of hung my negative thoughts on, were explained within seconds. The faith is clear and simple and true.”
A companion 300-page book published by Doubleday and a study guide/workbook have also been released to allow faith-formation groups, parishes and RCIA groups to utilize the series as a teaching tool.
“My generation [he was ordained in 1986] was the last one that came to the [Catholic] institutions (schools) and was evangelized there by priests and nuns,” said Father Barron. “People aren’t coming to our institutions in the same way. We have to go get them.”
Father Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, holds the Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill. His Word on Fire Ministries has been making full use of the new media to evangelize the culture. Many follow his blog, have watched his popular YouTube commentaries and movie reviews, heard him on the radio or watched him on local Chicago television.
To produce the series, Father Barron assembled a team of professionals, some of whom have spent decades working in television production. Executive producer Leonard works as a correspondent with The Today Show. Nancy Ross, another former television professional, headed up the fundraising, finding donors willing to put up the $250,000 necessary to shoot, produce and edit each episode.
“I hope it will reach those who are in the Church, fallen-away Catholics and the wider culture,” said Father Barron. “I want it to reach inside and outside the Church.”
If his nine-member crew is any indication, the series will be successful. They spoke of the series’ transformative power in their own faith lives.
“I had no idea of the richness and texture and variety in the Catholic Church,” said cinematographer John Cummings, a Lutheran. “I was overwhelmed by the art and architecture, icons and statues. It’s such a visual religion.”
Both Leonard and Ross described themselves as “cruise-control Catholics” prior to the series. They said that they just kind of went along, not knowing a lot about their Catholic faith.
But this series powerfully affected their faith.
Leonard said that his most profound moment during the production was in Lourdes.
“I went there with a predisposition that this was where Catholicism goes off the tracks,” explained Leonard. “There was a lot of commerce going on, and I didn’t see anyone rising from their wheelchairs or their beds.”
Yet, as Leonard watched the procession of sick and dying people being pushed by their caregivers, he saw something he didn’t expect.
“I realized it wasn’t physical healing that was taking place, but healing of the soul,” he said. “It wasn’t about jumping out of a wheelchair, but about care and compassion. That was the most earth-shaking moment for me.”
“I had used Lourdes to think skeptically of Catholicism, and although I saw no actual physical healings, when I was there I saw with a different kind of vision — and what I saw was one of the most spiritually beautiful things about Catholicism. That really rocked my boat.”
Leonard has noticed another change. He has found himself coming to the defense of the Church.
“Say a friend in the coffee shop might make a joke about the Church. In the past, I would listen and move on, but now I find myself coming to the defense of the Church, where I would never do that before,” said Leonard. “Now, I’ll try to explain something I learned, and I can see that it sits in their brains as well.”
Ross said her work on this series “awakened a faith that had been dormant in me. I’ve learned more about my faith and prayed more in the past four years than I have my whole life.”
Ross added that even the series’ music composer, Steve Mullen, who described himself as an atheist prior to working on the series, now says he’s an atheist with agnostic tendencies and admits that he’s seeking.
All of those involved in the project said that they were touched by the depth of the Catholic faith displayed in other parts of the world, particularly in Africa and South America.
“You see it on rich display in so many other parts of the world,” said Ross. “The feast of the Ugandan martyrs brought me to tears. To see that kind of extreme devotion and the love that the African people have for each other was completely unexpected. You hope that you can bring a little bit of that here to our communities and churches.”
“It’s a critical time for the Church,” said Ross. “I hope that it will awaken a passion for the faith and a love of God, especially in America, where the faith has gone to sleep.”
Said Cummings, the cinematographer, “I hope that many Catholics who haven’t been in the Church for a long time will take a look at the series and see what they’re missing.”
Register senior writer Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.