To Light a Fire on the Earth

by Robert Barron and John L Allen Jr, image books, 272pp, £20

The seasoned Catholic journalist and commentator John Allen spent 20 hours interviewing Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron in 2016 and 2017. This book is the result.

For those who have not yet encountered Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire website and internet ministry, Allen provides a thorough, well-researched introduction. In it he compares Barron to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who brought the faith to millions of American homes in the 1950s and 1960s, suggesting that Barron makes the faith “not only plausible but more convincing, more humane and ultimately more loving than its cultural despisers”.

Given Barron’s popularity and influence in the US, it is worth assessing Allen’s portrait of this modern master broadcaster. Barron grew up in the post-Vatican II era, during the Church’s “deep commitment to social justice”. He discovered Shakespeare and Aquinas in his teens, and chose to study in Paris after his ordination in Chicago in 1986. He was influenced by Cardinal Lustiger, commenting: “He exuded a wonderful, confident, spiritual Catholicism … This was someone who had suffered.”

Recognising, like others who observed the sorry mess of post-Vatican II catechesis, that neither lapsed Catholics nor those outside the Church had ever been exposed to the reasonableness and coherence of the faith, Barron, encouraged by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, made it his mission to start a new form of evangelisation, showing how “smart and beautiful” Catholicism really is (“smart” being an American word for “worthy of intellectual respect”).

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