April 22, 2017 (Atchison, Kansas)–Bishop Robert Barron was honored Saturday with the Lumen Vitae award from the monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey of Atchison, Kansas. Barron, an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire ministry, accepted the honor at the Kansas monks’ annual Abbot’s Table fundraising event held this year at the Sheraton Crown Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
“We’ve got to get in the front lines, I mean all of us,” Barron said in his acceptance speech to the more than 840 attendees. “We’re all missionary disciples.”
Promising not to give an overly academic “dry martini” speech, Barron focused on two points in his twenty-minute talk. The first was “to pay tribute to Benedictines and what they meant to me.”
Barron told the story of how Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain had greatly influenced him as a teenager, and how his many retreats at Benedictine monasteries had deeply nourished his spiritual life, especially with their beautiful chanting. “It was always the Benedictines that called me back…The Benedictines kept singing to me.”
He accepted the Lumen Vitae award “very much in the spirit of gratitude to this great abbey of St. Benedict’s, but also all the Benedictine communities and houses that have really touched me and shaped me.”
Barron’s second point was evangelization and how to go about it, “a lifelong preoccupation of mine.”
Barron recounted how, during a conversation with a fellow priest in the late 1990s, the call to engage the culture first came to him. “We Catholics are behind the curve when it comes to the media,” he complained to his friend. His confrere’s response? “Well, what are you doing about it?”
From there started his 5:15AM Sunday morning sermon program on WGN radio in Chicago. “I discovered a lot of truckers listen to the radio,” Barron quipped.
“Why we need this work,” Barron continued, is more urgent than ever. In the most recent Pew Forum study, he noted, 25% of Americans identify as “nones,” those having no religion. That’s way up from 3% in the 1970s, Barron said.
“Among the young it’s worse,” Barron went on; “40% claim to have no religion. That’s the future,” he warned, reminding the audience that assuming most people you meet have some form of religion is no longer a tenable position.
“Now what this is, everybody, or ought to be, is a major-league wake-up call.”
To that end, Bishop Barron emphasized two “evangelically compelling” approaches: “The beauty of Catholicism, and the smartness, the truth, of Catholicism.”
Starting with what people think or how people behave tends to get their defenses up, Barron noted. But “when you start with the beautiful, it’s more winsome; it awakens less defensiveness among people.”
If you ask people simply to look at beautiful works of art like the Sistine Chapel, or read great literature like Dante’s Divine Comedy, “beauty works its way into the soul; it changes you, doesn’t it?…We evangelize through the beauty of our tradition.”
The second approach, said Barron, is “the revival of our intellectual tradition…Catholicism is a smart religion, and we should revel in that, not underplay it.”
We should avoid a superficial, “banners and balloons Catholicism…that’s been a pastoral disaster.”
Along with the beauty of its chant, “the Benedictine movement, precisely by preserving the great literature of the ancient world…re-civilized Europe.”
Barron then focused on the urgent need to show how faith and reason go hand in hand.
“Anyone in this room involved in the sciences…can I urge all of you to get in the front lines of this fight?”
He urged scientists to hang a poster of Georges Lemaître, the Catholic priest who discovered the Big Bang, in their classrooms.
“Our high school kids [are] reading Hamlet in English class, they’re doing Einstein in science, and they’re reading Virgil in Latin class, and then we often give them comic books for religion. Why do we so underestimate what our kids are capable of? You see, then, are we surprised that they say you can’t be religious and smart?”
Bishop Barron concluded by encouraging everyone to see the Benedictine tradition “as inspiration for our own missionary discipleship.”