Dr. Mark Nowakowski sat down with Fr. Robert Barron, Rector of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago and founder of Word on Fire Ministries, for this exclusive 1P5 interview. They discuss the image of Christ, masculine spirituality, true beauty, and the nascent artistic renaissance in the Church.
MN: Thank you, Father, for meeting with me today.
FRB: It’s my pleasure.
MN: I have a series of questions about your work. In your “Catholicism” series, you give what I think is a beautiful description of the counter-cultural – the dangerous – Christ. Is this new series, Christ: Priest, Prophet, King building on this, or what compelled you to go in this direction at this point in time?
FRB: First I’ll stick with you observation, as I think that’s right. My fear is the domesticated Christ, which my generation got after the Council, and which the modern world is happy with. You know, Christ who is defanged, who is a bland spiritual teacher… a teacher of “timeless truths.” That [last part] is fine and true, but it’s domesticated. The Gospels rather present this ferocious figure, meaning “The New Lord.” He’s Jesus Kyrios, “Jesus the Lord,” which means that He has supplanted all the other Lords. His cross and resurrection is something that demands a complete conversion on our part. If He’s the King, then my entire life has to change. I wanted to recover that edgy, challenging, and deeply Biblical Jesus.
The new series Priest, Prophet, King is certainly in that line, but I’m trying to deepen and broaden these things by looking at these three great archetypes which come roaring up out of the Old Testament, and that are used by the NT authors and the Great Tradition. If Christ is King as He reigns from the cross wearing a crown of thorns, then he is a dangerous figure, and your life is going to be really different following that King. The other two archetypes come up out of the great Biblical tradition and have their own texture, and depth…so I wanted to continue in that Christological vein with this, and just fill out the picture of Jesus, so that He doesn’t become this postmodern stereotype of an easily domesticated teacher.
MN: So moving in that direction, a subject that we’ve been dealing with lately is masculinity in Christianity. I know a lot of men who might consider taking the plunge into the faith… they feel compelled, but there is something about the structure that seems to turn them off. If you’re allowed to dig deeper into their motivations, you [often] find that they feel they’re dealing with an emasculated Church. This is what I grew up with, certainly, through twelve years of Catholic schooling…here was the effeminate Christ, the “defanged” Christ as you put it, Jesus Christ Superstar, the neo-hippie. Coming of age, it didn’t seem attractive. I recently had a conversation with a priest where we decided that what we rejected [when we rejected faith for a time] wasn’t necessarily and authentic picture of that faith.
By contrast, one of my favorite images of Christ is that very “mean” looking Byzantine mosaic of Jesus at the back of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He is focused, He has a physique, He looks like the mighty risen Lord. And so I wonder if you might speak to men who are struggling with this, and struggling with embracing an authentic vision of the Lord. What can we do at the parish level as well, or liturgically for that matter?
FRB: Right. Well, I deal with that issue a lot here, as I’m rector of a seminary, and we have 210 young men who are discerning priesthood, and to make the priesthood attractive to men is a big priority of mine. Men like “mission,” it seems to me. I came of age, too, after the Council, where I think there was a much more effeminate approach. I don’t want to be too “either/or” about it, because women follow Christ, too, and I want them to feel that they have a place in the Church as well. I don’t want to turn into a macho guy, or put down women…women have a distinctive role, and there is a distinctive female spirituality…but I think that men – as you were suggesting – we’re subjected to too much of a feminized spirituality that doesn’t appeal. Sitting in circles and sharing feelings is not what men like to do. What men like to do is receive a mission. And make it hard. Make it challenging. Give me something difficult to do.
You see, “mission” is central to Christianity. Nobody in the Bible is ever given an experience of God without being sent on a mission. To go back through Moses, Abraham, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Peter, James, John, and Paul: all of them are given a mission. Go! Do something! It’s always hard, and often will demand your whole life. That appeals to men, it seems to me. And I think in the spirituality for men, you want to put stress there.
God has a mission for you, and it’s hard. It’s the mission of love. You see, “love” is not a sentimental term. Love means giving your life for the sake of the other. It means “I exist for you, not for me.” And I find that with young men, the harder you make the mission, the more appealing it is to them. So don’t water down the Priesthood – I say here – or lower its demands…heighten them, if anything. Make it more difficult. Celibacy is a good example of this. There are many dimensions to celibacy, but one of them is “mission”, or “freedom for mission.” I’m going to eschew marriage and children and family, because I’ve got this job that God has given me to do. So it’s not a feminized thing, but a hyper-masculine thing. Think of the great celibate saints who were able to give their whole lives to God because of that commitment.
So I agree with you, and feel strongly about that. We’ll attract young men, the more difficult we make Christianity, not when we water it down or make it easy. The great model is John Paul II, who was a very masculine figure, a sportsman, a man’s man… but look how deeply appealing he made Christianity all over the world!
MN: So speaking of the image of Christ, I’m actually in the middle of your book [easyazon_link asin=”0824517539″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”onep073-20″]And Now I See[/easyazon_link]. You spend a lot of time talking about the “Imago Dei.”
MN: As a composer, I’m interested in cultivating a Catholic approach to beauty, or maybe a Catholic re-awakening to beauty, a re-assessment of that portion of our heritage that seems to have been swept under the carpet, and using that – as St. Thomas Aquinas said – to “stand on the shoulders of giants and see farther,” but in a fiercely Christological way, in a way that’s ours. To that end, there is a quote that you have in your book where you say: “There is in all of us an eye and taste for the beautiful, the wonder that orients us to the open sea of the beautiful itself.” You seem to be doing something akin to associating beauty with the person of God. Can you speak to how this approach to beauty can aid your average Catholic in their spiritual life? Or why this is not just something that artists do, but something that is practical to all Catholics?
FRB: Absolutely. The three transcendentals – the Good, the True, and the Beautiful – the Good and True have a tough time today, because we’re so relativistic: “Don’t tell me what to do, don’t tell me what to think,” so the good and the true are problematic. Which is why I think this is the age of the Beautiful, as the Beautiful is less threatening. “Just look at this, just listen to this…just watch this movie,” or whatever it may be. And you draw people in that way, as the Beautiful – as I suggested in that little quote which is based on Plato, James Joyce, and Thomas Aquinas – will lead you to God if you follow it all the way, because the beautiful object opens you to the source of beauty, and it’s the eye for beauty which is part of the Imago Dei in us.
The Church, traditionally, has associated itself with the Beautiful. So we haven’t done the Protestant thing, which is more of iconoclasm. We’ve always resisted iconoclasm. We like the Beautiful, we like imagery. It’s grounded for us in the Incarnation: I mean, God chose an icon of Himself, namely the humanity of Jesus, by which He showed himself to the world. So all of Christian art is based in that, and I think today that it’s a privileged path. I don’t know if you saw in Pope Francis’s Exortatio about the evangelization: He said that “today we need to follow the via pulchritudinis,” the way of beauty, which is right along the lines of my own instincts.
For people in the pews: that’s why we build beautiful churches. And the sad thing in my time – you know, growing up in the 70’s and 80’s – we built a lot of ugly churches I think. We built a lot of churches that muted the beautiful in favor of “the community” or whatever you want to call it. That was a disaster in my judgment. I think that churches that are beautiful still sing to people the way Chartres Cathedral did in the Middle Ages, but a beautiful parish church in Chicago shaped the consciousness of all kinds of people.
When you enter the churches without the Beautiful – beautiful art, beautiful music, beautiful architecture – the soul gets damaged. So I think that this is a way forward, and you’re right: there is a revival going on. I hope our chapel here is part of that…because I want, for the next 100 years, seminarians kneeling in that chapel to be shaped by the beauty of these works of art and by the figures they represent. So I take that very seriously.
MN: So in this kind of Catholic aesthetic renaissance that I’m asking you about, there seem to be a lot of young artists who have drawn inspiration from John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists.” But I also remember how shocked I was to first read when Cardinal Ratzinger equated martyrdom with artistic creation as the two wings of the Church’s witness to the world. It’s something that many artists suspect, but when I saw that written I was almost initially taken aback by the strength of such a statement. We’ve started talking about this, how now workaday Catholics in local parishes may not have taken that step, to go in that direction of the Via Pulchritudinis. How can lay Catholics encourage their parishes, their local Catholic “bubbles,” to move in this direction? There’s issues of taste, issues of funding, issues of not wanting to ruffle established feathers. How can we do this, finding a connection first back to our heritage, but then moving forward in an authentic direction?
FRB: I do think that the new generation of priests, since the John Paul II period, are much more sympathetic with this vision. We went through a time of iconoclasm after that council that was regrettable, but the new generation – say priests 50 and under – would be very sympathetic with it. So that’s the leadership issue. The funny thing – you’re right – beautiful things cost money, they always have, and they always will. And if you’re not committed to that [beauty], then it won’t happen. Look, I have to do that here: part of the budget has to be “look, we’re going to work on creating beautiful places.” So parishioners, encourage your pastor. [Tell him] “we want this, and we think we can spend money on this.” Though the leadership I think is key, and that’s shifted around, thank God: I think the young priests are much more attuned to the beautiful.
So, parishioners, ask your pastors: “Let’s build beautiful churches, lets renovate them properly.” And I think as you suggest that there is a renaissance going on. I think of Duncan Stroik at Notre Dame, or our own Dennis McNamara, who I’m going to see shortly after I see you, who is an architectural historian, who has been very active in helping bishops and pastors think about Church architecture. There is a renaissance going on, and there is much greater openness to it, and that will benefit the people of God.
MN: This reminds me a bit of a dinner conversation between my wife and I, when I asked her “what should I ask Fr. Baron about?” She enthusiastically replied: “Ask him about the culture of the ugly!” Because, you know, if Christ is Beauty Himself, I can’t help but notice that in our society there happens to be this increasing desensitization to the ugly. There are things that have come up in just the past few weeks – which I’ll decline to mention to avoid giving them press – but you think to yourself: “ten years ago, twenty years ago, that image would have sent some people to the hospital.” And yet here it is, and it doesn’t seem that people take it seriously any longer…they even find these things amusing, or cheap entertainment, and unbeknownst to many there is an accompanying flattening of the aesthetic sense, which I think makes it much more difficult to even begin an evangelization by beauty. How is this, if you agree and by your pastoral estimation, affecting Christians? How is this perhaps affecting their ability to follow an authentic picture of Christ?
FRB: I think that you’re right about that. I think that the coarsening of popular taste is spiritually problematic. If the beautiful is a route of access to God, then the ugly is going to be a block to God…it’s like an ugly moral act, or a false statement. So when the true, the good, or the beautiful is violated, you’re blocking a way to God.
There’s been a lot of things in the post-modern context that will marginalize beauty in favor of self-expression. So what matters there is not the objective form of what you’re making, but rather that you’re expressing yourself. That’s been a disaster. Often what you express is something that’s twisted, or out of sorts, unformed and so on. When you say: “no, my life as an artist is about the beautiful form, which is discernible in nature, and I want to imitate it, and reproduce it not just in a slavish way but rather re-present it in a way so as to ultimately bring people to God,” then your whole life changes. It’s no longer about just expressing my interiority: art is about conforming myself to objective norms.
I think that you’re right, that there is a coarsening that is born of this subjective expressivism, and that’s not helped us in any way. For instance, if you walk in to a church and say to yourself: “my purpose is to express myself in the art of this church building,” you’ll create something ugly. And that’s happened, over and over again. So I think that’s right. Jacques Maritain – I don’t know if you’ve read his writings in [easyazon_link asin=”1599868474″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”onep073-20″]Art and Scholasticism[/easyazon_link], which is a classic book and important for people to read – that it’s [art] a lifestyle. The artist is a bit like the mystic or ascetic or the saint, the artist has to conform himself to certain normativities. When he does that, he’ll become a vehicle for God, ultimately. So I think that’s hugely important. But it goes back to those deep, deep questions about the nature of art, the nature of the beautiful…and the Church ought to be cultivating and encouraging Maritain’s sort of vision. And it’s not just his, but it’s Aquinas, and beyond Aquinas it’s the long tradition.
So I think that to recover this is one of the central issues of our day.
MN: Wonderful. Thank you Father, so very much, for taking the time to speak with me and share your thoughts with the readers of 1P5.
FRB: Thank you!
In the aftermath of speaking with the highly affable Fr. Barron, I had an opportunity to visit the new St. John Paul II chapel before its dedication the following day. True to Fr. Barron’s promise, it is a beautifully wrought chapel which exudes a masculine spirituality, while harkening back to the comfort of older forms. This is certainly a case of not only putting your money where your mouth is, but doing so with impeccable (and Catholic) taste.
As to Father’s newest DVD series, Priest, Prophet, King, it continues the mix of strong information and tasteful aesthetic presentation which has made the previous Word on Fire films so effective. Father gives a series of talks on the Christological archetypes of Priest, Prophet, and King as seen in the Old Testament, mixing more familiar information with those fascinating facts you’d hope to get from a great theologian. Filmed before a large crowd in the main chapel at Mundelein seminary, the setting gives these presentations the particularly infectious energy often present in a live event as opposed to a staged shoot. There is a great deal of material for deep reflection in these talks, while it is edited together with perhaps the nicest shots ever taken of the always lovely Mundelein Seminary campus. For fans of Barron’s commentaries as well as those seeking serious meditations on our Lord Jesus Christ, this is a must-own.
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Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a scholar and composer whose music has been performed internationally and released on the Gramophone-praised Naxos Records album, “Blood, Forgotten.” His writings on Catholicism, music, aesthetics, and music technology appear in numerous publications regularly, while he also maintains an active schedule as a composer and professor of music. A proud native of Chicago, he currently lives with his wife and three children in Ohio.