When defining Catholicism, many first turn to its unique practices and characters--the Mass, the sacraments, Mary, priests, and the Pope. Others point to its intellectual traits--its distinctive apologetics, theology, and philosophy.
In his new book, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith(Image, hardcover, 304 pages), Fr. Robert Barron explores these typical characteristics but doesn't stop there. He looks through many more lenses to reveal the core of Catholicism.
Barron is not just concerned with what's good and true about the Catholic tradition but also what's beautiful. The Catholic faith is not just a matter of the mind and the soul but of the body and the senses. Therefore if we want to fully understand "the Catholic thing", we need to gaze on art, history, culture, music, literature, and architecture:
"In order to grasp (Catholicism) more fully, we have to read the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, The Divine Comedyof Dante, Saint John of the Cross' Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Story of a Soul of Therese of Lisieux, among many other texts. But we also have to look and listen.
We must consult the Cathedral of Chartres, the Sainte-Chapelle, the Arena Chapel, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Grunewald's Crucifixion in the Isenheim Altarpiece, the soaring melodies of Gregorian chant, the Masses of Mozart, and the motets of Palestrina."
In his Catholicism
book, as well as in his epic ten-part film series
with the same name, that's exactly what Barron does. Over the last five years he's traveled to more than fifty locations from Rome to Jerusalem to India to Poland to highlight the Catholic tradition in all of its splendor, richness, texture, and genius. The film series will debut in October on PBS stations across the country, but the Catholicism
book will be available in September.
To be blunt, this is simply the best book on Catholicism I've ever read. And I've read a lot of them. Without hyperbole, I can say that this will now be the first book I'll recommend to anyone exploring the Catholic faith.
Barron is a systematic theologian at heart and his Catholicism book reflects that. It presents a complete tapestry of God and his Church. The book touches upon every facet of Catholicism--Jesus, the apostles, Mary, the Church, the saints, prayer, the sacraments, and more.
The content in the book aligns very closely with the scripts from the film series. In fact the book devotes one chapter to each episode in the series. But since "the medium is the message", the book communicates Barron's content differently than the documentary does.
For instance, one of the most complex chapters concerns the existence and character of God. It's titled "That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought", an allusion to St. Anselm's famous ontological argument. In the film series, Barron's dense philosophical arguments can be tough to track. Moving fast they can fade behind the stunning visuals. But the text in the book makes it easy to read slowly and grasp each concept before moving on (it also lets you flip back if you want a refresher.)
On the other hand, having seen large chunks of the film series,the book can't compete with the film's astonishing images and music. The book does include more than one hundred black-and-white photos along with an eight-page color insert. But in the film, Barron's words are illumined as you see the very places, culture, and artwork he is speaking about.
When he explains the Incarnation, for example, he doesn't just present his image of a strange baby King who thwarts the violent Roman Empire--he stands at the site of the Nativity. He doesn't just describe the vibrant celebration of the Ugandan martyrs--he takes you to Africa so you can see the tribal excitement for yourself. So while the book makes it easier to digest the more complex material, it does lack the visual and audible flair of the film series.
Those familiar with Fr. Barron's other materials will quickly recognize his favorite themes in this book. For instance, the "loop of grace" and the non-violent, non-competitive nature of God are seen throughout. And his chapter on the saints, one of the book's most exhilarating, recalls material from The Priority of Christ.
In this chapter he profiles four holy women--a not so subtle reply to those who accuse the Church of being anti-feminist. Therese of Lisieux, Katherine Drexel, Edith Stein, and Mother Teresa exemplify what Barron calls "elevated virtue" and they let us taste the wildly diverse community of saints.
Barron also applies his characteristic intelligence and artistry to the peculiar teachings of Jesus, the missionary zeal of Peter and Paul, the central importance of Mary, the riches of Catholic spirituality, and even death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
Catholicism closes with a grand crescendo, climbing and trumpeting toward one of the most stirring conclusions I've ever read. The whole book flows similarly to Dante's Divine Comedy. When you finish Catholicism, just like finishing Dante's Paradiso, your soul is left soaring.
Ultimately, Catholicism stands as Barron's magnum opus, the culmination of his life's work so far. Which means it's the best work from one of the world's best theologians, a monumental gift to the Church. RCIA programs across the country should adopt the book as a foundational text, and through Word on Fire's own study program, parishes should use the film series and book to reignite the passion of their flock.
One reviewer described the book and film series as "the most vivid catechism ever created." And I think he's right. This will go down as the greatest catechetical tool of our generation, the premier, single-volume book on Catholicism.
In a culture hungry for truth, Catholicism offers answers. To people searching for goodness, it provides the path toward sainthood. In a world desperate for beauty, this book ravishes.
If you're a Catholic, get this book and discover the radiance of your faith.
If you're not a Catholic, get this book and glimpse the Church's splendor, maybe for the first time.
If you know a young person, an RCIA candidate, or a fallen away Catholic burned out by religion, let this book spark new wonder.
Whoever you are, and for whoever you know, buy this book. I simply can't give it a higher recommendation.