More than six months have passed since Father Robert Barron assumed his new role as rector and president of the University of St. Mary the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. The institution is the major seminary and school of theology for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Barron is well known for his Word on Fire evangelization ministry and his popular DVD series “Catholicism.” While he continues to work with Word on Fire, he has jumped wholeheartedly into his new role. Since Barron has taught at the seminary for many years he had plenty of ideas going into his new job and recently sat down with editor Joyce Duriga to talk about them.
Catholic New World: Now that you’ve been in your new role six months, have you made any new plans for University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary?
Father Robert Barron: Right from the very get go I specified the new evangelization as the focus for the seminary. If you look at the last two popes it’s very clear that that’s what they want.
The seminary is filled with John Paul II people — and now Benedict XVI people — who’ve been really brought into deeper involvement with the church under the inspiration of those two figures and so the new evangelization is key for them.
Given my own work the last several years in dialogue with the culture, I’ve learned a lot about contemporary secularism and what’s blocking people so I’ve told the students that they need to have missionary hearts. They are going out into mission territory. Even if you are going to a parish in downtown Chicago or the middle of the Chicago suburbs, it’s mission territory.
Take all of those statistics that bother everybody — that only 25 or 26 percent of Catholics go to Mass on Sundays, the rise of the “nones,” those who have no religious affiliation. I’ve said the Fathers of Vatican II wanted to revive the Mass, make the Mass more appealing and draw more people to it, and I think there would be a great disappointment if they knew that in 50 years we would be in the situation we are in.
It’s not to be depressing about it but to be realistic that young priests today are entering mission territory. You have to go out with that new evangelization spirit. I’ve made that very much the focus for the whole program — academic and formation.
CNW: How does that change things day to day?
Barron: One thing I’ve encouraged is a greater stress on apologetics in every major area — systematics, Bible, church history, morals.
I can clearly tell you from my work in the last five or six years the major blocks for people and the faith. So, for example, as you layout systematic theology for people and you teach the great tradition, also be aware that for many people God is a huge problem. What are the objections and how would you engage that apologetically?
It’s the same with the Bible. I can run through the top of my head 25 reasons why people think the Bible is a deeply objectionable document. When teaching that we have to be aware of the apologetics side. Look at ethics and the church’s moral teaching. It’s the same thing. So you lay it out when you are teaching a course and you look at what’s blocking people.
Then the last one is church history. It’s the same thing. The history of the church — from the Crusades to the Inquisition and now the sex-abuse scandal — there are just all kinds of reasons that people are blocked.
The biggest institutional shift we’ve made since I’ve been rector is to move from a quarter system to a semester system. It will kick in next year.
For the past about 40 years we’ve been on a quarter system. You have a fall, winter, spring and summer quarter. Quarters are 10 weeks long and it’s a short period. The advantage of it is that you get more courses in. The disadvantage that I’ve felt very strongly about for a long time is that it’s a very pressure-cooker environment. You’ve got 10 weeks to cover, let’s say the doctrine of God, which I taught the last many years.
With the semester system we will have two 15-week semesters. My hope is that it gives us a more contemplative feel, that it reduces the pressure-cooker quality, but to this other point, it gives professors a chance, not only to teach, but to encourage the students to become effective evangelists.
One thing I’m going to do when I go back to teaching the doctrine of God next year is to bring into it things from my internet ministry. I want to tell the students: Here are real-live people and here are their real objections to God. Engage them. Argue with them. Let’s have maybe a debate scenario.
One thing I’m very pleased about is Father Ed Oakes is doing a course this quarter in apologetics and he’s laying out the history of apologetics and all of that but then he’s having the students debate and their final project will be to produce a YouTube video on some topic.
Dr. Melanie Barret teaches moral theology. After she lays out the material, she has the students write what she calls bulletin articles. Not an academic paper but as if you were writing for a bulletin to explain some aspect of the church’s moral teaching. I like that approach and I’m trying to bring that more into the academics of it.
CNW: What are the major challenges facing seminaries in the U.S. today?
Barron: This is the first generation coming to the seminary who came of age during the sex-abuse scandals. A lot of the guys that I interviewed last summer would be in their early 20s, their mid 20s. So in 2002 the scandal really hit. Ten years ago these guys were 12 or so.
I asked them, “What was that like for you to be feeling a sense of religious vocation at a time when everybody’s against it or suspicious of it?” It was interesting to get their answers.
Many of them would say “I just felt that it was this call to me and it really didn’t matter so much what everyone else felt. I felt this call from God.” And some of them said that they were really eager to be part of the solution, that they grew up in a troubled church when the priesthood was under a shadow and they were interested in becoming part of that solution.
In my first rector’s address back in September I talked about the story of Eli and his sons. Eli was kind of an ambiguous figure. His two wicked sons are priests but they are abusing the people. People complain but nothing happened and then disaster befalls Israel.
I said, “Does any of this story strike you as interesting?” We’ve been living that story the last 10 years. But I asked them what’s the point of that story. It doesn’t end with Eli and his sons. It ends with Hannah praying for a son and then Samuel is born to her. Samuel becomes this great prophet who anoints King David and the story goes on.
I said to them, “I’m looking out at a room, I hope, full of Samuels, people that have been called forth to renew the new Israel, the church.”
I think we do have some biblical resources for understanding what is going on and so situate these guys — not to sound too grandiose — kind of within the sweep of salvation history.