Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron
I read this book as a result of two happy accidents. First, I was channel surfing and watched about 15 minutes of the documentary series of the same name narrated by Father Barron on ETWN. To emphasize the good fortune of that find, I should point out I am at best an occasional viewer of ETWN (no offense to regular viewers—it’s a fine ministry). Since I had a prior commitment, I was forced to turn off the TV before finishing the episode. Still, it was fascinating to watch, and I left thinking a series this good may have a companion book that goes with it. So I remembered the title and went on with my day. A few days later, I found myself in a bookstore with time to kill. This usually means I will end up buying something. I started thumbing through some used book selections thinking, I wonder if I can find a book about the TV documentary; and seconds later, I found a paperback version of this book, which on close inspection was exactly what I had hoped to find. Grace or good fortune? Take your pick. Either way I was thrilled.
Like my brief encounter with the documentary, Barron’s book did not disappoint. Following a lead from the back cover, I have since become familiar with Father Barron’s international media ministry called Word on Fire, which includes videos, podcasts, and blogs. His work reflects an extensive scholarly education, a deep appreciation of the Catholic Church’s rich tradition as a source of guidance and faith, and a love of good story-telling that can be enhanced by modern media technology. So what you get in reading Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith is a recasting of essential beliefs that draws on wonderful and fresh stories from scripture, catechism, and tradition in equal parts. In addition, you also get a collection of pictures of church art, architecture, and destinations which contribute to a multi-media, international experience in the mere pages of a book. It is a journey that inspires a sense of awe. For these reasons, I think it would be equally appealing to knowledgeable Catholics who enjoy a renewed appreciation for the faith and to the new and the curious as way to understand what it means to be Catholic, if he or she is a fairly sophisticated reader.
At 279 pages, the book covers a lot of ground. To give a taste of its contents, let me provide in detail an anecdote that I found particularly compelling, in part because it was unfamiliar to me. It is a story about Thomas Aquinas that Barron tells in a study of the two liturgies of the mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In his discussion of the latter, he tells a story about Aquinas to illustrate the incredible significance of the doctrine of the real presence and the idea of transubstantiation.
One of the most articulate defenders of the real presence was Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas loved the Eucharist. He celebrated Mass every morning, and immediately after his own Mass he would concelebrate at another. It is said that he rarely got through the Liturgy without weeping copious tears, so strongly did he identify with the Eucharistic mystery. It has also been reported that when he was struggling with a particularly thorny intellectual difficulty, he would go to the tabernacle, resting his head on it and begging for inspiration. Toward the end of his relatively short life…, Aquinas composed… a treatise on the Eucharist. When he had finished this remarkably thorough and complex text, he was still unconvinced that he had done justice to this great sacrament. Therefore he laid his treatise at the foot of the crucifix in the Dominican chapel in Naples and he prayed. A voice came from the cross: “Bene scripsisti de me, Thoma” (You have written well of me, Thomas), and then, “What would you have as a reward?” Aquinas said simply, “Nil nisi te” (nothing except you).
Until reading this story, I had viewed Thomas Aquinas as a rather dry, dusty road on my Catholic journey which I tried to travel down a couple of times and quickly turned around in a sense of bewilderment. But this anecdote shows a saint whose absolute faith is moving and inspirational, and whose scholarship is truly a gift from the Lord. The work of Thomas Aquinas is back on my life-long reading list.
Hopefully, this example provides a decent sense of Barron’s skill as a story-teller and guide to the faith. Each chapter teems with an abundance of such gems like the Aquinas story. Therefore, I highly recommend this book and a visit to the Word on Fire website. They are both enlightening and entertaining. Furthermore, the TV documentary series, Catholicism, joins Thomas Aquinas on my Catholic bucket list. Fortunately, the series can be purchased at wordonfire.org and some previews and excerpts are on Youtube also. Good news for the curious and those who are not avid readers.