It has been seven years since the release of then Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism, which I reviewed at the time, calling the DVD series “the most vivid catechism ever created.”
In the time between then and now, Robert Barron has gone from being rector of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago to the episcopacy as auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. But he has continued the Word on Fire apostolate that has brought him much-deserved acclaim.
His new video production, The Mass, is considerably less visually vivid than Catholicism because it lacks the sweep of worldwide location shooting that made that earlier series truly “a Journey into the Heart of the Faith.”
The Mass is a long lecture filmed in one day last October at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Santa Barbara, California. Bishop Barron stands at a lectern and holds forth, and he does so brilliantly. There are six segments of about twenty-five minutes each, meaning the bishop spoke for at least 2-1/2 hours that day. If he stopped at several points to take sips of water, those moments ended up on the cutting-room floor.
I assume the Special Edition package of The Mass, which is what I’m reviewing here, was designed to be purchased by churches and shown to study groups, given that it retails for $59.95. It includes two DVDs of the lecture at Our Lady of Sorrows plus a disc devoted solely to Holy Communion and one titled Heroic Priesthood.
This fourth disc adds little value to the package. There is only the hint of heroism in what amounts to a vocations recruitment video, the larger part of which is scenes of Mundelein seminarians playing basketball. Or are we to believe that priests, even in training, are always heroic? That’s a little hard to accept these days, given ongoing news about sex abuse.
The third disc is actually an earlier (2015) Word on Fire production, Eucharist: Sacred Meal, Sacrifice, Real Presence. More about this below.
The Mass is not without its visual and artistic flourishes, but no Word on Fire production is likely ever to equal the scope of Catholicism, with exteriors shot in Galilee and Rome, Lourdes and Auschwitz, Darjeeling and Manhattan, and . . . the world over. As I wrote in my review of that epic series, Catholicism “evokes Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (1969) and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973)” – all three series justly admired for both intellectual clarity and visual excitement.
The Mass has little of that visual excitement (excepting some very nice aerial views of Our Lady of Sorrows and its surrounding neighborhood – great architecture in a perfect setting). But it does have Barron’s clarity and some great art presented using the “parallax” technique, in which elements of a particular painting are set in motion against an otherwise static background, giving the impression almost of 3D.
So, how does Bishop Barron discuss the Mass? Not exactly in the way Msgr. Ronald Knox did in The Mass in Slow Motion, although it’s a similar approach: soup-to-nuts, from the Processional to the Dismissal, although with digressions about the meaning of priestly gestures, the origins of words used (a real lesson in Greek), and the role of the laity as a priestly people.
It’s remarkable the way Bishop Barron can take intellectually challenging material – history, theology, etymology – and express complexities in such a way as to make them accessible to everybody in his audience. I say this because throughout the film cameras rove among the rapt faces in the pews and it’s clear the bishop is getting through. This despite the fact that at no point is any topic “dumbed down.”
The bishop’s view is clearly orthodox. Without leveling sarcasm at non-standard practices in the celebration of the Mass, there’s no doubt in my mind that, no matter what he may tolerate, his view of how the Mass should proceed is Thomistic and probably owes much to John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy may well be in the background, as when Bishop Barron notes that the priest is in persona Christi and says the Mass without inserting himself, personally, into it. That’s as it should be. But I was lying in bed watching The Mass on my laptop, listening to it through earphones so as not to disturb my sleeping wife, when Bishop Barron said that as Mass begins the priest at the altar does not begin by saying, “Hey everybody, how’re you doing?” I all but shouted, “Sometimes he does, Your Grace!” It took Mrs. Miner a while to get back to sleep.
The Mass, the bishop explains (in the words of the Vatican II), is a privileged encounter with a great mystery: the source and summit of Catholic life, and several times in the lecture he laments the fact that so many Catholics no longer bother to come to Mass. What’s missing in his presentation – to my mind – is any comment about the way, in practice, the beauty of the Mass has been spoiled by post-Vatican II abuses: he says nothing about the abandonment of Latin or such innovations as “liturgical dance.” He masterfully explains what a homily should be but fails to note how lousy most sermons are. There’s plenty to lament in that too.
In The Mass and in the other disc, Eucharist, the lectures reach their own source and summit in Barron’s discussion of the Real Presence. His citations of Biblical sources for the doctrine (especially in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6: 22-59) are beautifully explained and make clear what it is those lapsed Catholics are missing
Near the end of Eucharist, he tells the story of St. Thomas Aquinas, who – having completed writing his own explanation of the Real Presence – hears the voice of the Lord Himself praising the work. And Jesus asks what reward Thomas now seeks. And Thomas says, Non nisi te. “None but you.”
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.