Published November 9, 2016
George Weigel's weekly column The Catholic Difference
Looking for some uplift after this tawdry election cycle? Some inspiration for tackling what lies ahead? A good way to enrich Advent? Examples of sanctity to help you be the missionary disciple you were baptized to be? Then let me recommend Bishop Robert Barron’s new DVD series, Catholicism: The Pivotal Players.
Pivotal Players is a follow-up to Bishop Barron’s immensely successful ten-part mega-series, Catholicism, the most compelling presentation of the symphony of Catholic truth ever created for modern media. Key figures in Catholic history appeared throughout the original series to illustrate this truth of the faith or that facet of the Catholic experience. Now, with Pivotal Players, six of the most striking personalities in Catholic history take center stage, the adventure of their lives serving to deepen our understanding of the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
The six are Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, and Michelangelo Buonarroti: the reformer, the mystic, the theologian, the convert, the evangelist, and the artist. Two are doctors of the Church—and a third may be one day. Several of them inspired successors of St. Peter; another told a pope off in no uncertain terms. Two were Englishmen and converts from Anglicanism: one will-o-the-wisp slight, the other gargantuan; one the quintessential Oxford don, the other the quintessential Anglo-eccentric genius. One grew up a wannabe knight-errant before his abrupt turn to radical evangelicalism. Still another was arguably the greatest genius in human history, his extraordinary talents ranging across sculpture, painting, architecture, poetry, and other fields. Four were Italians (if you’ll permit the anachronism for an Umbrian, a Sienese, a sort-of Neapolitan, and a devout Florentine). Each of them was the human analogue to what astrophysicists call a “singularity,” someone to whom the old rules of spiritual gravitation didn’t apply.
And they shared something else in common besides the passionate intensity of their Catholic faith: Each lived at a time of crisis for the Church, and each helped the Church to address that crisis creatively while remaining true to itself.
Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena lived at times when institutional Catholicism had become complacent, losing its evangelical edge. By creating something utterly new in Catholic life—the mendicant religious order dedicated to evangelization—Francis inspired in the Church a new Gospel radicalism centered on the joyful experience of salvation. By persuading (perhaps better, shaming) Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from his political exile in Avignon, Catherine of Siena made it possible for the papacy to be again the center of unity for the entire Catholic world, as Christ intended it to be.
Thomas Aquinas, for his part, grafted the “new learning” of Aristotle onto Catholic theology in a creative synthesis that gave the Church conceptual tools that remain powerful today. In doing so, he helped create what we know in the West as higher education, even as he showed the Church how to incorporate the best of the “modernity” of his time into its intellectual and spiritual life without losing touch with the truths it had long possessed as a bequest from the Lord.
Michelangelo lived during that moment of sometimes-brash human assertiveness we call the Renaissance; his theologically-driven art (which Bishop Barron explains in perhaps the most scintillating part of Pivotal Players) enriched the classically inspired humanism of his day by marrying it to the biblical account of the human person.
Newman and Chesterton, closer to our moment, were key figures in crafting a Catholic response to the scientific revolution and the other dramatic changes that were reshaping how we think about things—and imagine our place in the scheme of things—during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That each of them did so in wonderfully winsome prose helped demonstrate the continuing vitality of the Catholic mind and spirit in an increasingly skeptical age, even as they bequeathed to the twenty-first-century Church models of apologetics that remain cogent at a time like ours, when skepticism has often hardened into cynicism, or just plain boredom.
There are important things to be learned from each of these God-touched human personalities for the challenges Catholicism faces in the postmodern world of the twenty-first century. Kudos to Bishop Barron for bringing those things to our attention in a gripping way.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.