Priest Wants to Bring Catholics Back to Mass

By John P. Kelly
Oak Leaves [Illinois]
February 22, 2006

Sundays, for the vast majority of Chicagoland Roman Catholics, are spent anywhere but in a church.

It's not a new trend. Only about one in five of the 2.3 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago -- and that number is down 5 percent since 1990 -- attend Mass.

Rev. Robert Barron has been asked to change this.

Cardinal Francis George approached the 46-year-old theology professor at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein last November and said he wanted Barron to "jump-start evangelization."

In the country's third largest Catholic archdiocese that's no small chore, especially as the church's image in the Chicago area has been further marred by new accusations of sexually abusive priests.

Tonight, after weeks of planning, Barron will give the first of six "revival talks" designed to both fire up the faith of inactive Catholics and inspire church regulars to do more local missionary work.

The talks, which Barron will deliver at parishes in Cook and Lake counties, are one part of Mission 2006, the archdiocese's plan to spur evangelization and fill the pews at its 372 parishes.

The theme of tonight's talk is "What's missing in your life?"

By focusing on people's thirst for satisfaction -- a favorite theme of evangelist Billy Graham -- Barron hopes to awaken a sense of spiritual longing among church truants.

Barron said anger at the church's moral teachings, and spiritual laziness are two reasons Catholics have fallen away.

"And some people have been influenced by the popular culture that says I can be spiritual without being religious," Barron said in a recent interview at the cardinal's residence in Chicago, where he has been staying to focus on the project.

To ensure he isn't just preaching to the choir, Barron is visiting each parish on his tour a week in advance to encourage congregants to invite nonpracticing Catholics.

"Catholics have had the attitude, 'They'll come to us,'" Barron said. "I think we have to go get them more proactively."

Barron's later talks will center on the importance of the Eucharist, making Christ the center of your life and evangelism's tie to Jesus' crucifixion.

The final talk will be Palm Sunday at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago.

It is not surprising Cardinal George chose Barron for this mission.

Ordained in 1986, Barron has a reputation for strong evangelical preaching and delivering complex sermons in clear language.

Barron has written seven books, including "Bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative, Evangelical Catholic."

He regularly broadcasts on the Catholic AM radio station Relevant Radio, 820 AM in Chicago and 930 AM in the western suburbs, and runs, a site dedicated to evangelism.

Barron holds a master's degree is philosophy from the Catholic University of America and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris.

Barron's mission to revitalize the faith among fringe Catholics is perhaps more pressing in the wake of new sexual abuse allegations last month against Chicago priest Daniel McCormack.

Colleen Dolan, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Barron's talks would provide needed spiritual reassurance.

"I have to wonder sometimes if God doesn't work in strange ways," she said. "Now, when we need this healing process, we have all these things in place already."

Though Barron is apt to use baseball, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger to make his point, he knows being gimmicky won't fill seats.

In the end, the church's weekly offerings -- the liturgy and the Eucharist -- are central to Catholicism and unavailable to those spending their Sundays elsewhere.

"Catholics, because of the way our theology is structured, can't say 'I'm OK with God, but I'm not OK with the church,'" Barron said.

John Kelly may be reached at


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