Media-savvy bishop-designate gets appointment in Los Angeles

J.D. Long-Garcia | The Tidings/Catholic News Servi

WASHINGTON -- In an era in which Catholics are pretty much an afterthought on television, the sight of any cleric on the small screen almost immediately evokes thoughts of "the next Bishop Sheen" -- the 1950s prime-time inspirational program host Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

But in pretty much all past cases, those clerics weren't bishops themselves. But now Father Robert E. Barron, a media savvy priest, has been named an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and will be moving to the heart of the television industry. Bishop-designate Barron was one of three auxiliary bishops appointed to the archdiocese.

Bishop-designate Barron, appointed July 21, may be best known to TV viewers for having hosted "Catholicism," a 10-part DVD series. Four parts of the series aired on 90 PBS affiliates in fall 2011. The series earned him a Christopher Award and the Clarion Award the following year from the Catholic Academy of Communications Arts Professionals.

It was discovered by Catholic News Service earlier this year that "Catholicism" is available on the black market in Cuba, purchased for download onto a thumb drive so that Cuban Catholics can watch it -- not because the series is illegal but because it's not readily available in a store.

In a 2013 interview, Bishop-designate Barron said his dream was to assemble another sweeping documentary on Catholicism. With Hollywood in his new backyard, that dream could become reality. He once estimated it would cost $4 million to produce the documentary, tentatively titled "Pivotal Players." The new series is still in the pipeline.

He also appeared on EWTN in 2007 on "Untold Blessings: Three Paths to Holiness," providing concrete, practical advice on how to become a saint.

Bishop-designate Barron's reason for using video? "If you want to reach people who are under 40, you have to use media. Things like YouTube had just come into being and we jumped into that with two feet," he said in 2013. "If you want to find the unchurched Catholics and the secularists, you aren't going to find them by staying in church and inviting them to programs. You have to use this new means. We have to invade that space."

The 55-year-old bishop-designate has taught systematic theology, but outside seminary education, his stock in trade has been evangelization. The Chicago-born cleric is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and he has traveled across the United States to speak at conferences, conventions and symposiums on spreading the Christian message. In 2010 he launched a Sunday morning TV show, "Word on Fire," on the WGN America cable channel.

"It is a blessing for me to work with you to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite them to share all the gifts he wants his people to enjoy," Bishop-designate Barron said in a July 21 statement released by Word on Fire.

He is slated to be a speaker at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September, although it was not immediately clear whether his new duties as a bishop would allow him to remain on the schedule.

In an interview with The Tidings, newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, he said his main responsibility will be to serve as auxiliary bishop. "I have to be present to the people of the archdiocese," he said.

For those who don't watch TV or videos, Bishop-designate Barron also has written 10 books and does radio commentary. His book "The Strangest Way" took second place in the 2003 Catholic Press Association's book awards for best popular presentation of the Catholic faith. There's also a 300-page stand-alone "Catholicism" book that complements the DVD series.

The appointments were announced July 21 in Washington by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States. Pope Francis also accepted the resignation of Bishop Wilkerson, who turned 75 last October. Canon law requires bishops to offer their resignations at that age. A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Bishop Wilkerson was ordained for the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 1965. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop Jan. 21, 1998.

In addition to Bishop-designate Barron, the pope also appointed two priests from Los Angeles to be auxiliary bishops.

Msgr. Joseph V. Brennan, 61, vicar general and moderator of the curia in Los Angeles since 2013, is a native of Van Nuys, California, whose studies and assignments have all been in the Southern California archdiocese.

Msgr. David G. O'Connell, 61, is a native of County Cork, Ireland, who studied at All Hallows College in Dublin before being ordained a priest of the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 1979. He has been pastor of St. Michael's Parish in Los Angeles since 2003.

Bishop-designates Brennan, O'Connell and Barron are expected to be ordained bishops this fall, though no date has been set yet.

"I think it is clear that in appointing these new auxiliary bishops, Pope Francis really understands what the Church needs -- not just here in Los Angeles, but also in the United States and across the Americas," Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez said in a statement.

"I believe each of these new auxiliary bishops will help us in our mission here in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles -- the beautiful mission we have of sharing the love of God and the message of Jesus Christ and promoting human dignity and mercy and justice in our society," he said.

Los Angeles is the largest archdiocese in the country by population, with about 4.3 million Catholics.

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