By Barbara Falconer Newhall
What is at the heart of Catholicism? What makes all those Catholics so tenaciously Catholic? The Rev. Robert Barron would say – the Incarnation. The central truth of all Christianity is the shocking notion that God, the Creator and Ground of the Universe, humbled itself to take on human form, to enter into and enhance creation.
The difference between Catholicism and the rest of Christianity, according to Barron, is that other denominations fail to take the Incarnation seriously enough. If one does indeed accept Jesus as the human face of God, after all, the ramifications are huge and – quite literally – awesome.
Barron cites an often overlooked passage in Mark (10:32): “And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”
And why not? If that is indeed God Incarnate walking up the road ahead of you, fear and amazement would be the most fitting response. And that, according to Barron, is why Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular asks for a commitment: Is Jesus divine? Or not?
Barron says yes, and from there his text marches boldly on to explain and assert the body of Catholic belief as centuries of church authorities have built and elaborated upon it – beginning with the Incarnation and extending to the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the apparitions at Lourdes, the communion of saints like Therese of Lisieux and Katharine Drexel, and the doctrines of heaven, hell and purgatory.
Barron also tackles – fearlessly – the Catholic church’s age-old understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which Barron characterizes as “nothing other than a sacramental extension of the Incarnation across space and time, the manner in which Christ continues to abide, in an embodied way with his church.”
Protestant and Orthodox Christians, of course, would assert that accepting the Incarnation does not necessarily lead to faith in an Immaculate Conception, in miracles at Lourdes or any of the other doctrines of the church — including those prohibiting the use of birth control.
But Barron, to his credit, is a wonderfully lucid writer who, like his church, is not afraid to commit to a clear and powerful understanding of who Jesus was. Which maybe explains why the Catholic church continues to be such a powerful force in the lives of millions of Catholics around the world.
Barron is the Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary and the host of the ten-part documentary series Catholicism to be aired on PBS stations beginning this month.
Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, by Robert Barron, Image, 2011, $27.99 hardcover.