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Vivid look at Catholic beliefs, but not the people

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TV / video review: “Catholicism.” PBS (check local listings).

Cameras pan through majestic cathedrals; Hispanic children smile and sing; Africans dance in procession and Europeans pace reverently with lighted candles in Catholicism.  The 10-parter fills both the eye and the mind, but not always successfully.

Produced by Word On Fire of Skokie, Ill., the documentary does as good a job as any in recent memory, in showing both the sweep and nuance of the Roman Catholic Church. An obvious motive is to balance the numerous news stories about priests accused of molestation. But Catholicism also introduces viewers to theology and social teachings of the church. Unfortunately, it doesn’t dwell a lot on the believers.

Cover image for "Catholicism," both the book and the video.

Host for the show is Word On Fire founder Father Robert E. Barron, who leads us on a travelogue across several continents. We see not only the usual St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but also the Cathedral of St. John Lateran there. We also see historic churches in Cologne, Germany, Guadalupe, Mexico, Jerusalem and elsewhere. And we see worshipers in places like Kolkata, Kampala, Lourdes and Sao Paulo. It’s a good illustration of how the church is indeed catholic, or universal.

The good priest explains various concepts, like the existence of God, the liturgy, the reason for worship, and how the Church can be called the “Body of Christ.” I especially liked how he calls for peaceful dialogue. “I think we’ve forgotten how to have a good religious argument that’s not just bland toleration [or] killing each other,” he says.

And yes, he deals with the molestation crisis, confessing that the perpetrators were sinners (how could he say otherwise?). “To say that the Church is holy is not to deny for a minute that it’s filled with sinners,” he says. “But none of this gainsays that the church is . . . a bearer of grace.”

Barron is a good host. He comes off as earnest, engaging, enthusiastic. He gestures with huge hands and speaks conversationally, rather than professorially. It’s a welcome change from the rednecks or ramrods that infect so many TV shows on religion.

So, here’s the church, here’s the people, but what do they say? Very little in this miniseries: Barron is the only talking head. The show mainly forms a set of backdrops for his talks. So many beautiful men, women and children are seen throughout Catholicism. What does the faith mean to them? Some short interviews would have added much to the program.

To its credit, Catholicism is a program that other people besides Catholics could enjoy. The color and polish showcase the beauty that Barron and Word On Fire see in the Church. But part of that beauty is in the people themselves. They should have been allowed to play a bigger part in it.

Perhaps the reason is that the film is meant to be part of a catechesis, or instruction, for adults. It has a companion book of the same title, also by Barron.

Word On Fire also has several materials based on the documentary: study guides, workbooks, even prayer cards for evangelization. They’re promoted on its own site.

James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

October 9, 2011 at 10:56 pm

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