September 23, 2014

The unexpected causes and effects that led to World War I

100 summers ago the countries of Europe collapsed quickly into war: it was sudden but also strangely inevitable. Countless books have been written since about the causes of The Great War, but in this video essay, offers an alternative history. By tracing the story backwards in time, they stumble upon a very unexpected cause and discover that sometimes the most harmless of things can have terrible consequences.

September 22, 2014

With a little background knowledge, we can read Jesus’ parable of the talents with fresh eyes

By Very Rev. Robert Barron

The attendance at our daily Mundelein Seminary on Labor Day weekend was sparse. Many of the students had gone home while others were on a special tour of Chicago churches. The celebrant and preacher for the Sunday Mass was Fr. Robert Schoenstene, our veteran Old Testament professor. Fr. Schoenstene offered the best interpretation I’ve ever heard of a particularly puzzling parable of the Lord, and I wanted to make sure his reading got a wider audience.

The parable in question is the one concerning the rich man who gives talents to three of his servants and then sets out on a journey. Upon his return, he assesses the situation and discovers that the servant to whom he had given five talents had invested them fruitfully and that the servant to whom he had given three talents had done the same. But he finds, to his chagrin, that the slave to whom he had entrusted one talent had simply buried the wealth and had garnered neither gain nor interest. Angered, he orders that the one talent be taken from the timid servant and given to the servant who had invested most boldly. And then comes the devastating moral lesson: “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

The standard reading of this story—on display in thousands of sermons and fervorinos—is that the talents symbolize gifts and abilities that God has given to us and that he expects us to “spend” generously or “invest” wisely. This interpretation is supported by the fairly accidental relationship that obtains between “talent” in the ancient Biblical sense of the term and “talent” in ordinary English today. Fr. Schoenstene specified that a talent in ancient times was a measure of something particularly weighty, usually silver or gold. A single talent might represent as much as 50 pounds of precious metal and, as such, was not something that one carried around in one’s pocket. We might make a comparison between a talent and a unit of gold kept at Fort Knox, or an ingot of silver preserved in a safe deposit box. What the contemporary reader will likely miss, and what the ancient Jewish reader would have caught immediately, is the connection to heaviness: a talent was weighty, and five talents was massively heavy. Heaviness would have brought to mind the heaviest weight of all, which was the kabod of Yahweh. That term was rendered in Greek as doxa and in Latin as gloria, both of which carry the connotation of luminosity, but the basic sense of the Hebrew word is heaviness, gravitas.

And this kabod Yahweh was to be found in the Jerusalem Temple, resting upon the mercy seat within the Holy of Holies. Therefore, what was heaviest (most glorious) of all was the mercy of God, which abided in infinite, inexhaustible abundance in the Holy Temple.

In light of these clarifications, we can read Jesus’ parable with fresh eyes. The talents given to the three servants are not so much monetary gifts or personal capacities; they are a share in the mercy of God, a participation in the weightiness of the divine love. But since mercy is always directed to the other, these “talents” are designed to be shared. In point of fact, they will increase precisely in the measure that they are given away. The problem with the timid servant who buried his talent is not that he was an ineffective venture capitalist but that he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of what he had been given. The divine mercy—received as a pure gift—is meant to be given to others as a pure gift. Buried in the ground, that is to say, hugged tightly to oneself as one’s own possession, such a talent necessarily evanesces. And this is why the master’s seemingly harsh words should not be read as the punishment of an angry God but as an expression of spiritual physics: the divine mercy will grow in you only inasmuch as you give it to others. To “have” the kabod Yahweh is precisely not to have it in the ordinary sense of the term.

What comes to mind here is the most famous of all of Jesus’ parables, namely, the story of the Prodigal Son. Using a term that also carried a monetary sense in ancient times, the younger son says, “Father give me my share of the ousia (substance or wealth) that is coming to me. Notice how in one sentence, he manages to mention himself three times! The father gives away his ousia, for that is all he knows how to do, but the foolish son squanders the money in short order. The spiritual lesson is the same: the divine ousia is a gift and it can be “had” only inasmuch as it becomes a gift for others. When we try to cling to it as a possession, it disappears.

How wonderful that these ancient stories, once we unpack their spiritual significance, still sing to us today.

Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at

Climbers light up the Matterhorn (once climbed by Pius XI) to mark 150th anniversary of first ascent

Filmed in Zermatt for the 150th anniversary in 2015 of the first ascent of the Matterhorn.

September 15, 2014

Learn how to talk to your barber so you get the haircut you want

From the Art of Manliness, with help from the Hudson Hawk Barbershop in Springfield, Missouri...

'Calvary' is a vivid portrait of a real priest with the heart of a shepherd

By Very Rev. Robert Barron

St. Pope John Paul II said that a priest should have the heart of Christ the Good Shepherd. Far too many saccharine paintings of effeminate Jesuses in the midst of delicate lambs have conduced toward a misconstrual of this image as something sentimental and harmless. But shepherds not only had the smell of their sheep (to use Pope Francis’s language), but they also wielded a stick, meant to bring back strays and to fend off threats. Real shepherding was, and is, a dirty and hard-edged business.

John Michael McDonagh’s film “Calvary” shows, with extraordinary vividness, what authentic spiritual shepherding looks like and how it feels for a priest to have a shepherd’s heart. The movie opens in the quiet of the confessional, where Fr. James, played by the always-compelling Brendan Gleeson, waits to receive the confession of a penitent. What he hears, however, is not a list of sins, but a brutal threat: “I will kill you Sunday next. Say we meet on the beach?” The awful words are coming from a man who had been sexually abused, across many years, by a priest and who now wants to seek his revenge by eliminating a man he admits is a good priest. The story then unfolds as Fr. James’s passion week, the stations of the cross, as he makes his way to his own Calvary.

We see immediately that he is a pastor who knows his people and their struggles. And we also see that this knowledge is not abstract or distant, but rather is born of very close and sympathetic contact with them. By foot, by boat, or by car, he visits the homes of his parishioners and addresses their practical and spiritual needs. Moreover, he is not afraid to take them to task when he sees them walking on an errant path. The people to whom he ministers—a sexually promiscuous woman, a suicidal old writer, a young man caught up in all forms of pornography, a deeply embittered and corrupt financier, an atheist doctor more cynical than Richard Dawkins, and even an imprisoned serial killer—represent the spiritual wasteland that has emerged in Ireland in the wake of the clergy sex scandals and under the influence of postmodern indifferentism. In his dealings with these people, Fr. James is unfailingly simple, direct, and spiritually incisive, but he is met, over and over, with mockery, condescension, even contempt. And yet, wearing the soutane and collar that unmistakably mark him as a priest, he soldiers on.

Any suspicion that the man in the confessional was only making an idle threat is eliminated when Fr. James’s church is burned to the ground, in an obvious act of arson, and when his beloved dog is found with his throat cut. Understandably enough, the frightened priest, as the fateful Sunday approaches, books passage on a flight to Dublin. The only time that we see him out of his soutane and in civilian clothes is as he makes his way to the airport to escape his fate. But as he is about to board the plane, the priest decides to return to his parish, to his people, and to the encounter with his killer on the seashore. On Sunday morning, Fr. James has a telephone conversation with this daughter Fiona (he had been married and had lost his wife prior to entering the seminary). In the course of their exchange, he says, “I think there’s been too much talk about sin and not enough talk about virtue.” “What is the greatest virtue?” Fiona asks, and her father responds, “I think forgiveness has been quite underrated.”

On the strand, an angry young man, whom we have seen throughout the film, comes striding toward the priest, gun in hand, and with astonishing courage, Fr. James meets him face to face. The tortured man spits out his bitterness toward the church and then breaks into sobs expressive of anger, regret, and deep pain. All this time, Fr. James holds his ground, offering simple words of forgiveness and hope. Finally, the man presses the gun to priest’s forehead and fires.

It seems to be the grimmest possible ending, a confirmation of the worldview of the most nihilist and despairing of Fr. James’s parishioners. But then we remember that the movie is entitled “Calvary” and that a good priest, by definition, is an alter Christus, another Christ. Jesus’ shepherding ministry came to its climax on a squalid hill outside of Jerusalem, when he stood his ground as the darkness and dysfunction of the world swept over him. The crucified Jesus did not battle evil on its own terms, but rather swallowed it up in the divine mercy: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Fr. James, though tempted to avoid his awful confrontation with wickedness, walked all the way up his own Calvary, and dealt with sin precisely as Jesus had.

The final scene of the film is filled with Christian hope. Fr. James’s daughter comes to the prison where her father’s killer is incarcerated. Through the glass partition that separates them, he looks at her with anguish, but she looks back at him with a smile. Though no words are exchanged, it is clear that Fr. James’s heroic witness to the most underrated of virtues has had its effect. Through the ministrations of a real priest, a green shoot appears in a spiritual wasteland; Calvary is followed by resurrection.

Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at