Pope Francis has chosen social media star Robert Barron for Los Angeles auxiliary bishop

Pope Francis has named Chicago priest Robert Barron one of three new assistant bishops of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a move some insiders are calling noteworthy because of his wide social media presence.

Jul 22, 2015

Robert Barron (Courtesy of Word on Fire ministries)

LOS ANGELS, CALIFORNIA: Pope Francis has named Chicago priest Robert Barron one of three new assistant bishops of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a move some insiders are calling noteworthy because of his wide social media presence.

Barron is well known among church-going Catholics, since his video series on Catholicism is regularly shown in churches across the U.S. His appointment is both surprising and not surprising, said James Martin, editor at large of America magazine.

“It’s surprising because bishops aren’t normally people who are so media savvy,” Martin said. “But given his talent and profile, I thought this was just a matter of time.”

Barron’s films, books and YouTube clips have made him a “household name” in some Catholic Church circles, Catholic blogger Rocco Palmo writes. Barron said in a news release that his own appointment came as “an enormous surprise.”

“I think in the past, church leaders have not fully appreciated the potential of all forms of media, including social media,” Martin said. “Bob has a big presence on YouTube that very few bishops can match.”

People who write on U.S. Catholic life, including Patheos’ Elizabeth Scalia, describe Barron as the Catholic Church’s closest leader to another Fulton Sheen, a 20th century evangelist known for his preaching on television and on the radio.

“It’s not a surprise that Rome would notice this and say where can we put this guy to the greatest effect,” Scalia said. “L.A. is natural, it’s a media center, it’s a hand-to-glove fit.”

Barron is founder of the media ministry Word on Fire and is currently the rector of the University of St. Mary and Mundelein Seminary in Chicago. His YouTube videos have been viewed a total of 13 million times, which is notable for the Catholic Church, an institution that has been slow to plunge its officials into the public space.

“There was perhaps a little technophobia, because new media is fast, fast, fast and Rome is slow, slow, slow,” Scalia said. “In terms of a single priest or cleric in media, he’s about as big as it gets.”

Barron’s move to L.A. will likely position himself even further to mix media and evangelization. Pope Benedict XVI made the “new evangelism” a central theme of his papacy, and Pope Francis has regularly encouraged Catholics to evangelize.

“Robert Barron is the exemplar of the new evangelization, next to Pope Francis,” Martin said. “He uses every form of media to spread the good news.”

Religious programming has generally shifted to an array of smaller, specifically religious media outlets, so it’s harder for people to make their name in the faith-based media, said James McCartin, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, a Catholic school.

“In this context, Barron has still done pretty well for himself in giving Catholicism a face in the media,” McCartin said. Barron is most popular among traditional Catholics, said McCartin – people who tend to lean more Benedict than Francis. The fact that Francis just elevated Barron to bishop shows “he’s not looking for clones of himself,” he said.

Barron will be giving the opening address at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September. He was appointed auxiliary bishop, or one of the several bishops in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Joseph Brennan, the vicar general and moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and David O’Connell, pastor of Saint Michael Parish in Los Angeles, have also been made auxiliary bishops. Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Los Angeles auxiliary bishop Gerald Wilkerson, who is at retirement age at 75.

“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,” Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez said in a statement.

Irish-born O’Connell has worked to end inner-city violence in L.A. and was portrayed as an exemplar of the priesthood in a 2002 Los Angeles Times profile as the clergy sex-abuse crisis was unfolding.

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said the three are expected to become regional bishops in areas where the archdiocese doesn’t currently have auxiliary bishops: San Gabriel, Santa Barbara and San Fernando.--The Washington Post

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