Strategy for the New Evangelization Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Mar. 19, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

I once gave a sermon in which I mentioned Keith Richards, the lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones.

I recounted how struck I was by a passage from Richards' autobiography in which the guitarist described the almost maniacal dedication with which he and his bandmates set out to learn Chicago blues.

"Benedictines," he said, "had nothing on us." I urged my listeners to approach their spiritual lives with the same "Benedictine" focus and fervor that the young Rolling Stones had in regard to the blues.

I was quick to point out that I didn't want people to buy Richards' autobiography for their teenagers as Confirmation presents! Keith, I indicated, had walked down lots of bad paths.

After that Mass, I went out to breakfast with my sister and her family and my mother. My mother said, "Bobby, I thought your homily was fine, but I wish you hadn't mentioned that awful Keith Richards, who is just the epitome of nothing!"

Fan of Bob Dylan

I'm a big fan of Bob Dylan. I came across his music as a teenager, and his songs shaped my imagination and conditioned my thinking -- even about religious matters -- ever since.

Accordingly, I have quoted Dylan in most of my books and in many of my talks and DVDs. In one of my recorded retreats, I referred to him as a hero.

Some have complained about this, observing that Dylan was at one point a drug addict and he could hardly be described as "orthodox" in all of his opinions. How could a Catholic priest quote him so favorably?

Merton and Aquinas

Around the same time I discovered Bob Dylan, I first read Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. This gripping narrative of a young man’s conversion from worldly self-absorption to Catholicism and to the rigors of a Trappist life had a decisive impact on me, playing a key role in shaping my desire to become a priest.

I often said that Thomas Aquinas had the biggest influence on my mind and Thomas Merton had the greatest influence on my spirit. I have quoted Merton liberally in my writings and used him in my videos and retreats.

My citation of Merton has also aroused opposition. Some have argued that his personal life, even after his conversion, was not without ambiguity and his opinions, especially toward the end of his life, seemed to drift in the direction of Buddhism.

My mother was a tad strong in characterizing Keith Richards as "the epitome of nothing," but I would certainly confess that he leaves a great deal to be desired both in his theoretical convictions and his behavior.

Bob Dylan was, at least during the '60s, a drug addict, and his theological thinking would not correspond to Catholic orthodoxy on every point; I would agree that Thomas Merton got a little confused and said and did some things I wouldn't recommend.

Less than perfect people

And yet, I would strongly defend my decision to quote from these figures in my work. How come?

Citation of one statement from a given figure is by no means equivalent to a wholesale endorsement of everything that person ever said or did. I admire Lincoln and quote him with enthusiasm, but I think that Lincoln's understanding of God was, in many respects, deeply inadequate.

If I were limited to citing only those who were correct in every aspect of their thinking and acting, I'd quote only Jesus and the Blessed Mother!

Essential to New Evangelization

I believe that the use of less than perfect figures is essential to the work of the New Evangelization. Keith Richards is not a saint, but he's well known in the counterculture and can function as a lure to those who would never darken the door of a church.

Bob Dylan is not Thomas Aquinas, but he gives entrée to a world that Aquinas could never reach. Thomas Merton might have been too open to dialogue with Eastern religions, but that very openness makes him a point of contact with many outside the Church.

Thomas Aquinas himself cited Aristotle (a pagan scientist), Moses Maimonides (a Jewish rabbi), Avicenna and Averroes (Muslim philosophers), and Origen (a theologian condemned by the Church for certain of his positions).

Thomas is my model in this regard. My fear is that a hyper-fussiness about the intellectual and moral integrity of those I cite would lock me into a feedback loop, a closed-in conversation with entirely like-minded people.

Jesus told us to preach to all the nations, and St. John Paul II urged us to reach out to the unevangelized world. In my judgment, we can't afford to be too prim if this great mission is to be accomplished.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org