Arts / Entertainment

6 “Pivotal Players” who changed the world

Bishop Robert Barron takes us on a journey with the people who shaped the Catholic Church -- and so much more

A reformer. A theologian. A convert. A mystic. An evangelist. An artist.

In Bishop Robert Barron’s new documentary film series Catholicism: The Pivotal Players, he journeys into the lives of six people who helped shaped the Catholic Church – and the whole world.

Volume One of The Pivotal Players (a second six-part volume is still in development) builds on Bishop Barron’s groundbreaking 2011 series Catholicism, which sold more than 100,000 DVD copies, aired on hundreds of PBS stations around the world, and has been seen by millions. One prominent journalist rightly called it “the most important media project in the history of the Catholic Church in America.”

Like its predecessor, The Pivotal Players takes a measured, elegant approach modeled on Kenneth Clark’s BBC documentary Civilisation, crossfading through radiant images of art, architecture, and nature; crowds of pilgrims and sightseers in the great cities of Europe; and a winding narrative that is always intellectually stimulating but never dull.

But where the original Catholicism series took orthodoxy as its starting point, delving into “The Teachings of Jesus,” “The Ineffable Mystery of God,” and other cornerstones of Catholic thought, The Pivotal Players is a journey into orthopraxy, and the full flowering of these beliefs in the lives of flesh-and-blood people down through the centuries.

“The saints are exemplars of holiness par excellence,” Bishop Barron writes in his introduction to the study program. “In their lives the form of Christ takes shape and becomes tangible to the world. The world will experience in the saint a person, who like Christ, is both ordinary and extraordinary. To encounter a saint is to experience the natural as imbued with the supernatural, virtues are elevated by divine grace, and human weakness is overcome by an uncanny strength.”  

The Pivotal Players opens with a timely choice: St. Francis of Assisi, whose name Cardinal Bergoglio unexpectedly adopted when he was elected Pope in 2013. Bishop Barron doesn’t take a revisionist or reductionist approach to Francis; instead, he lets this great figure’s life for speak for itself. We meet not just Francis the lover of nature, but Francis the fierce and even frightening ascetic, whose radical imitation of Christ and trust in God led many to regard him as a madman during his own lifetime.

Bishop Barron takes a similarly objective (and thus, more colorful) approach to the other five players. We’re drawn into both the philosophy and spirituality of St. Thomas Aquinas; the beguiling and sometimes bizarre mysticism of St. Catherine of Siena; the towering writings and controversial conversion of Bl. John Henry Newman; the joyful and paradoxical wit of G.K. Chesterton; and the timeless beauty and historical significance of the art of Michelangelo, whose greatest works Bishop Barron unlocks with a Christological lens.

Four of these figures were Italian and two were English. But because of all the sharp divergences in their backgrounds, styles, and preoccupations, we may as well be visiting six different planets. Thomas Merton once remarked that to be a saint means to be one’s self – and nowhere is this clearer than in these six pivotal figures, all of whom are striking in their uniqueness.  

Yet, for all their differences, Bishop Barron weaves a compelling story of their union in the life of the Church. In some cases the connections are intellectual, as in the case of Chesterton penning influential biographies of both Francis and Aquinas; but more often, it’s a mysterious and almost organic connection, like that of different limbs of a single body ambling through time. And more than what separates them, it’s the heart they hold in common – a love for both the Cross and the Eucharist, truth and charity, and faith and reason – that made them such powerful agents of change.

It’s one thing to talk publicly about faith, what it means, and why it’s important. But with The Pivotal Players, Bishop Barron gives an increasingly skeptical world a great treasure: a portrait of six people who dared to walk the walk and, in their own way, set the world on fire.

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Matthew Becklo

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.