The online apostolate is now seeking to be God's "special ops," looking for person to person encounters. "The first place to serve is in your five-mile radius,” said a Word on Fire fellow.
The Word on Fire Institute has big dreams, including a new order of priests, a lay consecrated wing and even a new college. That is what retreatants heard at the first-ever public Word on Fire retreat, held October 16-17 near the group’s Dallas, Texas, headquarters.
In a video greeting from his Santa Barbara home, the apostolate’s founder, Bishop Robert Barron, told 50 retreatants from several states that they should evangelize like “one starving person telling another starving person where to find food.”
It quickly became clear that the retreat was more than an in-person event for an online study program. It was the launch of an ecclesial movement.
“You are the first of many,” Bishop Barron said. “You are pioneers. You are the prototype. Pray for those who will follow you 25, 50, 100 years from now.”
Putting Christ in the center of things
In 2007, Barron posted his first YouTube video, a review of the movie Departed. Now, his Word on Fire ministry has produced 1,000 videos that have been viewed nearly 90 million times. Three years ago, the apostolate added the Word on Fire Institute, which provides courses in apologetics, literature and theology for members.
Jared Zimmerer, the director of the Word on Fire Institute, was the first retreat’s first speaker. He said the wider plans for the group started when Cardinal Francis George challenged then Father Barron to start a media apostolate in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and enlisted Zimmerer’s help, also.
“We met monthly for a year and a half. We would read the Acts of the Apostles and discuss it,” Zimmerer said. “Cardinal George challenged us to do more. Bishop Barron has talked about starting an order of priests, adding lay consecrated members and even an entire college.”
Nonetheless, he said, the future is in God’s hands.
Zimmerer described himself as “a meathead from ‘Cowtown, Texas,’” and said he didn’t have the skills needed to build a movement, but the Word on Fire Institute has nonetheless grown to 20,000 people and is now a worldwide evangelical reality.
Being “centered” on Christ summed up the spirituality of this new movement, Zimmerer said. Bishop Barron often describes how the North Rose Window at Notre Dame Cathedral fascinated him as a seminarian in Paris, France.
Barron draws many lessons from it: How putting Christ in first place orders an individual’s life and how putting Christ in the center of its concerns orders a society, as well as how the spokes that explode out from Jesus in the center show the richness and adventure of a life lived for Christ.
Zimmerer said the spirituality answers two questions for members, which they in turn are called to help others answer: “Who am I?” and “What is my life for?”
“Being centered on Christ means chipping away at the false self to get to the true self — take off your mask and find yourself,” he said.
God’s “special ops”
Bobby Angel, a Fellow of the Word on Fire Institute in charge of parish programs, said the charism of the new group was to be God’s “special ops.”
“We’ll go in where no one else will. People say the internet is evil — and so much of it is — but we will go there and find the way to use it for God,” he said. He announced a new YouTube series Word on Fire is launching, “trying to find where the good, the true and the beautiful are in video games.”
But the group isn’t simply a media apostolate, according to Angel. Bishop Barron doesn’t want an Institute that “creates evangelization opportunities and then walks away.”
“The first place to serve is in your five-mile radius,” Angel said. “Do the thankless jobs no one else will do. Show up and care about the person in front of you. Know their interests. Know their name. Love them as more than just an evangelization project. It’s exhausting to walk with people and answer their questions, but that is what has to happen.”
“Accompaniment has to be more than just a buzzword,” he concluded. “We have to do it.”
Jackie Angel, his wife, is also a Word on Fire Fellow. She shared stories about people she encountered in her music and speaking ministry. It is important to share what people need to hear, she said, not what you prefer to say.
“I always pray to the Holy Spirit when I meet someone who has questions,” she said. “I pray: ‘Give me the words!’”
Michael Hoffman, who runs a company that provides motivational and training exercises for businesses in Dallas, spent his 30th wedding anniversary at the retreat with his wife, Michele. The two plan to put Word on Fire principles into action in their parish.
“Centering on Christ was a breath of fresh air,” Michael said. “Michele and I gleaned so many good ideas and had great conversations on how to continue to create a Centered home, for our family and our parish.”
He summed up the experience in words that could encapsulate the mission of Word on Fire.
“This world is loud with the noise of confusion, distraction from the truth and from the need for God,” he said. “We have to love louder.”