Discussion Questions for Individual Reflection or Group Study
In the pages of Catholicism, acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian Robert Barron has created a unique and intimate journey into the heart of the Catholic faith, capturing its essence in a way that is both eclectic and inspiring. He explores the mysteries of faith, the depth and beauty of the timeless truths, and the defining elements that make up the core of Catholic faith. From art and architecture to theology and the saints, Fr. Barron looks at what makes Catholicism distinctive among all the competing philosophies, idealogies, and religions of the world.
Introduction: The Catholic Thing
- Blessed John Henry Newman said that the great principle of Catholicism is the Incarnation—the enfleshment of God. Father Barron says that the Incarnation is what makes Catholicism stand out among all the competing religions and ideologies in the world. He also says the Incarnation reveals the central truths concerning God and us. What does the Incarnation mean to you? How would you describe the difference between Catholicism and other Christian churches that also embrace the truth of the Incarnation?
- If someone asked you to define Catholicism in one or two sentences, what would be your response? Why?
- How would you describe the uniqueness of Jesus? What sets him apart from all other philosophers, mystics, and religious founders?
- St. Paul referred to Jesus as “the icon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). What do you think he meant by this?
Chapter 1: Amazed and Afraid: The Revelation of God Become Man
- St. Thérèse of Lisieux said that the heart of sin is taking oneself too seriously. What do you think she meant? Do you think God has a sense of humor? If so, how would you describe it?
- Jesus wasn’t concerned with what other people thought about his teaching or how the crowds interpreted his actions while he was on earth; he wanted to know what people thought about his identity—who he was. Jesus asks us the same question today. Who do you say Jesus is? What do you believe about his identity, his being?
- How would you describe the fundamental principle of Christian discipleship?
Chapter 2: Happy Are We: The Teachings of Jesus
- How would you define the secret to true happiness? How does this correspond to Jesus’s teaching through the Beatitudes that love for God must be central to your life if you want to be happy?
- Is your love for God central in your life? If not, what is central? Does it lead to happiness? How can you move closer to a unique union with God?
- Thomas Aquinas said that the four typical substitutes for God are wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. Father Barron says that when we try to satisfy the hunger for God with something less than God, we will naturally be frustrated. How do these four substitutes show up in your life? What areas of frustration do you see in your own life, and which of the four substitutes for God is at the root?
- Robert Barron defines love as “actively willing the good of the other.” Are there situations in your life where you are good to others just so they are good to you in return? What examples in your life can you describe where you actively will the good of someone else with no thought of receiving anything in return? Has there been someone in your life that has shown that kind of love to you?
- As Fr. Barron describes the parable of the prodigal son, which son do you relate to more—the one physically estranged from the Father, or the one spiritually or psychologically estranged?
- The elder brother saw himself as “working like a slave” for his father, “obeying all his commands.” In your relationship with God, have you ever seen yourself this way? How does this affect your relationship with others and with yourself?
- Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, said, “We should turn a nation of go-getters into a nation of go-givers!” How is this statement relevant for today’s culture?
- Fr. Barron says that once we truly see that God is love, we are no longer afraid to risk the path of love. When have you been fearful of taking a risk? How might your way of thinking change in light of believing in the gospel, and what actions might you take because of this?
Chapter 3: “That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought”: The Ineffable Mystery of God
- Thomas Aquinas defines the difference between God and everything else using the terms “essence” and “existence.” What does he mean by this? How is God different than his creatures?
- What did God mean when he spoke from the burning bush and told Moses, “I am who am”? (Exodus 3:14)
- Fr. Barron says God is both “radically immanent and radically transparent.” What does this mean?
- Thomas Aquinas came up with five arguments for God’s existence, and in this chapter Fr. Barron talks about just one, the contingency of the world. Describe in your own words the key points of this argument.
- St. Augustine described God’s unique way of being as “intimior intimo meo et superior summon meo,” which Barron translates as “closer to me than I am to myself and higher than anything I could possibly imagine.” Using this definition, what does it mean to be in right relationship with God?
- Deists believe that God orders the universe, but in a distant way, as the source of its laws and basic structures. Why is Christian theology different from this?
- How would you define God’s providence? How does this impact our earthly affairs?
- When we consider the problem of evil and why a good God would “allow” it, Augustine, Aquinas, and others taught that God permits evil to bring about a greater good. What events in your own life or the lives of those close to you—serious illness, job loss, natural disasters—have led to some kind of greater good? Describe the calamity and the resulting good.
- Augustine said that when we look within ourselves, we see a mirror of the Trinity. What similarities does the Trinity have with human consciousness?
Chapter 4: Our Tainted Nature’s Solitary Boast: Mary, the Mother of God
- Fr. Barron writes that Mary has “beguiled the finest poets of the West, from Dante to T. S. Eliot; she has been the subject of paintings by the greatest masters, from Fra Angelico and Michelangelo to Rembrandt and El Greco; over the centuries, millions of people have visited her shrines seeking her aid and calling out to her, their mother.” Why do you think Mary has had such a staggering impact? What is it that she conveys to us?
- In the Garden of Eden, when God gave Adam and Eve permission to eat from all the trees in the garden except one, what did God intend them to experience? What does this signify about what God desires for us to experience as fully alive human beings?
- The church fathers described the contrast between Mary, the Mother of God, with Eve, the mother of the human race. How does Mary’s obedience reverse the disobedience of Eve?
- Hans Urs von Balthasar taught that Mary’s fiat (“Be it done to me according to your word”) opens up a space within which God can work. Mary’s freedom, which she surrendered completely to God, creates the possibility for all forms of outreach in the life of the Church. In your own life, are there times when you have relinquished your freedom to God in order for him to accomplish something through you? How difficult did you find this surrender, and what were the results? Conversely, what has occurred when you have clung to your own plans?
- The Greeks thought that death meant that one’s soul escaped the trappings of the body, a much longed for liberation. Fr. Barron explains that Christianity does not see salvation as a separation of soul and body, but the very transformation of one’s entire self. How do you view death? What does the familiar phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that speaks of “the resurrection of the body” mean to you?
- Have you struggled with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? If so, why? What biblical support can we find for this?
- What do you understand about Mary’s mission as mediator and intercessor? How is Mary’s role different than that of her Son’s?
- Mary is an ongoing presence in the life of the Church, and her basic task is always drawing people into a deeper fellowship with her Son. What is your experience with Mary? Describe how she has helped you, and also how she has led you to Jesus.
Chapter 5: The Indispensable Men: Peter, Paul, and the Missionary Adventure
- The two key players in early Christianity are Peter, the head of the apostles, and Paul, the first Christian theologian. Fr. Barron says that these two men should not be merely historically interesting to us; instead, due to their centrality, they “live on as determining archetypes” from the early Church to the present day. Summarize what you see as each of their indispensable contributions to the Faith.
- Fr. Barron shows how the artist Caravaggio captures the moment of transformation in his masterpiece The Conversion of Saint Paul. Once full of confidence and power, Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus leaves him helpless, blind, and powerless. He was being prepared for “a new journey, a new kind of fighting, and a new way of seeing.” Have you had a similar transforming experience in your own life, one that set you on a different path and opened the eyes of your heart in a dramatic way? How did such a transforming moment change you?
- The heart of Paul’s message was: “Submit to the lordship of a new king, Christ crucified and risen.” This message was meant to turn the world upside down. Fr. Barron writes that “authentic Christian proclamation is as subversive and explosive as the earthquake that shook the prison walls in Philippi” during Paul and Silas’s imprisonment. Can you identify some current examples of this type of authenticity and zeal, some modern day apostles who combat tepid and uninspiring preaching? What makes them stand out?
- The Church is more than just a community of like-minded individuals; Paul suggests that it is an organism of interdependent cells, which all derive their life from the primal energy and power of Jesus. Paul talks of “entering into Christ” and “trusting in Christ.” How would you describe your own relationship with Christ? How do you participate in his very life? What does it mean to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14)?
Chapter 6: A Body Both Suffering and Glorious: The Mystical Union of Christ and the Church
- In our culture, many people are like the woman in sociologist Robert Bellah’s text Habits of the Heart: piecing together religious beliefs from many sources and according to one’s whim. Bellah identifies this as the distinctively American form of religion: eclectic, superficial, and willful. Do you see shades of this eclectic form of religion in your own life, or in the lives of those around you? How does it manifest itself? How does this differ from being called to be members of the Church, the mystical body with Christ at the head?
- We have been called out of the world—the whole network of institutions, beliefs, behaviors, and practices. What does this look like in actuality? How can we maintain our Catholic distinctiveness and not get swept up in the ordinary, accepted way of being?
- The Second Vatican Council sought to inspire a new generation of Catholics who would carry the holiness they learned in the Church out to the secular world in their specific areas: nurses and doctors, teachers and writers, business leaders and lawyers. This is quite different than keeping one’s faith private. How does the vision of the Second Vatican Council manifest itself in your life? How has your faith spilled out into the lives of those around you?
- What exactly is the Church called to do? Describe her mission in your own words.
- Like blind Bartimaeus, we have been blind, “lost in our sin and unable to see the world aright.” We have been called instead to a new lifestyle with new patterns of thought, as part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic” Church. As Catholics, what are the specific bonds of unity that make us one within the body of Christ? What are the elements that foster Christian unity?
- Our culture puts a lot of value on variety, tolerance, and diversity. How does this fit with Robert Barron saying that saints are people whose lives are about one thing? How does the Church deal with this problem of unity and diversity? How is the Church able to embrace the positive dimensions of culture without being disrespectful or by compromising the truth?
- The Second Vatican Council said there are “rays of light,” echoes of the fullness of truth, in all non-Christian religions. John Henry Newman talked about the Church’s power of assimilation—meaning its capacity to adapt elements from the culture and adapt them to its own purposes. What “rays of light” do you see in other religions? Where do you see examples of the Church being able to do assimilate these echoes of truth today?
- Fr. Barron writes that holiness is “a kind of wholeness or integrity, a cohering around a center.” He goes on to say that holiness “is the integration that results from putting God unambiguously at the center of one’s concern; it is the coming together of all of one’s faculties—mind, will, imagination, energy, body, sexuality—around the single organizing power of God.” How have you defined holiness in the past? How does Fr. Barron’s definition change or expand the idea of holiness for you?
- When we say that the Church is holy, it does not deny the fact that the Church is also made up of sinful people, some at the highest levels, who have done horrible things. How can both these statements be true? How can we reconcile them?
- What does it mean that the Church is “apostolic”? Of what benefit is this to us as its members? What personal impact does it have for you?
- When we say the pope is infallible, it does not mean he is omniscient, able to predict the future, immune from making poor judgments, above criticism, or incapable of sin. What does infallibility mean and how would you explain it to those of another faith?
Chapter 7: Word Made Flesh, True Bread of Heaven: The Mystery of the Church’s Sacrament and Worship
- Reflect for a moment on how you typically think of the Mass. What words come to mind—serious, pious, holy…? Have you ever thought of the Mass as play? Describe how this word relates to the celebration of the Liturgy according to the definitions provided by Aristotle and Romano Guardini.
- Dietrich von Hildebrand says that this “play” or “praise” of the Liturgy rightly orders the personality, since we find interior order to the degree that we surrender everything within us to God. What signs of balance and order do you see in your own life when you are fully surrendered to God? How does this “play” out in your day-to-day life?
- Modern secularism is based on the assumption that we essentially are our own persons, belonging to no one, self-determining and self-directing. By contrast, Catholicism teaches that “your life is not about you.” How does the Sign of the Cross at the beginning of Mass signal this?
- How do you define “worship”? How does your definition differ from the old English word its derived from, “worthship,” which means demonstrating that which is of the most worth to us?
- How are some ways you demonstrate placing your “worthship” on God, not pleasure, money, or power? What has been the result?
- Describe in your own words what the posture of sitting signifies. Why it is important?
- How do you view the readings at Mass? Fr. Barron says that if people listen attentively to the Scriptures at Mass, they leave the confines of the familiar and enter a new psychological and spiritual space. How might Fr. Barron’s perspective change the way you feel about these readings?
- What are some vital differences between a priest’s homily and a Protestant minister’s sermon?
- From the Catholic point of view, what is the significance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?
- How would you explain transubstantiation to someone who was unfamiliar with the term? What keys does Thomas Aquinas provide in his definition?
- What does Fr. Barron mean when he says that because Jesus’s word is the divine Word, it is not merely descriptive but also transformative?
- In his meditations on the story of the three kings, Fulton Sheen says that no one comes to Christ and goes back the same way he came. How has this been true in your own life?
Chapter 8: A Vast Company of Witnesses: The Communion of Saints
- Fr. Barron says that the story of Jesus getting into Peter’s boat in Luke 5 reveals the essential feature of sainthood. What does he mean by this? What does this story have to do with the saints?
- What key insights have you gleaned from learning more about the life of Katharine Drexel?
- Why do you think that spiritual greats like Dorothy Day, Edith Stein, Thomas Merton, St. John Paul the Second, and Hans Urs von Balthasar were such fans of Thérèse of Lisieux?
- Describe Thérèse’s “Little Way” in your own words. What impact have her teachings had on your life?
- How did Edith Stein’s love for God elevate and transform her courage as she faced her capture and eventual death at the hand of the Germans?
- Describe the “transfigured temperance” that we see manifested in Mother Teresa. How did she go far beyond the normal requirements to serve so selflessly?
- Why do you suppose God allowed Mother Teresa a lack of his presence for such a long time? How can we explain the fact that during these years she still functioned at a very high level, “directing her community and traveling the world as a teacher and evangelist”?
- When God’s pure, white light shines through individual human lives, it manifests as an infinite variety of colors. Who in your life radiates God’s light? What unique dimension of divine holiness does this individual (or individuals) manifest?
Chapter 9: The Fire of His Love: Prayer and the Life of the Spirit
- There are many forms of prayer: Speaking, singing, being silent, emptying one’s mind, sacred reading, petitioning, even dancing can all be considered forms of prayer. But is there a common denominator, a fundamental characteristic, of prayer? How would you express what this common thread is?
- How is “being with God” different than the “prayer of petition” (asking God for things)? What has been your experience of just “being with God”?
- Thomas Merton is a contemporary example of someone who experienced many of the same anxieties and effects of secularism that we do today. What motivated him to seek and dedicate himself to God? What lessons can we take away from this thoroughly modern, thoroughly human spiritual master?
- How can St. John of the Cross help you to understand why most of us are so unhappy most of the time, so dissatisfied? What does St. John of the Cross offer as a solution to the overarching materialism and secularism so prevalent today?
- Define the difference between being depressed and experiencing what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.” What is the goal (or outcome) of such a dark night?
- In St. Teresa of Avila’s life, we see an example of someone who experienced mystical visions of Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the saints. During these times she would enter a trance-like state; other times she was known to levitate. How do you feel about such experiences? Have there been times in your own life, or in the life of someone you know, that God made his presence known to you in an unusual way?
- The heart of St. Teresa’s teaching is based on her realization that Christ dwelt within the depths of her soul. She compared his divine presence to an interior castle. How would you describe what it means to be grounded in Christ, to have him dwelling within you?
- Jesus urged his followers to persevere in petitioning God in prayer. But if God cannot change, what is the point of asking him for anything? If he “knows what we need before we ask,” why should we bother telling him what we need?
- When we pray and don’t receive what we ask for, what might God have in mind? Can you think of an example in your own life where your prayer went unanswered? How did you deal with this, and what did you learn from it?
- Thomas Aquinas speaks of God “praying through us.” What does this mean?
- Thomas Merton described contemplative prayer as “finding that place in you where you are here and now being created by God.” What does it mean to pray contemplatively? Have you had any experience with this type of prayer?
Chapter 10: World Without End: The Last Things
- How can we reconcile the idea of a good God and the existence of an eternal hell, a place of unending torture?
- What does the Catholic Church teach about heaven, hell, and purgatory?
- Fr. Barron discusses Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. How familiar are you with this meditation on the next world? Reading Fr. Barron’s commentary, what new understanding do you have regarding the meaning of hell?
- Describe the differences between mortal and venial sins.
- If venial sins can affect the soul in a twisted, negative way (even though they have long been forgiven), what means has God provided to heal those wounds?
- What is your understanding of purgatory? Has your thinking regarding purgatory changed in any way after looking at it from Dante’s perspective?
- Many Protestants believe that purgatory is not biblical, and it’s true that the word “purgatory” is never mentioned in Scripture. What is the basis for the Church’s teaching on purgatory?
- How do you describe the angels? Are they involved in human situations, and if so, how?
- St. Paul tells us that we battle not against flesh and blood but with angels and principalities. How might unseen powers exert a harmful influence on the affairs of human beings? Are there any situations in your own life where you have experienced this type of battle?
- How would you define Satan after reading this chapter?
- Fr. Barron offers descriptions and explanations of heaven from spiritual greats like Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis. What new insights have you taken away from what they say?
- Three metaphors for heaven are: 1) the beatific vision, 2) the city, and 3) the new heavens and the new earth. Which metaphor resonates most with you, and why?
- Describe what the beatific vision means in your own words.
- How can heaven be compared to a city? What characteristics does a city have that might parallel what heaven might be like?
- Describe the “resurrection of the body.” What form do you think this will take?
- Many Christians see the goal of the spiritual life as getting out of this world and “going to heaven”—the soul leaving the body and journeying to a purely immaterial realm. Fr. Barron says this is not what Christian hope is truly about. How have you thought about what it means to go to heaven? What is the Christian belief about what happens to our bodies when we die?
- Fr. Barron ends the book by saying that what Catholicism really is all about is God. Now that you’ve finished the book, how has your understanding of Catholicism changed? Can you articulate two or three key takeaways?