‘Death to Self:’ Bishop Barron’s Calling Began at Fenwick

By John Paulett, Fenwick Theology Teacher

Editor’s note: Monday, January 28, is the feast day of Saint Thomas Aquinas, priest and doctor of the Catholic Church and patron of students.

Three years ago Bishop Barron (left) reconnected with Fr. Thomas Poulsen, O.P., his former teacher at Fenwick.

Readers interested in exploring the excellent videos of Bishop Robert Barron, the recipient of the Lumen Tranquillum Award from Fenwick High School this year, might start with the short presentation he gives on the man he describes as his hero: St. Thomas Aquinas. The bishop explains how it was at Fenwick, when he was 14 years old, that a theology teacher first introduced him to St. Thomas Aquinas. He describes it as a “bell-ringer” event and goes on to explain how it changed the course of his life. He seems to suggest that this seminal moment led him, through the grace of God, into the priesthood.

Besides his description of the encounter in his freshman theology class, there is another deep Fenwick link in Barron’s explanation of Aquinas. He lists three ideas, which he believes characterize the thought and teaching of Thomas. It is interesting to note how closely the three themes he describes resemble three main ideas characteristic of a Fenwick education. Many high schools talk about the “grad at grad,” or what a graduate will know and be. I would suggest that these three concepts, reflective of the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, might be a good description of a Fenwick student after four years on Washington Boulevard.

Bishop Barron first explains in the video that Aquinas believed there was one truth. He explains that people of Thomas’s time (we might note of our time as well) often thought there were two truths — scientific and religious. Aquinas refused to accept that. He knew that there could be only one truth. If science and religion seemed to be in conflict, there was a problem in either the scientific or the theological method. More thought and study were required.

‘Dominicans are not afraid of reason; we embrace it.’

Barron calls St. Thomas Aquinas his hero.

At Fenwick, we sometimes express this same idea as, “Don’t leave your brain at the door of the church (or the theology classroom.)” It is a characteristic of Dominican education to apply rigorous study and thought to every aspect of our education, including our religious belief. We are not afraid of reason; we embrace it. We are convinced that reason and critical examination will lead to the Creator, not contradict creation.

And so we teach Fenwick students to question, to wonder, and to apply the lessons they learn from science and philosophy to their faith. Bishop Barron reassures us that Aquinas had no fear of reason. Neither should we.

Radical Humanism

Secondly, Barron describes the Thomistic understanding that we are contingent beings. This is a fancy way of saying that we depend on something else for our existence. That thing that is the First Cause, what does not depend on anything else for its existence, is what we call God. It was this explanation of the Proofs of the Existence of God that first rang the bell of 14-year-old Bob Barron. [A Western Springs resident, he transferred to Benet Academy in Lisle.]

I often say to myself, “There is a God and it is not me.” When we recognize that we are dependent on a power beyond ourselves (12-step programs would call it a Higher Power,) we are on the path to faith. We begin this journey with the destruction of self-centeredness and ego. Christian theology calls it “death to self.” In the gospel of John, Jesus tells us, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it produces great fruit.”

Bishop Barron will receive Fenwick’s Lumen Tranquillum Award on April 26, 2019.

We live in a world characterized by selfishness and the ethical philosophy known as egoism. When we join ourselves with Jesus in recognizing our dependence on God, we reject the idolatry of self. We see ourselves as contingent beings, seeking the will of God.

Finally, Bishop Barron describes Christianity, as understood by Aquinas, as Radical Humanism. He claims that no view of the world is as humanist as that of the Gospel. This speaks directly to the third thing that characterizes a Fenwick student — respect and reverence for all human life:

  • This extends from the pressing issues of life, such as abortion and euthanasia, to the evils of racism, misogyny and homophobia.
  • It calls us to a preferential option for the poor, a radical concern for poverty, a commitment to the migrants.

The view of Aquinas and the education of the Fenwick student is not in step with contemporary culture, what Pope John Paul II once called a “Culture of Death.” While we might have disagreements on issues of policy, we share a commitment to the belief that human beings can never be used as a means to an end.

It is worth taking 10 minutes to view Bishop Barron’s explanation of the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, and it is interesting to hear how his connection to Aquinas began in a classroom at Fenwick High School. We can find in it a picture of what a Dominican education at Fenwick means for our young men and women. Click here to watch it.

Read more about the science vs. religion controversy – and why Fenwick President Fr. Richard Peddicord, O.P. calls it a myth!

About the Author

John Paulett

In addition to moral and freshman theology, Mr. Paulett teaches courses in history and film theory at Fenwick. He also is the school’s Photography Club moderator. A native of Ohio, John attended St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, then earned a B.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University. He also holds an M.A. degree in Theology from Felician College, an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Antioch University, and is pursuing post-graduate work in Religious Studies at Northwestern University.

In 2013, Mr. Paulett was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Education. He has also been recognized as “Heart of the School” by the Archdiocese of Chicago. John “moonlights” as an Adjunct Professor, National Louis University in Chicago. Outside the classroom, the versatile Mr. Paulett has published histories of Chicago, a book on prayer and spirituality, and several plays (“Lost Chicago,” “Forgotten Chicago,” “Printers Row,” “Pentecost,” and “Peanuts, Popcorn and Prayer”). He also is an actor, appearing on stage and in film, including the award-winning short film “The European Kid.” 

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