How did you first come up with the idea for “The Catholicism Project”?
That goes back about four or five years ago. I told the Word on Fire board that I wanted to do something like Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, where he showed the beauty of civilization as he talked about it. I wanted to do the same for the Church by going to Europe, the Holy Land, Calcutta, Africa, Notre Dame Cathedral and elsewhere.
One of the board members suggested that I should drop everything else I was doing and do that. The board agreed and approached the cardinal about it. Cardinal Francis George, who had invited me to do the evangelizing-the-culture work, said that whatever he could do to make it happen he would do.
So, with the board and the cardinal behind me, we started raising money locally. It came through a lot of blood, sweat and tears, begging and events. Eventually, we obtained enough to do one trip. The cost was about $250,000 per episode for traveling, housing, filming and editing. We went to the Holy Land first.
I always had a 10-part series in mind. We filmed and continued begging, and once we had the money, we’d take our next trip. In the middle of the project, the economy collapsed, and many of our donors backed out. We continued praying, especially to the Little Flower [St. Thérèse of Lisieux], our patroness, and, in the end, we took 12 trips to 16 different countries and eventually got it done.
What was the high point in the filming?
For me, it was the Holy Land. It was the first time I had ever been there. Being in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was overwhelming. Out of reverence and the religious excitement of being there, I knelt down. Our cameraman filmed that and used it in the series.
Another highlight was visiting Uganda. I teach a number of African students and asked them where I should go to see Catholicism in Africa. All of them said I should go to Namugongo, Uganda. There, on June 3, they have a massive liturgy and procession for the martyr Charles Lwanga and companions on the site where he was burned at the stake.
To see 500,000 African Catholics come with this giant procession of priests and bishops was overwhelming. In the video, I use the line about the “blood of the martyrs being the seed of Christianity,” and the camera pans back to show this massive gathering. That was an emotional highlight for me. ...
In the past few years, the level of hostility directed at the Church has really intensified. Your project was, in some ways, a response to that, wasn’t it?
The sexual-abuse scandal was the worst period in the history of the American Catholic Church. What do we do? We respond institutionally, certainly, as we did with the Dallas Charter. But secondly, and most importantly, we as a Church need to come back to the basics of evangelism.
The Church needs to reassert what it’s about. That’s what Sts. Dominic, Benedict and Ignatius did. They responded to crisis by talking about what we are about — Jesus Christ and caring for the poor.
I saw the project under this rubric and felt we should go forward at this time. A year ago I was on a local Chicago news program and the opening question was: “You represent the religion that has the worst public relations in the world.” I said, “Yes, we have this problem, but I refuse to let 2,000 years of Catholicism be reduced to the sexual-abuse scandal. A handful of people did terrible things, but we have 2,000 years of beauty, art, architecture, liturgy and the saints. We have St. Thomas Aquinas, [Blessed] Mother Teresa, the Notre Dame Cathedral. I don’t want that reduced to the sexual-abuse scandal.” I want our story told, and that’s a reason I did this.