He was a rector for his time. During a tumultuous age in the history of the Church, with no shortage of scandal on the inside and challenges presented by a culture in which secularism was beginning to take hold, this humble priest of God began a series of reforms – both social and ecclesial – aimed at bringing people back to the Church and into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. Well known in Chicago as one of the most influential priests, and elsewhere as a prolific speaker and writer on a variety of topics, this man to whom so many seminarians looked for guidance was carving his own little niche into more than just the history of Mundelein Seminary, but into the social, liturgical, and intellectual life of the universal Church.
Of course I am referring to Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand (1905-1979), who was rector of this place from 1936-1944. Appointed by Cardinal Mundelein himself, Monsignor Hillenbrand had a tough job as rector of one of the most iconic Catholic institutions in the United States. Still, he found time to devote to social renewal through his ‘Summer of Social Action’ and the ‘Catholic Family Movement’. By his teachings that the grace of Christ Jesus in the sacred liturgy is the only source of true social and personal renewal, Monsignor Hillenbrand helped to shape generations of priests and laypeople. In a world still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, and a global society moving swiftly from one world war to another, Hillenbrand taught that the sanctifying grace received from full participation in the sacred liturgy would lead to a real and living relationship with Jesus Christ.
There is a portrait of this rector hanging above now-Bishop-elect Barron’s desk in his office at Mundelein. On my first day here, Father Barron told us the story of this Monsignor named Hillenbrand, this man who, despite his small stature and humble demeanor, put everything he had into his priesthood, sparing nothing for the service of Christ and his Church. Fr. Barron told us how he once had the chance to meet and serve alongside some of the priests who knew Hillenbrand as their rector and, Fr. Barron told us, despite the passage of decades, these priests still called themselves “Hillenbrand Men” because of the immense personal, ecclesial, and social impact this man had on their own lives as priests.
I have only been at Mundelein and under the tutelage of Father Robert Barron for one year. Of course I can’t speak for everyone, but, for my part, I proudly consider myself one of the “Barron Men”. I first “met” Father Barron on YouTube during my freshman year of college when I felt far from God and wasn’t sure what he wanted me to do with my life. Impressed as I was by Father’s vast knowledge of pretty much everything, something else consumed my attention. Here was a man, a brilliant man, who was obviously perfectly capable of succeeding at pretty much anything (except, if you know him, as a professional golfer) and yet he is a priest. A Catholic priest. A man who has “given up” wife, money, power, and fame because he wants to teach, preach, and sanctify his people. How could I ignore this witness? Father Barron is a living example of the motto of his favorite St. Thomas Aquinas: non nisi te, Domine – none but you, O Lord.
In the same way Monsignor Hillenbrand took his life as a priest and combined it with his own talents to become a pioneer of social action and liturgical renewal as a means of bringing Christ to the world, Father Barron founded Word on Fire and has shamelessly become the leading voice and face of the New Evangelization around the world. It was Father’s work with Word on Fire and his commitment to preaching Christ to the world using the newest forms of social communication that inspired me to start VianneyMedia, an apostolate at St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, MN and which contributed, in so many ways, to my being the content editor of this new Mundelein Seminary website.
During one of his rector’s addresses last year on the topic of Pastoral Formation, Father Barron shared this passage from Psalm 126:
“They go out, they go out full of tears / carrying seed for the sowing. / They come back, they come back full of joy / carrying their sheaves.”
He was blunt: the pastoral work that priests must do in the world is very difficult and, in the priests own humanity, sometimes he frets going out to sow the seeds of the Gospel of Christ. But, he said, without fail, that on the way back from a ministry or a talk or a house visit the priest will come back full of joy, carrying the sheaves of the harvest. His point? It is worth it to follow Christ! It is worth it to do his will and to give up everything for the sake of the Kingdom! Basically: it is worth it to be a priest!
Father Barron, you have inspired me to consider a call to the priesthood, you’ve helped me find ways to use my gifts with social media to preach the Gospel, but most of all (and most importantly) you have shown me what an incredible life it is to be a priest. Nobody’s pretending it’s easy for you to leave this place that has been your home for nearly 30 years, but as you go out possibly full of tears to your next great adventure, please look back and see the 225 men here and take our memory with you as the sheaves of your harvest. For many seminarians and faithful, a hero is off to Hollywood. Not, of course, to disappear but to bring that Word which is on fire to a new place, a new people who will soon be burning, just like us.
From one Barron Man among many: thanks and, naturally, see ya later.