In August, the actor Shia LaBeouf, who was born to a Jewish mother and a Christian father, announced that he had embraced Catholicism after learning more about it for a movie role. His comments launched headlines across the internet. But, in some Catholic circles, it was just as noteworthy where he had shared the news: in an interview with Bishop Robert Barron on the cleric’s YouTube show “Word on Fire.”
Barron, 63, is one of the key faces of Catholicism online. His engaging energy and friendly demeanor allow him to present a faith that feels accessible. In one video, he’ll break down a Bible story, and in another, he’ll geek out on how “Like a Rolling Stone” rocked his world when he was a young teen.
“Bob Dylan is my dream guest,” he said in an interview.
His channel as of Feb. 22 had 125 million views and 608,000 subscribers. Some see it as an antidote to one of the church’s most pressing ills: shrinking membership. Since 2000, according to Gallup, the percentage of Catholics who consider themselves members of congregations has dropped by almost 20 points. The trend aligns with a wider one detailed in a 2020 Gallup poll, which found that 47 percent of Americans belonged to religious communities (churches, mosques, synagogues), down from 70 percent in 1999. But the decline among Catholics in church membership was twice as steep as among Protestants, Gallup said.
Barron’s forays into digital media have been ahead of the Vatican’s. His YouTube, Twitter and Instagram accounts all predate the church’s presence on those platforms. EWTN, the world’s largest Catholic media network — publishing and broadcasting since 1981 — beat Barron to YouTube by only a few months.
In 2007, the bishop opened a channel on a still-nascent YouTube as an experiment to draw younger people to the faith.
“[The Catholic Church] assumed for a long time that Catholics would come to our institutions to be evangelized. My parents’ generation went to Catholic schools and parishes, but that’s not happening anymore,” Barron said in an interview. “I would say, ‘People aren’t coming to church, so where are they?’ They’re online. [I thought], ‘If we could just become sort of a presence there, wouldn’t that be a good idea?’”
At the time, YouTube’s most popular channel had fewer than 200,000 subscribers. Still, Barron saw the platform’s potential; his first upload was a commentary on Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” In it, he draws parallels between Jack Nicholson’s character and the devil: “a tempter who draws people into his sphere of influence.” He followed that with a commentary on “Fargo,” in which he compares the film’s humor and violence to that in the novels of the 20th-century Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor.
Back then, Barron says, he was happy when a modest 300 viewers tuned in. It was in the comment sections, though, that he saw the videos’ potential to reach new audiences.
Viewers seemed to appreciate that Barron approached Catholicism from an intellectual and philosophical perspective, rather than from a crouched position of defense or a stance overly deferential to secularism — what Barron calls “beige Catholicism.” His fans like seeing a more conservative cleric who is comfortable incorporating popular culture.
One user wrote, “We def[initely] need more holy men in the world that are at least in touch with the modern world. It would be great to be in Mass and hear the priest tie in ‘The Departed’ to his sermon.”
Barron’s appeal exists in his wide-ranging knowledge, not only of the faith, but also of culture, sports, music and film. While some clergy rely solely on teachings from the Bible to spread the word, Barron searches for a relatable mix of, for example, Chicago sports lore and Christ’s own words to get his point across.
Barron continued to post, gradually expanding the channel’s subscriber base. Then, during the coronavirus pandemic, the channel’s popularity skyrocketed. As churches shut down across the world, Barron decided to live-stream a Mass each Sunday from a small chapel in Los Angeles.
According to the social media data website SocialBlade, in March 2020, Barron’s channel counted 239,000 subscribers, adding about 28,000 subscribers in that month and 32,000 in April. Two years later, in March 2022, his subscriber count had more than doubled to about 496,000.
On an internet that is often polarizing and provocative, Barron says that he strives for civility: “We can have good conversations and arguments about religion without killing each other.”
But Barron has for years engaged with conservative online personalities including Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro and Newt Gingrich. “You give me a platform, an opportunity to speak, and you’re not going to censor me, I’ll go,” Barron said.
This has alienated some of his current followers.
Alex Webber, 31, a doctoral student in Gainesville, Fla., found Barron’s videos in his mid-20s while searching for atheism debates online. Webber says Barron delivered “the first intellectual argument for any faith, but specifically Catholicism.” He went on to convert and was married in the Catholic Church late last year.
But he is less comfortable with what he sees are Barron’s current direction. “I do feel that Bishop Barron is going towards the right, especially when I see him do interviews with GB News [a right-wing British television and radio channel] and Fox News,” Webber said. “But that may be because other news outlets aren’t interested.”
Barron places himself somewhere in the middle of the Catholic Church’s ideological spectrum of online personalities. On the liberal end of the spectrum is the Rev. James Martin (645,000 Facebook followers), a Jesuit priest who works to further the rights of LGBTQ+ within the Catholic Church. On the conservative side is Taylor Marshall (459,000 YouTube subscribers), a past Episcopal Church priest who converted to Catholicism in 2006 and campaigned for Donald Trump for the 2020 election. (Unlike Barron and Martin, Marshall is not a member of the Catholic clergy.)
“I get critiqued from both the left and the right,” Barron said. “They get mad at me if I go on someone’s platform they don’t agree with. But I don’t think we can afford to be that ideologically fussy at a time when the gospel message has to get out.”
In the world of podcasts, another priest who has built a substantial following is the Rev. Mike Schmitz. In 2021, Schmitz, now 48, started “The Bible in a Year” a podcast, offering short daily episodes that walk listeners through the holy book. In January, Schmitz’s show was ranked second among all U.S. podcasts on Apple. Schmitz has a new show, “The Catechism in a Year,” which at one point ranked third overall on Spotify, behind only “The Joe Rogan Experience” and “Huberman Lab,” a show hosted by the Stanford University neuroscientist Andrew Huberman.
Listeners say they enjoy Schmitz’s openness to questioning the faith, his self-deprecating style, and the bite-size episodes, which are often between 20 and 30 minutes long. Rose Dvorak, 22, who initially found Schmitz through a TikTok video, began listening to “The Bible in a Year” on her drive to work. “It encouraged me to actually go to Mass,” Dvorak said. “Acknowledging his own temptations and humanity makes him so relatable. It takes down this invisible wall between the clergy and the laypeople.”
Schmitz said the popularity of shows such as his and Barron’s is proof there is an appetite for Catholic content — whether the appetite is among Catholics or secular speculators. “Today, the internet is ‘mission territory,’” Schmitz wrote in an email. “One of the problems is when the Church stops being missionary, when [it] waits for people to come to us instead of us going out to them.”
Massimo Faggioli, a professor of historical theology at Villanova University, sees risks to online evangelization and the clergy who focus on it. In the modern media landscape, with its exponentially growing number of competitors, personalities must constantly fight for attention and relevance. Faggioli said that to reach a larger audience, creators often turn to messages that are less nuanced and “touch on controversial topics at the intellectual level, but also the political one.” He added: “The [online] medium itself entails a certain need for audience. That means the message responds to logic that are not always typical and appropriate to the Catholic Church.”
“There’s a thirst for very simplified narratives — who’s right and who’s wrong,” he continued. “But if you present yourself as a Catholic priest or bishop, your concern should not be how much your audience has grown but what kind of service you are providing to the Catholic Church at large.”
Faggioli also worries that allowing priests to focus so much on building digital audiences will distract them from pastoral duties. “The larger your audience on social media, as a Catholic personality, the smaller your touch with the real church, fellow bishops and priests. This is dangerous,” he said.
Schmitz and Barron said their true goal is to get people to attend Mass in real life. Schmitz said: “It can’t end [online]. We recognize that … human beings relate to each other in person. That’s the only way to have genuine depth of human relationships … as good as online stuff is.”
As for nonbelievers who come across his content, Barron said: “I’d rather see someone move from agnosticism to at least an interest in religion. That’s a move in the right direction.” He is already pondering the succession plan for the church’s digital evangelization efforts: “I’m dreaming about a religious order of priests that would carry on this kind of work in media.”
Stefano Montali is a journalist based in Berlin who has reported for publications including the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera.