It's common knowledge that the most widely followed Catholic prelate in the world is Pope Francis — Bishop of Rome, Successor to the Prince of the Apostles, and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. 

But less obvious is the runner-up — Robert Barron, bishop of Winona-Rochester, online evangelist and founder of Word on Fire Ministries. Barron doesn’t hold any special position in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. On paper, he’s the simple diocesean bishop of a midsize Minnesota diocese. But through his internet presence and public ministry, a religious revival of global proportions is underway.

The bishop has over 1 million subscribers on YouTube, 3 million followers on Facebook and close to 500,000 on Instagram. Barron has the ear of conservative intellectuals, elected officials, Hollywood entertainers and political activists shaping modern society. He has been invited to speak by executives at companies such as Google and Amazon, and maintains a dizzying schedule that takes him from Washington, D.C., to Rome to Prague to London and beyond.


Barron Word on Fire Show

Production manager Vaughn Woodward prepares to record an episode of the Word on Fire Show at the ministry's Rochester, Minnesota studio. (Word on Fire)

Fox News Digital traveled to the Diocese of Winona-Rochester to follow Barron for a day in his ministry and get a glimpse behind the scenes of Catholicism’s most successful modern evangelist.

He recalled that he was still just a priest when he published his first YouTube video in 2007 — a review of the Martin Scorscese film "The Departed." It got just over 100 views. At the time, he was ecstatic about such success.

"I thought, 'Really? 100 people watched it? Terrific!" he told Fox News Digital.

It was from these humble beginnings that Barron’s evangelization grew, becoming one of the first Catholic voices pushing back against growing nihilism and anti-Christian rhetoric in American culture. As the demand for more meaty explorations of the faith has risen, the bishop has expanded into Bible studies, academic lectures, theological lessons and historical documentaries about saints that helped shape the Christian religion.

The bishop speaks and carries himself the same both on-camera and off. He speaks in a casual tone, but doesn't attempt to dumb down theological language — Latin vocabulary is peppered throughout his dialogues and his mind is a near-comprehensive reference catalog for quoting Vatican II documents.

Bishop Barron at podium

Bishop Barron stands at the podium of his lecture set at Word on Fire Studios. Barron recorded several promos for the University of St. Thomas Houston in the studio in one take each. (Word on Fire Ministries)

Speaking on controversial moral debates — abortion, gender ideology, IVF, the death penalty — he takes the tone of a sympathetic yet stern parent. There's not much scolding of the opposition, but even less negotiation on fundamental principles. This approachable — yet uncompromising — disposition may be the source of his ministry's wild success.

Barron is one of numerous faith leaders sifting through the rubble left by the rise and rapid decline of a particularly anti-religious movement in the previous decades.

"I think the ‘New Atheist’ wave came and went. It left behind a lot of very unhappy and directionless people," Barron told Fox News Digital. 

The movement he referenced was a short-lived phenomenon in the early 2000s led by the so-called "Four Horsemen" of atheism — writer Christopher Hitchens, neuroscientist Sam Harris, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett.

More than a decade from the New Atheists’ peak in relevance, not much is left of their march against organized religion. This year, the number of religious "nones" (individuals without affiliation to an organized religion) dropped for the first time since 2016. Even individuals without formal religious affiliations more often self-describe themselves as "spiritual" or at least "agnostic" instead of outright "atheist."


Bob Robert Barron Word on Fire

"Bob" — the martial arts dummy used by the Word on Fire production team to frame shots — is pictured at Barron's podium. Employees dressed the dummy in a clerical shirt and Roman collar with a pectoral cross around his neck. The glasses are necessary to ensure the lighting doesn't create glare on Barron's own spectacles during shoots, but producers say the rest of the costume, and the nickname, are just for fun. (Word on Fire Ministries)

Barron isn’t surprised New Atheism failed to stick.

"I think our culture, which has so emphasized the primacy of [one’s] own choice determining value, has left behind a lot of broken people," Barron said. "And they're looking."

Christianity — and the Catholic Church in particular — has seen a dramatic re-entry into the public consciousness. High-profile converts, including actors, politicians and even some former New Atheists themselves, have brought traditional, apostolic Christianity to the forefront of the culture war for the American mind.

In the face of wayward souls searching for answers, Barron describes his job simply — "proclaiming the Gospel." It's not an easy job.

"You have to have a lot of little medicines in the black bag," Barron said at his Word on Fire offices in Rochester, Minnesota. "When you're going to go deal with someone pastorally, you don't know where they're going to be, what their issues are, what their pathologies might be, what their hang-ups are. So you'd better have a lot of things in your bag."

Bishop Barron

Monitors in the Word on Fire studio show producers every angle of Bishop Barron as he talks with his co-host, Dr. Matthew Petrusek. Barron recorded two episodes of the Word on Fire Show during Fox News Digital's visit. Each was shot in just over fifteen minutes and took only one take. (Word on Fire)

He made the comment while reflecting on the recent conversion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born American writer who became one of the loudest voices in the New Atheism movement. 

Last year, Ali renounced her past advocacy for religious skepticism and declared herself a Christian. She is in good company. Celebrities who have recently declared a new Christian affiliation include entertainer Russell Brand, artist Kat Von D, and rapper Daddy Yankee. OnlyFans model Nala Ray now claims to be seeking salvation after abandoning her highly lucrative career in professional nudity.

High-profile converts to the Catholic Church specifically have come from a variety of cultural spheres as well — actors including Shia LaBeouf, Rob Schneider, and Dasha Nekrasova have embraced the faith in recent years. Porn star Bree Solstad renounced her adult entertainment work last month and converted after a trip to Rome and Assisi. 

In the political realm, recent public converts to the faith include Sen. JD Vance and political pundit Candace Owens. Author and culture commentator Jordan Peterson recently applauded his wife Tammy Peterson's entry into the Catholic Church after a miraculous recovery from cancer.


Timothy Nerozzi and Bishop Robert Barron

Bishop Barron speaks with Fox News Digital reporter Timothy Nerozzi in the green room of the Word on Fire studio space. (Word on Fire)

Famous converts can be fickle and prone to disappointing believers not long after their declaration of faith. Kanye West declared himself "born again" in 2019 and has since appeared to have abandoned the faith. Britney Spears similarly expressed affiliation with the Catholic Church in 2021 before renouncing the religion just a year later.

Regardless of which public conversions endure, their increased prominence points to a larger social consciousness about Christianity.

Even the world of stand-up comedy — for decades a soapbox for militant, self-proclaimed atheists such as George Carlin and Ricky Gervais — is now flush with personalities such as Shane Gillis and Tim Dillon, self-professed "Irish-Catholics" who are far from churchgoers, but talk about seeking spirituality amid sometimes barbed jokes about their baptismal religion.

Barron baptized the son of comedian John Mulaney (who often explores his complicated relationship with religion on stage) while serving as a bishop in Los Angeles. He told Fox News Digital he finds Mulaney's public wrestling match with Catholicism to be "very interesting to watch as a comedian" and "very funny."

"I think what's happening — it's not yet baptisms, marriages, confirmations. I think it's a broader, more elemental thing going on now, an interest — people crossing a river, people entering a door. They're coming toward it," Barron told Fox News Digital.

Specific dioceses have reported entries into the Catholic Church are up by 50-70%, but Barron acknowledges that big-picture statistics on church participation "haven't really turned around yet." He instead sees conversions and renewed interest in Christianity as the beginning of a cultural shift that will manifest more tangible fruit down the road.

Modern Catholic converts frequently point to the Church’s distinctive attributes as a major influence on their decision to explore the faith — universal liturgy, firmly defined doctrine, institutional hierarchy and a theological tradition that can be traced back to the time of Jesus Christ. 

"The mainstream Protestant churches became so secularized. They became, in many cases, just an echo of the left-wing secular culture," Barron said. "So they have very little to offer."

Tom Laughlin Jesuit pilgrim

Tom, a Catholic discerning a vocation to the priesthood, arrived unannounced to the Word on Fire offices while Fox News Digital was shadowing Bishop Barron. Tom is on a pilgrimage as he contemplates pursuing entry into the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. The Jesuits send their novices out into society with only a bus ticket and a few dollars, instructing them to seek out spiritual experiences on the road and rely on the charity of others for subsistance. Tom was in Rochester to visit the Mayo Clinic, where he recovered from a serious illness that deepened his faith. The Word on Fire staff took Tom in and gave him food and a place to rest from his travels. Barron gave the novice cash, sat with him in the office kitchen, and talked with him about the priesthood. (Word on Fire)

"[Catholicism has] hung on to a dogmatic tradition, a liturgical tradition. We take the saints seriously, we take art and liturgy seriously. And all of that, I think, does attract people intellectually," he added.

While a bedrock level of faith is central to all denominations of Christianity, Catholicism embraces a unique tradition of theological inquiry that encourages students to interrogate their own beliefs and seek logical answers within a Biblical and historical framework with the guidance of a millennia-old magisterium.

"The church has this very articulate moral tradition, and there's a tendency in our country to subjectivize this business," said Barron. "The fact that we have this rigorously thought through, objective, intellectual tradition, I think is attractive and that is one reason why people find Catholicism compelling. The idea is we keep proclaiming it in season and out, whether it's popular or not."

This renewed cultural cache has presented new problems for a Christian denomination that has always been a foreign-coded minority in the United States. With all eyes on the Catholic Church, the uninformed expect the institution to be dynamic and active about public politics in a way it has never been.

Whether it’s disagreements with Democrats about abortion or feuds with Republicans over the death penalty, the Catholic Church’s moral teaching is too rigid to fit snugly within either party — a departure from the left-right binary that defines American politics.


Bishop Barron mass

Bishop Barron delivers a homily at St. Pius X church in Rochester. During the mass, Barron confirmed dozens of teenage students into the Catholic Church. (Word on Fire)

Barron’s popularity and well-educated perspective on the faith has led many Catholics and non-Catholics alike to look to him as a political figurehead — a proposition Barron is unwilling to entertain.

"The thing we can't do, and we don't do, is partisan politics," he said. "We can't get in the business of saying, 'Okay, don't vote for him, vote for this guy.' Bishops don't do that and priests shouldn't do that."

Keeping out of partisan politics is difficult for Catholic leaders when the President of the United States is a pro-choice member of the church.

President Biden has made his self-professed Catholic faith such a cornerstone of his public image that he is frequently photographed gripping rosary beads or making the Sign of the Cross. At the same time, he lobbies for policies that directly contradict the core ethical teachings of the church.

Discontented laity and non-Catholics turn to the church hierarchy in search of catharsis — or more cynically, perhaps a chance to score political points against enemy politicians. The most hysterical culture warriors even demand Catholic prelates place censures and excommunications on elected officials as a show of force.

Bishop Barron Eucharist

Bishop Barron, surrounded by fellow priests, consecrates the Eucharist for the mass. The Eucharist is the central sacrament of the Catholic faith. The church teaches that at the moment of consecration, the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ as referenced in the Last Supper narrative of the Bible. This belief is referred to as the Mystery of Transubstantiation. (Word on Fire)

Political partisans have questioned why Biden and other Catholic lawmakers haven't been excommunicated by the pope or their local bishops. Some even write to Word on Fire demanding to know why Barron himself hasn't placed an excommunication on the president — an action he is incapable of taking and one he would not recommend regardless.

"It would be completely counterproductive, something as dramatic as that," Barron said. 

He continued, "The bishop can and should speak, first of all, personally and privately with the guy and try to convince him that there's a problem with this position. I think that's a good opening move, prudentially."

"Now, what do you do if he stays adamant in his position? I think it's okay then — even in a public way — to say ‘This is an inconsistent view.’ You know, excommunication is such a kind of dramatic and final approach. So I understand the pope's reticence about that or any bishop's reticence about that," Barron said. "But I think [it’s good] to be publicly unambiguous about the church's view and how this politician is out of line with it. And he shouldn't be, as a Catholic. I have no problem with that." 

Barron has made his frustration with Biden’s inconsistencies in Catholicism and pro-choice politics well known.

"We certainly can talk about the moral issues as they play themselves out in the political arena. I've done that over and over again with abortion, euthanasia, all kinds of different things," Barron said. "I criticized Biden for being a self-professing Catholic at the same time advocating the most radical access to abortion possible and pointing out how inconsistent that is."

Many other Catholic bishops have made similar criticisms of the president, including Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington and even Pope Francis himself.

"I leave it to [President Biden's] conscience and that he speaks to his bishop, his pastor, his parish priest about that incoherence," the pope remarked in 2022.


Tom Laughlin

Tom, the Jesuit novice pilgrim who had visited the Word on Fire offices, attended the confirmation mass being celebrated by Bishop Barron later that day. Barron offered encouragement to Tom from the pulpit and parishioners offered the pilgrim money, hot meals, and a warm bed while he stayed in Rochester. (Word on Fire)

To Barron, the insistence that the Catholic Church has a special expectation to manifest punishments against its disobedient laity is misguided: "Why haven't Protestant leaders then excommunicated Bill Clinton? I mean, he took the same radical position."

In a democratic nation, the onus of responsibility for religious dysfunction in politics falls to the laity, he argues.

"Cardinal [Francis] George, who I admire very much — people would come to him and ask, 'Why aren't you doing more about abortion and all this?' And he would say, ‘Look, you people run the society. You elect these people,'" Barron recalled. "So, I'm here to tell you what Catholic truth is and how to live. But now off you go. You politicians and lawyers and scientists and activists — go, go, go."

Since the Second Vatican Council concluded in 1965, the Catholic Church has urged the laity to participate more fully in the works of the church by evangelizing in their own secular lives.

It is a key development that Barron feels has been forgotten in the decades since. The bishop is quick to complain that laity too often come to him asking for advice in fields they know far more about than him.

Bishop Barron

Bishop Barron administers the sacrament of confirmation to a teenage Catholic parishioner during the mass. Catholics believe the sacrament of Confirmation is when believers are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Word on Fire)

"If I would bring in business leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, and get them in a room and read the gospel for the coming Sunday […] I'd say, ‘Okay, now all of you — see, judge, and act," Barron said. "What do you see in your world? How do you judge it in light of what I've just told you in light of the gospel? And now, what do [you] do to Christify the world? Because I don't know. I'm not an investor, I don't know that world. But they do."

With dogmatic atheism in the rearview mirror, Barron’s most pressing concern for the future is the coming generations of children who will grow up with neither religion nor rigorously considered disbelief. Instead, they'll likely mature in a society lacking contemplation of a transcendent dimension altogether — "the first generation to lose that."


"If you've really lost a sense of God, the importance of God — of religion, of ritual — you're going to live in this very buffered space of the secular order. And that has never been the case in human history," the bishop said. "There's always been the village atheist, but the overwhelming majority of people have seen their happiness as a function of a relationship to a highest good, to a transcendent good."

But Barron insists there is plenty of hope. He believes it because he’s seen the seeds of his own efforts bud and bloom in front of his own eyes in the most unexpected ways.

"There is a kind of awakening, a kind of revival going on. And the very fact this thing that I started years ago — so tiny and so experimental and insignificant — how it would develop and grow. That's a good sign to me of that," Barron concluded. 

"There's a yearning. There's an openness to it. So I take hope in that."