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The Rev. Robert Barron, a Chicago area Catholic priest and prominent theologian who visited Salt Lake City to speak at a conference, says the beauty of faith can bring people back to God. Wednesday, January 9, 2013.

Beauty, the Rev. Robert Barron believes, is the path into the hearts of those who have rejected the Christian faith and even God.

Barron, a Chicago-based priest, theologian and creator of the series "Catholicism," which aired on PBS stations last year, was in Salt Lake City on Thursday to speak to a conference of Catholics who work in cathedrals.

More than 100 Utahns joined 100 conference-goers to hear Barron speak on what Catholics call "the new evangelization," proclaiming Christ in a secular world.

Lacing his lecture with humor and references to thinkers throughout the centuries, Barron concentrated on what Pope John Paul II said the new evangelism demands: ardor for the central message of Christ's resurrection and new ways of expression via modern means of communication.

"For the church's evangelical work, it's a great moment," Barron said in an interview while in Utah.

Barron was appointed last year as rector-president of Illinois' Mundelein Seminary/University of St. Mary of the Lake, where he has taught theology since 1992.

His talk in Salt Lake City drew more than Catholics.

Homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson, a Presbyterian, said she liked Barron's point that there are many ways to evangelize and that preaching about doctrine may be the least effective.

Atkinson's own brand of evangelization is to spend time in the streets and homeless camps, tending to men and women she considers friends.

"We are the hands of Christ to do his works here," she said. "People need to see that we are living what we are saying."

While his "Catholicism" documentary was largely intended as a visual catechism, a way to share with Catholics the church's trove of history, art, architecture, teachings and traditions, Barron says it also is apparently reaching many ex-Catholics.

"Catholicism is a smart tradition," Barron, 53, said. "I came of age in a dumbed-down Catholicism and it was a pastoral disaster.

"My strategy is to lure them back with a sense of the church's beauty and not so much lead with the hot-button issues like sex and authority."

"Catholicism" was shown on more than 250 PBS stations, including KUED and KBYU in Utah, and all 10 of its episodes will be available on Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) beginning in March.

In the past six years, Barron has made 275 video commentaries, which he posts on his Internet ministry website, Word on Fire, as well as on YouTube.

Much of his work is about culture, and he reviews music, movies and books, looking for kernels of biblical truth -- in, say, the music of Bob Dylan or the films of Martin Scorsese.

But one of his dominant themes is a refutation of atheism, which he considers a "deadening" ideology. He often will trade comments with critics on YouTube.

For instance, in recent weeks, Barron parried with a YouTube commenter who wrote that "religion is the main source of evil and it needs to end!" while others posted that religion is an insult to human dignity and a fantasy created to deal with pain.

"What the atheists are used to fighting is a crude fundamentalism," Barron said. "They are not used to an intellectual articulation of the faith."

When atheist Christopher Hitchens died, however, Barron did a video tribute.

"His passion for justice was implicitly religious," Barron said. "His arguments about religion were bad, but I loved him as a stylist."

kmoulton@sltrib.com