OAKLAND, Calif. — Bishop Michael Barber scanned the packed congregation at Oakland’s modern Cathedral of Christ the Light on May 25, and he then issued his pledge to his new flock: “I would like to do for Oakland what Pope Francis is doing for the whole Church.”
“My vision is this: The priests take care of the people,” added the newly installed shepherd of the Diocese of Oakland, Calif. “The bishop takes care of the priests. And we all take care of the poor, the sick and the suffering.”
Bishop Barber is the first Jesuit to be appointed a U.S. bishop by Pope Francis, who is also a member of the Society of Jesus.
Over the past decade, the bishop served as the spiritual director for diocesan seminarians, most recently at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Mass., and before that at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif.
Michael Barber entered the Society of Jesus in 1973, and he was ordained in 1985. He received his undergraduate degree from Gonzaga University in Washington state and graduate degrees in theology from Regis College at the University of Toronto and the Gregorian University in Rome.
Yet while some Catholic commentators have made much of the fact that the first U.S. bishop appointed by a Jesuit pope was also a Jesuit, several Church leaders told the Register that the vetting process for a bishop can take up to a year, especially if a candidate is a priest who has not yet received an episcopal appointment.
“Pope Francis didn’t choose him quickly. My estimate is that he has probably been considered for the office [of bishop] for the better part of a year, and maybe longer,” said Archbishop George Niederauer, the retired archbishop of San Francisco, during a May 24 interview.
Archbishop Alexander Brunett, the archbishop emeritus of Seattle, has served as an apostolic administer for the Diocese of Oakland after its previous leader, then-Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, was appointed to lead the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2012.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, whose primary responsibility is the selection of candidates for episcopal appointments, echoed Archbishop Niederauer’s comment. He also noted that, in past years, several Jesuits have been named to lead U.S. dioceses.
“It happened that the first bishop in the U.S. appointed by Pope Francis was a Jesuit. It may be a simple coincidence, or it may be Providence,” said Archbishop Viganò during an interview after the installation. Then, the nuncio added with a smile, “Nothing happens without a great reason from the Lord.”
Asked to describe the qualities he sought in episcopal candidates, Archbishop Viganò said that a future bishop “should be a man of great faith, high fidelity in his personal life, and so be able to transmit the Gospel by the example of life and to defend the reason for our joy in the faith.”
He added, “Human, spiritual and moral qualities put together with the right knowledge and experience of the culture to where he is sent.”
Archbishop Cordileone, the metropolitan archbishop who also played a role in the selection of Bishop Barber, was the chief celebrant at the installation Mass, and he offered his own insights into the virtues needed to serve the Church as a bishop.
Archbishop Cordileone told the congregation, “For the bishop, this call to lay down his life for the ministry Christ entrusts to him finds a particularly pre-eminent expression in the preaching and teaching of the Gospel.”
“In the face of opposition, of hostility, of calumny, even in some cases of persecution, this will require heroic virtue; it will require great strength of resolve to preach the truth with charity, in deed as well as in word. Bishop Barber has already proven himself worthy of this; he has proven his constancy under fire, literally as well as figuratively.”
Archbishop Cordileone’s reference to Bishop Barber’s “constancy under fire” reminded the congregation that the new bishop had served as a Navy chaplain in a variety of posts since 1991, when he became a commissioned officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and he ultimately achieved the rank of captain in 2012.
“His statement — 'I will fulfill the mission' — is so resonant of the ethos of the naval officer,” said Father Sean Cox, an Episcopalian priest and military chaplain who served under then-Father Barber. “We are not always given missions we would want, but, once given, we fulfill it with everything we have."
The selection of a Jesuit priest and former Navy chaplain as Oakland’s new bishop is the latest in a succession of bold episcopal appointments in the West.
Last year, Archbishop Cordileone, who led the 2008 Proposition 8 voter initiative that effectively barred same-sex “marriage” in the Golden State, took up the reins in San Francisco, provoking headlines and consternation from homosexual-rights activists in the city.
“We have a great West Coast ecclesiastical offense,” observed Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press, who attended the installation and has known Bishop Barber for many years.
Challenges in Oakland
Bishop Barber also faces a number of daunting challenges as he assumes his new post in Oakland, an ethnically diverse city that is shadowed by entrenched poverty.
A critical concern is the diocese’s massive debt, totaling $114.7 million, including costs associated with the construction of the Cathedral of Christ the Life, which opened in 2008.
“People have asked me: 'What are you going to do about the diocese’s debt?' Short answer: 'I don’t know yet,'” said Bishop Barber. “But what I do know is that, if we are generous with God and generous in taking care of his people, God will take care of us.”
The Oakland Diocese is home to 2,604,689 people, including an estimated 550,000 Catholics. There are 85 parishes staffed by 158 diocesan priests. There are 45 Catholic elementary schools serving 11,759 children and nine high schools with 5,666 students.
Earlier this month, during a press conference announcing his appointment, Bishop Barber said he would soon begin visiting diocesan schools because of the importance of Catholic education to transmit the faith and to promote social mobility for the poor. He has also credited a Dominican Sister of San Raphael, Sister Mary Jude, his eighth-grade teacher, with playing a major role in his own religious education and vocation.
Bishop Barber has expressed a desire to visit prisoners in his diocese, as Pope Francis has already done in Rome. Bishop Barber’s brother, Jesuit Father Stephen Barber, previously served as a chaplain at San Quentin State Prison.
Father Stephen Barber told the Register, “The faith of our family, the education of the Dominican nuns and a really good parish life, with a good and holy pastor, fostered a love for the Church in both of us and our brother, Kevin.”
Bishop Barber has earned high marks for his work as a spiritual director at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, and St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif., which serves a number of dioceses in the West.
Sulpician Father Gladstone Stevens, vice rector and academic dean of St. Patrick’s Seminary, recalled that then-Father Barber, who also taught dogmatic theology, “was able to relate class material to the actual life and work of priests. That can be hard to do, but he never lost that focus. It was about: How do you become an effective priest and servant of Christ and his people?”
Bishop Barber’s depth of experience in seminary education is seen by Father Fessio as a key element in his appointment to the Diocese of Oakland, which is home to the ecumenical Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, which incorporates nine schools of theology, including the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, the Franciscan School of Theology and the Jesuit School of Theology.
“He has a great love for Cardinal Newman: That should be a good indication of where his heart is,” said Father Fessio, who noted that Bishop Barber's past involvement with St. Patrick's Seminary would be highly valued by local bishops, who want strong formation for future priests in their dioceses.
Bishop Barber has yet to signal his immediate priorities. Friends predict that the former Navy chaplain will act decisively, but with his customary humility.
“I am unworthy,” the newly installed Bishop Barber told the congregation at the cathedral. “But I also know that, from all eternity, it has been in the mind of God that this is my vocation. With your prayers and the grace of God and Mother Mary’s love, I intend to fulfill it.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.