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New bishop reflects
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placeholder May 20, 2013   •   VOL. 51, NO. 10   •   Oakland, CA
New bishop reflects on his journey to Oakland

Rev. Michael C. Barber, SJ

On May 4, the morning after his appointment as bishop of Oakland was announced, the Rev. Michael C. Barber, SJ, sat down for an interview with The Catholic Voice. Here are excerpts from that interview with Albert C. Pacciorini, editor, and Michele Jurich, associate editor/staff writer. More of the interview will appear in the July 15 issue of The Catholic Voice.

First thoughts on becoming a bishop?

It's so unJesuit, it's so not us. I'm the guy who likes to sit in the last pew of the church if I go to a Mass. I don't want to be up in the front. That's where I feel most connected with God. I don't like being up front, in the big chair, all eyes on you. Bishop (Carlos) Sevilla, who I asked to be one of my principal co-consecrators, had been my confessor and spiritual director when I was in the Jesuit seminary in the late '70s. He said he felt awkward. People were holding the door for him, and taking his picture. Archbishop (John) Quinn took him aside and gave him some advice: "Don't worry about that, Carlos. They're not doing that to honor you. They're honoring Christ." He said that made him feel better. So I take it on board. The bishop represents the faith to the world and also nurtures the flock.

How deep are your roots in California?

Even though I was born in Salt Lake City, I have no memories of there. I was brought in a cardboard box — before they had baby seats — to San Francisco. My dad was working for an insurance company in San Francisco that sent him to Salt Lake for one year. We first lived in the Mission District. I was baptized at Mission Dolores in the original font where all the Indians were baptized. That means a lot to me.

Do you know who baptized you?

Father John Cummins. He was the assistant pastor. He was there at the same time as Father Warren Holleran, who is my friend and still teaching at St. Patrick's.

Where are you in your family?

I'm the oldest. I was born in 1954. My brother Stephen was born in 1956. My youngest brother Kevin was born in 1959. Little brother is a Jesuit priest. The youngest brother is married and has three children.

Starting school?

When it was time to go to school, we had moved to our first house in Novato. My dad commuted to San Francisco and I went to Our Lady of Loretto School. I was taught by the Ursuline nuns of Santa Rosa. I made my First Communion in the parish hall because the church was under construction. But it was still holy and wonderful. That's where I was struck by the beauty, the mystery, the attractiveness of the Catholic faith, through the stories of the nuns. They gave holy cards as prizes. A nun even gave me a statue.

Influence for a lifetime

I graduated from St. John Vianney School in Rancho Cordova and became an altar boy. The priest who had the biggest influence on me in my whole childhood is Msgr. Richard C. Dwyer. He's deceased now. His family owned the delta shipping lines and he gave up a life of wealth to enter the seminary. He went on safari in Africa, he owned a ranch up in Jackson, and he was an experienced horseman. It was unbelievable what this guy could do. He was very kind but very strong.

On entering the Jesuits

I graduated from grammar school in '68. Vocations were still booming. When I was a kid, priests would come into the classrooms from the mission lands, tell you about being in a canoe on the Amazon and bringing the sacraments to Indians. "This is wonderful," I thought, "I want to do that." I went to the minor seminary, St. Pius X in Galt. Those were times of turbulence. Vocations started tanking. I was student body president there when I was a senior. I found I wanted to be in a religious order. I felt I received this vocation. The hardest thing for me was to tell Monsignor Dwyer I wasn't going to be a diocesan priest. I had to go where I felt God calling me. I wanted to be a teaching priest. After a year of college at Loyola University in Los Angeles, now Loyola Marymount, I was accepted at the age of 19 into the Jesuit novitiate in Santa Barbara.

Tell us about your time at St. Patrick's Seminary

I taught theology full time as well as being full-time director of spiritual formation. I love being a spiritual father. That's where I got to know all these young Oakland priests who were seminarians from 2002 to 2010 — Father Nobrega, Father Carl Arcosa. That was a very happy time. I loved the classroom, love teaching. A lot of my students from Menlo Park I'm still in touch with. When I come back to the Bay Area, I have lunch with some still in seminary. Some have asked me to preach at their first Masses. That means a lot to me.

How's Boston?

One reason I went to Boston: Cardinal O'Malley had asked for me to go back there and be a spiritual director at their seminary, and help build it up. At one time, they had over 400 seminarians. Then that seminary collapsed down to less than 30 for a six-year program. That place has come around. That place is full. There are 85 seminarians: MIT grads, Harvard grads, a construction worker, sitting there with his tattoos, now in the seminary. It's been a thrill to see the Holy Spirit calling them.

How did Boston react to the news?

When it was announced in Rome, it was noon in Rome, 6 a.m. in Boston and 3 a.m. out here. At 3 a.m. the phone in my room started ringing. The first message I got was from one of my seminarians: "It's 6 a.m. here. We just looked at the computer. Guess what? The big seminary bell hasn't stopped ringing." That bell is only rung when a new pope is elected, or a pope dies, or when the Red Sox win the World Series.

 
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