Bishop, and a naval officer
Bishop Barber, at sea on the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis, in 2009. He will continue to serve as a chaplain in the Naval Reserve.
All: Courtesy photos
Aboard the USS Constitution after his promotion to captain.
Father Stephen Barber, SJ, and then-Father Michael C. Barber, SJ, visit their mother, Dolores Barber, at St. Anne's Home in San Francisco in January 2003, just before Father Michael Barber left for Kuwait. Mrs. Barber passed away on April 2, 2003.
Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, talked with Michele Jurich, associate editor and staff writer at The Catholic Voice, about his life in the Navy.
When did you decide to become a military chaplain?
It was in 1991 in Rome. The first Gulf War was beginning. I was in graduate studies at the Gregorian University. I had been ordained six years. The U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and large ships were coming into port in Naples, Italy, on their way to the Middle East. They were looking for American citizen priests in Rome to come down and say Mass on their ships, because they usually had just Protestant chaplains. I volunteered to go down and say Masses on these ships, and that's where I met the Navy. After saying Mass aboard ship in the harbor, the sailors gave me a full tour, and as I left the ship, the captain said to me, "Father, the next time you come aboard I hope we can have some gold stripes on your black suit," meaning I wish you would join. I started going back more and more often, to Naples and to Gaeta, the flagship of the Sixth Fleet. I got to know all the families and Navy personnel who were there, help with catechism, the retreats. That's where I found out about the Navy Reserve, that I could join the Navy Reserve and still keep my normal Jesuit assignment, which was university and teaching.
The Jesuits gave me permission to join the reserves. I got accepted. I went to the Naval Chaplain School at Newport, Rhode Island, the boot camp. From then on, since I had an academic calendar, I would spend summers volunteering for Navy duty. I served in Sigonella in Sicily, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. I served in Sardinia; we had a sub tender there. I served in Rota, Spain. I went to sea with the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier on a Mediterranean voyage.
The 1991 Gulf War was very short; it was over by the time I was vetted. Then when I came back to San Francisco, in 1998, I met Father Sacca because we were assigned to the Alameda Reserve Unit, working with Marines.
Were you surprised to be called to active duty before the start of the war in Iraq?
No. The first people to be called up are doctors, Catholic priests and pilots. Those are the three they're most short of. The Navy Reserve called those up first. They had plenty of Protestant chaplains already on duty, but they were really short on priests. I was called in January 2003. I had just started teaching at St. Patrick's Seminary in September 2002. I only had 10 days to report. I got the order, then you had to make out your last will, you had to find a power of attorney. You were going to a war, you didn't know if you were coming back. The problem was my mother, was a widow, living alone. She had a collapse and was in the hospital. She couldn't go home and live alone. I had this order to report. I begged the Little Sisters of the Poor at St. Anne's Home in San Francisco to take her. I made a novena to St. Joseph. They had one room, it had just opened. They gave it to her. So that's the last time I saw my mother alive, I took her to that home and visited her there.
It was the wonderful time in my priestly life, that I most felt needed as a priest, the most consoled as a priest. That's why I'm very pro-military chaplain, that we allow priests to serve with our forces, especially in times of national emergency, that they're there next to our Catholic service people. That's where they need a priest most.
Are you still in touch with some of the service members?
Yes. The one boy I baptized with the canteen. When I baptized him, we were just out in the middle of nowhere. I didn't have any books; I just had my basics.
"Are you sure you want to be Catholic? You're supposed to have catechism."
"My unit came on a ship and the priest gave me lessons. We didn't finish."
"Because you're going into battle, I'll baptize you."
I made him say the Apostles' Creed. You know this is forever, not just for now. I said, kneel down, then I baptized him with my canteen. I said, "Now you're Catholic." We had these little notebooks we kept in our pockets, with waterproof paper. I wrote, in Latin, I baptized Marine Corporal so and so on this date. I wrote my name, address and email. I ripped it from the notebook. I said, "This is your baptismal certificate. Hold on to it. When you get to your next place (his unit was on the move) show this to the priest that you were just baptized and haven't had communion yet."
A year later, after we had come home, he called me, "Father, Father, do you remember me? I'm engaged and I want to get married. We went to see the priest and he asked for my baptismal certificate. I gave him the torn-out paper. And the priest didn't want to accept it; he wanted something more formal." I sent him one. But I told him to keep the other one. "You should frame that."
Were you able to come home after your mother died?
They gave me emergency medical leave to come home and bury her, then I went back on duty. I was very pleased. The colonel said, "You've only got one mother and we want you to go back."
And then you returned to the war?
Yes. I was with the Air Wing. All the Marines were withdrawn when Baghdad fell, and it fell quickly. All the Marines were taken out; the Army stayed. My unit left. I returned to the seminary in September.
In thanksgiving I was the priest for 7,000 Marines for the Third Marine Air Wing. No one died. I attribute that to divine protection. I went the next summer to the shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux in France. Because I had dedicated them to her, I wanted to say Mass at her shrine. A priest went with me. When it got to her shrine, all the walls were filled with ex voto (vows) offerings from World War I of soldiers who had been protected by her, and World War II. There's a tradition here.
We had to take a train, it took a long time to get there. I wonder if we'll be able to say Mass there. Will they have a book? Just as we're walking the up to the convent, a woman comes out of a door and walks up to us and says in English, "Would you fathers like to say Mass?" How did she even know we spoke English? "We have an altar prepared and a sacristy for you." The altar we said Mass on was the altar St. Therese had taken her vows before. We felt that was a fantastic sign from God.
I have permission from the apostolic nuncio to stay in the Navy Reserve, and also from Archbishop Broglio, who is archbishop of the military. They both said give it a try and see how it works. I have to keep all my requirements, and do all the required duty days a year. I'm going to use my vacation time to do my two weeks. I owe two days a month and I try to put those days together.
Remembering those who served
There's a group at the Catholic Community of Pleasanton of military members who have a support group to deal with PTSD and other adjustment issues arising from being in battle. I want to support that. I've got that on my calendar. That's important.
How has your service
affected your priesthood?
"With the military you get a direct cross-section of America — a lot of the young people who wouldn't have the tuition money to go to a Jesuit school. I like that. It's a little more rough-and-tumble than you would encounter in a refined schoolroom atmosphere. You also meet many unchurched kids. I am their chaplain whether they like it or not. I go around the whole ship to all the Marines in the whole unit. I speak to them about moral issues or give them briefs about religious culture.
"I've also made friends with chaplains from other faiths. I've known one for 18 years, and I'm like an uncle to his kids. I would never be that close to a Southern Baptist in normal life."
— From an interview with Legatus magazine, 2009
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