| Bishop Barber:
meet people on their own ground
Michael C. Barber, SJ
Emphasizing the vision of Pope Francis, Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, sees the role of the church in the current era as energetic evangelization that meets people on their own ground.
"At the new bishops' school in Rome the pope gave us a very strong speech on what he expects from his bishops … 'care for the poor, don't just care for the people with money,'" Bishop Barber recalled.
"Pope Francis realizes that it takes courage and audacity to move out of our comfort zone," he said.
"We live in a time of the quick fix, but real healing takes time. We need the virtue of patience, not just holding our tongue but the virtue of patience that comes from trust and providence.
"We priests have to let people go, but like that father we need to accompany the wayward son with our prayers, keep eager watch for his return and make it as easy as possible for him to come home," Bishop Barber summarized in a Dec. 10 talk to the group Catholics at Work.
Bishop Barber hears that message from Pope Francis, who has described the Church as a field hospital after battle. When life-threatening wounds need to be treated, it is foolish to focus on the patient's high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Ordained as Oakland bishop in May, Bishop Barber referred extensively to the approach of Pope Francis in his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires, adding powerful examples from Bishop Barber's own years as a Navy chaplain.
Bishop Barber hears the pope saying "We are to go out to the seat of conflict, not just wait for people to be wheeled into the emergency room. We should go out, not only because it is our mission, but because it will do us harm if we do not.
"The job of the priest is to perform triage," Bishop Barber said. "The priest's operating room is the confessional.
"If the Church lives shut up in its community, then the same thing will happen to it that happens to a person who shuts himself in; he will atrophy, physically and mentally. It will deteriorate like the inside of a locked room, cold and damp spreading everywhere.
"In other words, a church that limits itself to the administrative and only watches over its small flock is a church that in the long run becomes sick. The shepherd who locks himself in is not a true pastor for his sheep, but just a hairdresser for his sheep, putting in their curlers instead of going out to seek others."
The bishop recalled a serviceman who asked to talk, worried about his rocky relationships, explaining that his girlfriend had just had his baby. It turned out the man had several girlfriends each with his child, plus a wife and the relationships were not going well.
"We priests need to be patient, pay attention to the people in front of us, and as the pope says, take them seriously and begin the treatment on their terms."
As a military chaplain in peacetime few servicemen would attend Mass, but as combat approached everyone, including non-Catholics, sought out the chaplain.
"We have to know the right time to draw the line. But on the other hand we have to know when to step back and act like the father in the parable (of the wayward son), who let his son go and waste his fortune to have his own experience."
That may be comparable today to the challenges some families face, Bishop Barber observed, often as their children go off to college.
"Our diagnosis may be correct; it seems self-evident to us; but it may be too much for the invalid to take in. Real healing takes time. We need the virtue of faith."
As for views that Pope Francis may be too relaxed on church teaching, Bishop Barber said "Nothing in Jorge Bergoglio's biography suggests that he is a maverick. His style is the fruit of a life-long struggle to be a good priest and the realization that sometimes secondary things were keeping him from attending to what was more important in the ministry.
"Almost every talk he gives is filled with very strong and harsh language that if it was said by any other cardinal or bishop they would say: He's mean or he's yelling at us." Pope Francis' views are similar to those voiced by Popes John Paul II and Paul VI, Bishop Barber noted.
He recalled a maxim of St. Alphonsus Liguori that "the purpose of the sermon is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable."
The bishop recalled talking with former Oakland Bishop (now Archbishop of San Francisco) Salvador Cordileone about the dilemma of challenging politicians who vote for abortion. Archbishop Cordileone pointed out, "if we tell them they can't come to Communion, what about everyone else who has not been to Mass even the previous Sunday, who are in a state of mortal sin according to the objective teaching of the Church?"
back to top