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Bishop Barres considers ‘proactive’ church role against gang violence

Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre was among the mourners attending the funeral Mass for 16-year-old Justin Llivicura of East Patchogue on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Llivicura was the youngest of four young men whose slashed bodies were found in a Central Islip park last week. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

Bishop John Barres, anguished by the deaths of four young Latino men that police attribute to a gang, said Wednesday he will consider a “proactive” role for the Catholic church to help stem the brutality.

His message: The community must unite. The violence must end.

The bishop, less than three months into his tenure as spiritual leader of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, met privately with the family of Justin Llivicura and took part in the funeral Mass for the 16-year-old whose body was found last week with those of three others in a Central Islip park.

“We’re going to take it a step at a time and be as proactive and constructive and courageous as possible,” Barres said after the Mass, standing outside St. Joseph the Worker Roman Catholic Church in East Patchogue.

When he arrived on Long Island, Barres set ministering to Latino Catholics as a personal priority, much as he did in his previous position as bishop of the Diocese of Allentown in Pennsylvania.

He said Wednesday he admires the anti-gang work of priests in Los Angeles, including Archbishop José Gomez and the Rev. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest. Boyle works directly with gang members to bring them out of gang life and into jobs provided by Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1988.

“I think there’s been some pioneering work in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles,” Barres said. “I admire those involved in it.”

The bishop said he and others in Rockville Centre will “do our best, make our best phone calls, in a very humble way learn from the experience of others.”

Barres also said he is friends with Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, the archbishop of Lima, Peru, who confronted Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, a violent Communist movement that created havoc in Peru, mostly in the 1980s.

“He had experiences with the Shining Path and he was very courageous in the way he stood up,” the bishop said. “I admire him very much.”

Barres also said he looks to the example of the late Archbishop Óscar Romero, who denounced death squads and government repression in El Salvador. Romero was assassinated in 1980 while offering Mass in a hospital chapel.

A diocesan move to action would bring praise from some Latino activists, including Joselo Lucero, whose brother, Marcelo, was killed in 2008 in a hate crime in Patchogue.

Lucero attended the funeral and assisted the family of Llivicura, who like him are immigrants from Ecuador.

“It’s the moment now to act, not only preach,” Lucero said in Spanish. “It’s necessary to get directly involved with the gangs to prevent these types of crimes.”

Barres stressed that faith and spiritual formation are key to resolving the gang problem on Long Island.

He invoked Pope Francis’ call for the Catholic Church to serve like a “field hospital” after a battle, going to where people are suffering and helping to heal their wounds.

“He’s a great inspiration to us today in terms of us being instruments of divine mercy, of us being instruments of the culture of life, and deep formation of our young people in the culture of life and the culture of faith, rather than a culture of violence and a culture of death,” Barres said of the pope.

While he was bishop of Allentown, gang violence occurred in Reading, Allentown and South Bethlehem, he said. But it was nothing like the horrific slayings in Central Islip.

“Senseless violence that is so painful,” he called it, adding, “All of us are called to be peacemakers on this planet.”

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