Bishop John Barres’ lips quivered and tears rolled down his face as he recalled one of the most difficult moments of his young tenure as leader of the Diocese of Rockville Centre: presiding over the funeral of one of the four victims of gang violence killed this spring in Central Islip.
Barres said he was overwhelmed by the brutality of the quadruple murder, which police say was the work of MS-13. During the funeral Mass for 16-year-old Justin Llivicura, he broke liturgical protocol by walking with Llivicura’s relatives as they entered St. Joseph the Worker Roman Catholic Church in East Patchogue rather than waiting for them inside the church.
“I just knew I had to do something different,” said Barres, who was overcome with emotion during an interview and could not speak for about 30 seconds and wept as he reflected on the violent death of a young parishioner. “We all have key moments in life. That was a key moment early on that will always be with me.”
Barres, 56, who assumed his post Jan. 31, has passed the 100-day mark as bishop of one of the largest Catholic dioceses in the United States, and it has been a whirlwind experience. He has lived up to his reputation as a smart, down-to-earth leader who is constantly on the move as he visits parishes, schools and community groups.
Barres said he is still getting to know the sprawling diocese, home to 1.5 million Catholics, but has established priorities, including the development of anti-gang programs. Other goals are “dramatic missionary growth,” or bringing lapsed Catholics back into the church, reaching out to Latino Catholics, strengthening Catholic schools and encouraging young parishioners to consider religious vocations.
He says he has made a quick transition to Rockville Centre from his previous post as bishop of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and already feels at home. “I love it. I love our parishes,” he said. “You can just feel, our parishes and our schools, there’s a wonderful spirit. There’s a wonderful energy and creativity.”
Barres has been well-received by many Catholics. They say he is living up to Pope Francis’ dictum that pastors “smell like their sheep” — that is, they immerse themselves among their flock rather than remain aloof in offices or flying off to conferences.
Connecting directly to some of the quintessential Long Island experiences, Barres, who was appointed by Pope Francis, has even made a video blog titled “A Catholic Spirituality of Commuter Delays” about the plight of Long Island Rail Road riders. He filmed it at a LIRR platform in Rockville Centre.
“He’s brought a breath of fresh air,” said Thomas Lederer, a human resource professional from Hauppauge who has a master’s degree in theology from the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington.
Richard Koubek, a former administrator of the Public Policy Education Network at Catholic Charities who is now community outreach coordinator for Long Island Jobs for Justice, said Barres “seems to be in the model of Pope Francis . . . I’m impressed with his priorities.”
Barres’ relations with his priests seem off to a good start. “I don’t know anybody who is not happy with him,” said one priest who asked not to be named. “I don’t think he has an off button.”
Still, Barres, who says he is a great admirer of Pope Francis, must confront challenges. He faces declines in church attendance, enrollment in Catholic elementary schools and numbers of priests, and must seek to unify a Catholic flock that is diverse politically, economically and ethnically.
Some Catholics say they now want to see his inspiring words translated into concrete actions.
“His message has been very uplifting, but we are waiting for action,” Koubek said. “At some point we would like him to translate the language which he used when he first got here, ‘I would put my life on the line for immigrants,’ into” specific actions such as supporting “sanctuary churches” that help protect those living here illegally from raids by immigration authorities, he said.
“I’m really impressed with the Episcopal Diocese and Bishop [Lawrence] Provenzano, who is very pro-active,” Koubek added. “I hope that Bishop Barres will be as pro-active as Bishop Provenzano.”
Barres hit the ground running when he arrived in Rockville Centre, and has not slowed down.
He still starts his days at 4:30 a.m. and heads straight to the chapel at his residence at the St. Agnes Cathedral parish in Rockville Centre to pray for an hour or so before launching into the day’s events.
He has attended school plays such as “Jesus Christ, Superstar” at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville — praying backstage with cast members before the performance — spoken at a public symposium about the opioid crisis attended by 1,200 people at St. Anthony’s High School, and celebrated standing-room-only weekday morning Masses at parishes throughout the diocese.
He is an avid user of social media, issuing three tweets a day and producing weekly video blogs, including his piece on the LIRR.
The number of priests on Long Island has dropped from well over 500 in 1970 to 365 in 2016, reflecting a trend that has hit Catholic dioceses across the nation.
In July, Barres will launch a program he created in Allentown called Quo Vadis — Latin for “where are you going.” It is a five-day/four-night camp in which boys and girls ages 14-18 explore the possibility of becoming priests or nuns. It will be held at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington.
“I have found it to be in my prior life the equivalent of Triple-A Scranton for the Yankees,” said Barres, a former Princeton University basketball player. “The lights go on.”
“I’ve got a track record with this,” he said. “I know it’s a winner.”
Barres will ordain five men to the priesthood in June, and said he is optimistic more will come.
His overriding theme, though, is “dramatic missionary growth” — focused not on missions overseas but right here on Long Island and in the United States where participation has declined.
He often tells stories of Long Islanders he has met who have “evangelized” or brought people back into the church. He tells of one public school senior who was accepted to the University of Notre Dame, got in contact with another incoming freshman and persuaded him to start attending Mass again.
In many ways, much of the future of the church lies among Latinos, who are heavily Catholic and whose numbers are growing locally and across the country. Barres is making them a focus.
He speaks Spanish, has studied the language in Peru, and grows emotional when he talks about Latino immigrants.
“I’ve been so moved by,” he said during the interview, then fell silent for several seconds as his eyes welled, “ . . . the Hispanics.”
“Just the diversity of the communities, the El Salvadoran community. That’s something that is completely new to me,” he added.
The bishop has been impressed with the work within the immigrant community of the diocese’s clerics.
“Our priests’ outreach to immigrants and refugee families at a time of anxiety and uncertainty is really, when you look at the history of the priesthood in Long Island, is one of our finest hours,” he said. “I’m really proud of them.”
The gang activity that has terrorized those communities is not entirely new to him, though the level of violence is. “Certainly the gangs were present in Allentown,” he said. “But this particular dimension of gang violence is another level.”
He said the diocese is already taking steps to prevent gang activity through programs run by Catholic Charities. The agency has an early intervention program with young immigrants that it said sends a message of “You Are Not Alone, Get Help Early, Stay in School and Respect Law Enforcement.”
The agency said it is also reaching out to its counterpart in Los Angeles to learn what it has done to combat gangs, and to incorporate it here.
Another of Barres’ priorities has been Catholic schools, which, after enrollment declines of more than a third over the last generation have stabilized in recent years. There were 28,307 students attending Catholic schools in 2015.
He has visited all 10 Catholic high schools in the diocese, saying he was “in awe” of them, and now plans to visit more elementary schools. “Catholic education is alive and well in the Diocese of Rockville Centre,” he said.
In the little free time he has, Barres tries to squeeze in some activities for relaxation.
He and New York’s archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, recently went to a one-act/one-actor play in Manhattan, “C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert.” Dolan also hosted a welcome dinner for Barres and Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the new archbishop of Newark.
Barres reads voraciously on everything from theology to business management, takes “mini-pilgrimages of prayer” through the churches of Manhattan and, ever the athlete and sports fan, hopes to take in a Mets and a Yankees game this summer.
A fan of Lincoln
As Barres, a history buff, settles into his new position, he said he keeps thoughts of one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln, close at hand. Lincoln was famous for keeping open appointment times for anyone to see him, sometimes driving his aides crazy, Barres said.
“It was part of his genius, because he was in touch with the everyday person,” Barres said. “That’s always been something that’s been important to me. That Lincoln model of being there, listening.”
He said he purposely arrives early at parishes so he can spend at least 30 minutes greeting people in the pews before Mass starts, making eye contact with every parishioner. It’s partly a lesson he learned from his days playing basketball at Princeton.
“You want to be the first in the gym and the last to leave,” he said. “You want to be the first in the church and” the last to leave. “We try to set up my schedule so I can be the last to leave. ”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the victim of gang violence at whose funeral Mass Bishop John Barres presided in April.