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Bishop John Barres: A priest of warmth, energy and action

On Jan. 31, 2017, Bishop John Barres will become the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Barres intends to focus on the region's burgeoning Latino population, push for religious freedom, strengthen Catholic schools and seek to bolster the numbers in the pews and the seminary. (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Bishop John Barres considered marrying and starting a family as a young man. He worked as a caddie, played college basketball and was employed by a major accounting firm in Manhattan after graduating from Princeton University.

He entered the seminary, but decided to go to Rome to study on his own. After a year, he returned and completed his preparation for the priesthood.

Barres, 56, who will be installed as the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Tuesday, took roads less traveled — and gained a wealth of experiences — before permanently entering the religious life he so deeply loves.

He exudes warmth, humility and accessibility, and will make himself a familiar presence throughout the eighth-largest diocese in the United States, according to Catholic parishioners who have known him during his seven years as bishop of the Diocese of Allentown in Pennsylvania and fellow clergy.

His style is to regularly visit parishes, hold open forums with Latino Catholics and climb the stands at high school football and basketball games to chat with people, they said. Watch for him to push for religious freedom, seek to strengthen Catholic schools and work to bolster the numbers in the pews and in the seminary.

“I’ve never known him to have an ‘off switch,’ ” said the Rev. Thomas Dailey, a theology professor at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, who has worked with Barres. “It’s not just physical stamina that he has. It’s a sense of zeal. It’s a sense of energy and urgency and vibrancy. He’s always on the move. He’s going to go visit everybody. He’s out and about.”

Barres spoke in recent interviews of his goals, hopes and intentions as the diocese’s new spiritual leader, replacing Bishop William Murphy, 76, who is retiring after holding the position since 2001. First and foremost, Barres plans to listen to and learn from clergy and lay people among Long Island’s 1.5 million Catholics.

“What our world and all of us need is real, deep, contemplative listening,” he said.

His goals start from the grass roots, with emphasis on the Catholic Church’s New Evangelization movement to bring people to Mass and on outreach to Latinos and other ethnicities. That mirrors Pope Francis’ view of priests as “shepherds with the smell of sheep” — that is, pastors who are close to their flock.

“Where the church’s mission really moves is in our parishes,” Barres said. “I’m so excited about discovering the New Evangelization mission of the parishes in the Diocese of Rockville Centre and the wonderful creativity of our people, of our priests, our deacons, our religious. It’s going to be a great adventure.”

Coming to much bigger diocese

On Long Island, he will be on the largest stage of his career, in a diocese with six times the number of Allentown’s 250,000 parishioners.

Rockville Centre, carved out of the Diocese of Brooklyn in 1957, is the second-largest nongovernmental employer in Nassau and Suffolk counties, with 19,800 employees. It has 133 parishes and 57 Catholic schools attended by 27,500 students.

The challenges he faces are stout, with fewer faithful in the pews, a shortage of priests, declining student enrollment, the increasingly diverse religious landscape and tensions over immigration, which includes an influx of Latinos — most of them Catholics.

The soft-spoken, ruddy-cheeked Barres, who speaks Spanish and some Italian and French, said he is eager to get to work.

He admitted to some nervousness, then said, “What I’ve learned is that when you do the will of God, when you move forward in the will of God despite your own inadequacies, the Holy Spirit works with you as an instrument.”

Barres grew up in Larchmont in Westchester County, where as a youngster he was a caddie at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from New York University and once worked for the Arthur Andersen accounting firm in Manhattan.

The former Princeton junior varsity point guard, who applies what he learned playing sports to his religious thought and teaching, is a big fan of Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry. He squeezes in a round of golf when he can and enjoys the Ken Burns documentaries on the Civil War.

He is a longtime member of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic group that promotes the role of lay people in the church and teaches that everyone is called to holiness, with everyday life as a path to sanctity.

Barres’ penchant for connecting personally with parishioners was in evidence at his farewell Mass in Allentown this past Sunday. For 20 minutes before the service began, Barres walked the aisles of The Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena, talking with parishioners, posing for photos and receiving and giving hugs.

At one point, he knelt to talk with a teenage boy who is considering the priesthood. He listened closely to an elderly woman as she confided in him, his face close to hers. As the Mass ended and he descended the altar, the bishop fist-bumped three boys, identical triplets, in the front pew.

Afterward, in the cathedral’s basement parish hall, hundreds of people stood in line for 2 1⁄2 hours to speak with Barres, receive a blessing or offer a parting gift.

Allentown Catholics said Barres’ gregariousness and pastoral care are among his standout qualities. He connects with parishioners in the same ways when he celebrates Masses, typically two or three over a weekend, at churches across the diocese.

“He’s a wonderful, holy man. He finds goodness in all people,” said Rita Guth of Orefield, Pennsylvania. “He works hard to bring all the people together to God.”

She arrived at the cathedral more than an hour early to make sure she got a seat for the farewell Mass. The 700-person capacity cathedral was standing-room-only.

Another parishioner, Rene Shewalter of West Lawn, Pennsylvania, remembered her surprise when Barres called her on the phone one day. He was responding to a letter her grade-school son had sent him, asking for help with a project of collecting sweaters to donate to seniors.

Barres did his part, sending an email alert to all Catholic schools in the diocese.

“We love the bishop,” Shewalter said.

Became a bishop at age just 48

In 2009, Barres became one of the youngest bishops in the United States when Pope Benedict XVI named him to head the Diocese of Allentown. He was 48 and had been a priest for nearly two decades.

He had seemed destined for big things almost from the day he was born: He was baptized by Fulton Sheen, the famous archbishop who pioneered the use of radio and television to spread the faith.

His parents, the late Marjorie and Oliver Barres, were Protestant ministers who met at Yale Divinity School in the 1940s and later converted to Catholicism. His father wrote a book about the experience, “One Shepherd, One Flock.” He came to the attention of Sheen, who hired Barres as a writer for a magazine published by the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, of which Sheen was the national director.

John Barres’ sister, Catherine Cawthon, recalled going with her brother and other four siblings to the set of Sheen’s popular TV program and having the archbishop as a visitor to their home in Larchmont.

They also were visited by Maryknoll missionaries, friends of their parents who had been in Africa, Asia and other lands, working with the poor on behalf of the Catholic Church in the United States.

“They had such a beautiful appreciation for different cultures and real love for the poor,” said Barres’ sister, 60, who lives in Walnut Creek, California. “I think all of that had a great influence on John. He himself has a great appreciation for different cultures. He has a real heart and compassion for the poor and all people who struggle.”

Barres was athletic, and when he attended his father’s alma mater, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he was on the basketball team.

He was good, but by his junior year a competitor arrived: Tom Mannix, a transfer student who squeezed Barres out of his chance to move into the starting lineup.

“If you are a competitive ballplayer, you don’t usually welcome a guy coming in who looks like he might be taking your spot,” Mannix recalled, adding that is “not always an easy thing.”

Yet the two became “phenomenal, quick, instant friends,” said Mannix, of Southborough, Massachusetts, who later was captain of Harvard’s basketball team.

Something was happening off the court as well: Barres was starting to contemplate a religious vocation. It happened junior year amid a winning basketball season. He was doing a research paper on St. John Neumann, the 19th-century bishop of Philadelphia who was the first United States bishop to be canonized.

“As I researched and as I wrote, I just found he hit me — his life and his holiness — hit me at an unexpectedly very deep level,” Barres recalled. “He was just known for this missionary zeal, great humility, great love for the poor, and people in distress and people who were suffering.”

“I felt we matched up personality-wise,” Barres added, describing himself in his junior year as “kind of shy but very determined.”

Then, one day at Mass, he asked himself a question that transformed his life.

“I’ll never forget. The priest lifted the chalice at the moment of the consecration where as Catholics we believe bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ, the real presence,” Barres said. “As he lifted the chalice, nothing dramatic, but in the silence of my heart I just asked the Lord, ‘Lord, do you want me to be a priest?’ That’s really where it began.”

Played on Princeton JV basketball team

Barres graduated from Phillips Andover in 1978 and headed to Princeton.

Pete Carril, the iconic, retired basketball coach, recalled Barres as a “decent ballplayer at Princeton, very dedicated to playing, worked very hard. He went as far as JV but could not get time with varsity. But I always admired his effort. He went as far as his ability could take him.”

Barres believes his experience on the court helped form him spiritually. “As a point guard, I had to learn about team chemistry, sacrifice, leadership. That was critical,” he said. “I really believe it was one of the ways the Holy Spirit formed me, to be a point guard in the Catholic Church as a Catholic bishop.”

Off the court, vying with his thoughts of entering the seminary were his feelings for his girlfriend.

They dated for two or three years. “She was an exceptional young woman,” Barres said. “That was really very important, just those years we had together. I think we learned a lot from each other. She was a person of incredible virtue and a person who had a lot of gifts.”

“I’m still great friends with her, her husband and her children,” Barres added.

He wrestled with his future. “Senior year at Princeton,” he said, “I made a decision not to make a decision about the priesthood.”

When he graduated in 1982 with a bachelor of arts in English literature, he didn’t feel ready for the seminary and went to work as a staff accountant at Arthur Andersen in midtown Manhattan. By night, he studied at New York University for his MBA.

He views that time as a formative experience, helping him toward his life as a priest.

“I think that was a rounding experience of the Holy Spirit and also was great preparation for the priesthood, in terms of putting me in touch with the everyday struggle of working people trying to keep it together, trying to be faithful in marriage, trying to balance all the time pressures that are part and parcel of every married person’s life and family,” he said.

Starts at seminary but is restless

Barres left Arthur Andersen, finished his MBA and for six months lived at the St. John Neumann Residence in Riverdale, a pre-seminary program for students preparing to enter the Archdiocese of New York’s major seminary, St. Joseph’s Seminary at Dunwoodie in Yonkers.

After a year at Dunwoodie, though, Barres was restless: He wanted to go to Rome to study at the church’s top universities. So he left the seminary and traveled there, immersing himself for 10 months at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum, that is run by Dominican priests. Meanwhile, he had met Bishop Robert Edward Mulvee, leader of the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware. They hit it off, and Barres decided to join that diocese as a seminarian.

“Certainly there are adjustments to seminary life, and I think the second time around, I think I really got a good momentum on it and it really worked out well,” Barres said.

He returned to the States and studied at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., founded and run by the U.S. bishops, and its affiliated Theological College.

Classmates recall Barres as intellectually brilliant, spiritually devout, and still a strong presence on the basketball court. The various graduate schools would play each other in intramural games, and much to the astonishment of the law students and others, the team that Barres led kept winning.

The other graduate students were “miffed they were beaten by a bunch of seminarians,” said the Rev. Robert Hyde, a classmate of Barres.

Barres was ordained in 1989. Among those who attended the first Mass he celebrated was Cardinal Avery Dulles, the famous American theologian and Jesuit whom Barres had studied under at Catholic University.

His first assignments as a parish priest were in the Diocese of Wilmington, serving as an associate pastor at Holy Family parish in Newark, Delaware, from 1989 to 1992, and as an associate pastor at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Wilmington from 1992 to 1996.

“That is where the heart of a parish priest was forged,” Barres recalled, describing the churches as “two great blue-collar parishes. Those people were so generous and also so beautifully patient with a young priest trying to learn.”

His experience there, he said, is something “that I draw on every day.”

Diocesan leaders saw great promise in Barres and sent him back to Rome to study. He lived at the Pontifical North American College, where most seminarians from the United States reside in Rome. He studied at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross — Opus Dei’s school.

Barres first had gotten interested in Opus Dei at Princeton, when he met a Wall Street broker who belonged to the group.

While controversial in the past and viewed by some as conservative and secretive, Opus Dei has moved more to the mainstream, said the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine “America.” Today, its members include Greg Burke, an American who is Pope Francis’ main spokesman.

When Barres returned to Delaware, he moved up the chain. He was named the diocese’s vice chancellor in 1999, and a year later moved into the top spot under the bishop as chancellor, essentially in charge of helping to run the diocese. Pope John Paul II also made him a monsignor.

Moves to Diocese of Allentown

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him bishop of the Diocese of Allentown.

Soon after he arrived, Barres pursued one of his key concerns: religious liberty. He helped form a local chapter of the national St. Thomas More Society made up of local lawyers and judges, said Dailey, who worked with Barres in creating the group.

The society is open to anyone in the legal field who connects their Catholic faith and their profession, he said. For example, one focus is on fighting government mandates forcing employers to provide health care plans that include coverage of contraceptive drugs, Dailey said.

Barres also made ministering to the Latino community a priority, said the Rev. Andrew Gehringer, who helped spearhead the efforts. Within a year of his installation as bishop, he traveled to Peru, where he spent nearly a month studying Spanish and listening to confessions two hours a day.

When he returned to Allentown, he visited every parish where Mass is conducted in Spanish. He celebrated the Masses and preached in Spanish without any notes, Gehringer said.

“It was rough, in his own words, but he wasn’t afraid to express himself like that, and people very much appreciated it,” Gehringer said. “Everybody was very happy that he was trying.”

Barres has attempted to bolster the number of Latino students in the diocese’s Catholic schools. The diocese connected with the Latino Enrollment Institute at the University of Notre Dame to help in the effort, said Philip Fromuth, superintendent of schools for the diocese.

Despite his efforts, Barres had to close several schools and parishes because of declining enrollment and growing expenses — a situation that also has hit Long Island and New York City. At least one group, Coal Region Catholics for Change, formed to protest the moves.

But with time, Fromuth said, Barres’ initiatives reversed a 15-year decline in student enrollment, diocese-wide, of about 3 percent a year. The losses were stabilized and small growth began to occur — 0.4 percent in 2012-13 and 0.6 percent in 2013-14 — bucking regional trends, he said.

In 2011, Barres decided to merge two rival Catholic high schools with declining enrollments. While the move at first was not popular among some, today the enrollment of the new school, Berks Catholic High School in Reading, is 115 students higher than the combined enrollment at the two schools before they merged, Fromuth said.

Tweets and can still hit jump shot

Barres also gained a reputation for trying to reach young people on their own terms, delving into social media. He tweets regularly and has his own video blog.

He conducted basketball clinics for youngsters, demonstrating in a YouTube video that he still can hit jump shots from 25 feet out.

His efforts extended to recruiting new priests. Barres started a summer “discernment camp” for high school students considering becoming priests or nuns. This year a half-dozen young men entered the diocese’s seminary program.

In another move, he invited a group of priests who conduct Mass in the traditional Latin to run a local parish.

Like bishops across the country, Barres has faced the clergy sex-abuse scandal. In September, some parishioners criticized him for not informing them quickly enough that a priest, Msgr. John Stephen Mraz of St. Ann’s parish in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, was suspended because of an investigation into allegations he had child pornography on his computer.

“I think it was handled just the way it was handled in the past,” said Juliann Bortz, local coordinator for Survivors of Those Abused by Priests, a group that represents victims of alleged clergy sexual abuse.

Barres said, “We had a textbook case of best practices” in responding to the Mraz case. The priest was seriously sick and already gone from the parish, he said, and when “it came to our attention there might be criminal activity, we immediately went to law enforcement.”

Barres stressed the seriousness of the church sexual-abuse issue.

“We can’t let up for a moment,” he said. “It’s so critical. It’s so crucial. And I think we can provide a leadership role for society and we have to learn every day.”

Says he will focus on Latino Catholics

Barres, looking ahead to his ministry on Long Island, said Latino Catholics will be a special interest. At his farewell Mass in Allentown, he closed his homily by speaking three paragraphs in Spanish.

“To our Hispanic brothers and sisters,” he said. “Your presence . . . enriches every dimension of the church’s life and every dimension of American society.”

His first priority when he arrives will be simple: He will listen and learn about the Diocese of Rockville Centre and its people.

Having that ear to the ground is Barres’ trademark, colleagues and Allentown parishioners said.

“Christ was out there with the people all the time, and that’s what Bishop Barres is,” said Paul Huck, former chief financial officer of the Fortune 500 company Air Products and Chemicals, who has advised the Allentown diocese on financial matters. “He is not an administrator who sits in the office and works on whatever administrators work on. He’s out there with the people.”

Installation of Long Island’s new bishop

Hundreds of people will attend religious services at St. Agnes Cathedral as Bishop John Barres is installed as the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

Barres, 56, succeeds Bishop William Murphy, who is retiring.

The events are for ticket holders only and are sold out, diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan said.

Monday, 7:30 p.m.: Evening prayer vigil.

Tuesday, 2 p.m.: Installation Mass. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, are principal prelates for the service.

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