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Catholics at Sunday Mass say they’re curious about new bishop

Diocese of Rockville Centre Bishop-designate John O. Barres

Diocese of Rockville Centre Bishop-designate John O. Barres greets students from St. Agnes School on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, who welcomed him before a news conference announcing his new position. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Parishioners at St. Agnes Cathedral Masses Sunday said they are excited about a new bishop coming to the Diocese of Rockville Centre and hopeful he will draw more congregants to the church, energize young people, promote the role of women, and fully address sex abuse by clergy.

Pope Francis Friday named Bishop John O. Barres, who leads the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, as the new bishop of Rockville Centre, one of the largest Catholic dioceses in the country.

Barres, 56, will be installed Jan. 31 at St. Agnes in Rockville Centre. The current bishop, William Murphy, 76, is retiring after 15 years as the leader of the diocese, home to 1.5 million Catholics.

Some parishioners said Sunday that Barres’ youth, high level of education (including Princeton), background in business (MBA from New York University), love of basketball (three years on Princeton’s JV squad), and warm, down-to-earth manner, left them optimistic the diocese is headed in a good direction.

“I think he is going to be a people person,” said Diane McCormick, a retired Molloy College employee.

She had a firsthand encounter with Barres Friday after he celebrated the 7:30 a.m. Mass at St. Agnes with Murphy.

A receiving line greeted Barres afterward, and he asked questions of everyone, McCormick said.

“He was just so interested in every single person he spoke to,” McCormick said. “I had a wonderful impression. I think he’s going to be a wonderful bishop.”

Anna Robak, 33, a physician assistant from Lynbrook, said she hopes Barres will follow the example and message of Pope Francis by creating a more open, inviting church that will attract more young people, women and even non-Catholics.

“I think the pope made that very clear,” she said. “This pope is very progressive.”

Jo-Ann Esrick, a French professor at Nassau Community College, said she hopes Barres acts “to bring ethnically diverse people together” on Long Island.

She also wants him to act decisively on sex abuse within the church.

“I think they need to clean house,” she said. “The victims need to be compensated.”

Barres should promote the role of women in the church and push for their inclusion as deacons and even priests.

Mike Gatz, 76, of Rockville Centre, said he liked how Barres is a huge basketball fan and played at Princeton, where he received his undergraduate degree in English literature.

“He’s sort of like us,” Gatz said.

Barres speaks Spanish, which Gatz said is critical to helping serve the diocese’s growing Latino community, which comprises at least a quarter of Long Island’s Catholics, according to church experts.

“He can relate to the Hispanic population, and that’s important,” he said.

Barres’ financial background will help him if he needs to decide whether to close schools or churches, or if there is any need to sell church property, said John Boyle, 61, of Merrick.

Parishioners had mixed emotions about Murphy’s departure.

“I’m going to miss Bishop Murphy terribly,” said Wendy Kistela, 62, a retired operating room scheduler from Freeport. A convert to Catholicism, she was baptized by Murphy six years ago. “I feel close to him,” she said.

John Boyle’s brother, William Boyle, praised Murphy’s leadership.

“I thought Bishop Murphy was a marvelous bishop and priest,” said William Boyle, 73, also of Merrick, and a philosophy professor at St. John’s University. “He had all the characteristics of a great bishop. He’s a great intellectual and theologian, he’s prudent and he’s extremely prayerful. I was very impressed by his prayerful demeanor. He’d come in 10 minutes before Mass and pray in a very devout manner.”

Others thought a change is needed. “I think it’s time,” Esrick said.

An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect name and age of John Boyle.

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