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Pope Francis names new bishop to lead Rockville Centre diocese

Pope Francis named Bishop John O. Barres of Allentown, Pennsylvania, as the new bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, replacing Bishop William Murphy. Barres was introduced Friday, Dec. 9, 2016 in Rockville Centre. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely) (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

Bishop John O. Barres, named by Pope Francis to be the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s new spiritual leader, pledged Friday to offer a pastoral approach to Long Island’s 1.5 million Catholics that emphasizes mercy to the suffering.

“We live the parable of the Good Samaritan first within our own marriages and families, and then to the poor family, the family living in the crucible of war, violence and persecution, the hurting family, the grieving family, the family reeling from tragedy and trauma, the family that has experienced the agony of sexual abuse and all forms of abuse, including abuse by clergy,” Barres said in meeting reporters at the parish center adjoining St. Agnes Cathedral.

He will be installed on Jan. 31 at St. Agnes as the fifth bishop of the diocese, created in 1957 when it was carved out of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He has headed the Diocese of Allentown in Pennsylvania since 2009.

Barres will take over from Bishop William Murphy, the diocese’s leader since Sept. 5, 2001. Murphy, 76, last year submitted his resignation to the Vatican upon his 75th birthday, as the Holy See requires. However, bishops can remain in their posts for months or years until the pope names a successor.

At Friday’s news conference, Barres displayed some of his pastoral approach by shaking hands with and individually asking more than a dozen students in attendance about their interests.

When one responded that he is a point guard on his basketball team, Barres — a former Princeton University junior varsity point guard himself — gave the boy a fist bump.

Some Catholic priests and analysts said they believe Barres will bring a Francis-type style to Long Island. Francis, the first Jesuit pope and the first from Latin America, is generally seen as wanting to make the church more all-embracing and focused on the poor and the forgotten.

“There is a renewed sense of hope that our new bishop will build on the positive things Bishop Murphy did for the faithful while here and lead us into a new era of more inclusive evangelization, compassion for the poor, more attention to our young and disengaged,” said the Rev. Francis Pizzarelli, head of the Port Jefferson-based Hope House Ministries for drug and alcohol abusers.

He said Barres may become “a source of hope and renewed energy for social justice and, as the pope says, the people on the edges . . . and give voice to the voiceless, the drug addicts, the undocumented and the homeless.”

James McCartin, director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, said, “I think that this appointment may show a pattern in Pope Francis’ appointments. He’s primarily concerned with good pastoral care and doesn’t seem to apply rigid ideological tests for his appointments. Is Bishop Barres in the so-called Francis mold? I guess he and his new flock will determine that as they move forward together.”

Murphy and Barres together celebrated the 7:30 a.m. Mass at St. Agnes, giving Murphy an opportunity to present his successor to parishioners for the first time.

He called Barres “an extraordinary bishop, a holy priest and a great brother.”

Some sex-abuse protection groups, however, criticized Barres’ appointment, alleging that he mishandled some sex abuse cases in Allentown and in prior assignments.

In promoting Barres, “Pope Francis confirms his papacy’s retro tendencies in child abuse cases,” said the Massachusetts-based group Bishop Accountability. “Once again, a functionary who carried water for the church in abuse cases is being rewarded with a plum job.”

Barres, in an interview with Newsday, did not directly address the allegations, saying, “I’ve had wonderful, a really powerful experience of being a bridge of mercy to people who have experienced” abuse, “and that’s something that is very important to me.”

“We’ve made some great progress in terms of the way we deal with seminarians in terms of good background checks for volunteers, the education that is necessary at every level for volunteers,” he said. “We have to be extremely vigilant at every moment in the future.”

Since being installed in July 2009 as the fourth bishop of Allentown, Barres — who speaks Spanish — has expanded ministry to Latinos, the fastest-growing ethnic group in that diocese. He said he plans to do the same on the Island, where Latinos now make up at least 25 percent of Catholics.

“I am so excited” by the prospect of working with the diocese’s Latino population, he said in the Telecare interview. The church’s “beautiful Latino families . . . bring so much to the church,” he said, and “all of us benefit.”

Then, in Spanish, he proclaimed, “Onward with the mission!”

Barres, in the interview with Newsday, said he has been working on his Spanish for years. In 2010, he spent a month in Peru, listening to confessions in Spanish for two hours a day, he said, and talking with people on the streets outside the parish where he was stationed.

William Brown, a former seminarian from East Hampton who said he wrote a letter to the papal nuncio earlier this year recommending Barres for the Rockville Centre position, praised his appointment.

“Bishop Barres is a holy man, an experienced bishop, knows this area from prior life experiences, and has the youth and vigor to handle a difficult assignment in a very large diocese,” Brown wrote in the letter.

Bishop John O. Barres

  • Born Sept. 20, 1960
  • Baptized in 1960 by Bishop Fulton Sheen
  • Raised in Larchmont in Westchester County
  • Graduated Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature
  • Played three years on Princeton’s junior varsity basketball team under Coach Pete Carril
  • Earned MBA in management at New York University
  • Studied theology at The Catholic University of America
  • Ordained a priest in Delaware’s Diocese of Wilmington in 1989
  • Served as associate pastor at churches in Newark and Wilmington, then was vice chancellor and chancellor of the Wilmington diocese
  • Installed as bishop of the Diocese of Allentown in 2009
  • Named by Pope Francis as bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Dec. 9, 2016. Installation Mass is scheduled for Jan. 31, 2017, at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre


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