This week in the print magazine Jim McDermott, SJ writes about the unique character of "The Church in the West." As part of that project he had the opportunity to interview a number of bishops about their experiences in their own dioceses and within the US Catholic Conference of Bishops. This article is one of a series of six presenting those interviews.
[Editor’s Note: For length and ease of reading we’ve split our interview with Bishop Barnes into two parts. In this piece, Bishop Barnes talks about the Church in San Bernardino. In the other, he talks about racism in the church and struggles in the ways the USCCB works with the West Coast.]
Bishop Gerald Barnes, 69, is Bishop of San Bernardino, one of the fastest growing and most diverse dioceses in the country. It’s a relatively new diocese, only 37 years old. Bishop Barnes is its second bishop, having arrived in 1992 as an auxiliary and then becoming the ordinary in 1995. And like a number of Western dioceses, it occupies a huge area, 27,000 square miles, in which 1.6 million Catholics live (second in Catholic population only to Los Angeles).
Bishop Barnes has chaired a number of committees for the USCCB, including the Committee on Migration and Refugee Services and the Committee on Hispanic Affairs. His crest’s motto is “Amar es Entregarse”: “Love is the total giving of oneself.”
Tell me about the Diocese of San Bernardino.
This area was all agriculture, orange groves and vineyards and dairies. Now we have some dairies left, very few groves. Today we’re a major corridor for goods movement in the United States—trucks and trains. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – practically everything that comes from Asia comes to those ports and then moves through here. When you’re driving on the freeway, and the trucks get in your way, you might want to complain, but we have to thank them, because they’re helping our economy.
As a diocese, our assets are the people—their commitment, their hunger, their openness, their generosity to be involved in church, in ministry, even out of their own poverty. Most of the people in this area are blue collar workers or poor. We have very few pockets of affluence, and some of that is seasonal, snowbirds that come from up north, Canada, the Midwest.
Most of our people, the reason they’ve moved here is there’s land. They live here and commute to work in Los Angeles, Orange or San Diego. Because the jobs are not here, but the land is. You can get a house here for $200,000 that you’d be paying $600,000 for in LA. So people make that kind of sacrifice.
So our parishioners don’t come to us with a lot of discretionary money; they’re paying mortgages and they’re paying transportation. They can’t contribute as much financially as maybe they hope or we hope they would. So we don’t have the Catholic school systems they have in neighboring dioceses and our parish buildings are very small.
Also, everybody came here at about the same time. They came from LA and Orange and San Diego, and also moved in from the Northwest and the Midwest. And they also came from Asia and Latin America and Africa. That’s part of the wealth of the diocese, these other ways of looking at the world. Coming at the same time means we didn’t have the opportunity to plan for the growth, and there are challenges, but they are also blessings.
We’re a young diocese in relation to some of the other dioceses, and we don’t have the traditional institutions. We don’t have any universities, novitiates, big mother houses. The Sisters of Mercy have their provincialate here, the SVDs—but there’s only a handful. We don’t have any Jesuits here, we don’t have any Franciscans here. We do have some Dominicans at the Newman Center. We have two Catholic hospitals.
We are like Galilee. Everybody crosses through us. To go to Phoenix, to go to LA, to go to Disneyland, to go to San Diego, they all cross through us.
So we have all these people from all over the place, and we have few priests. And we’ve always had few priests. At one time we relied heavily on foreign-born priests all from one place, Ireland; now they’re from anywhere and everywhere. In fact I think the majority of our active priests are foreign born. And the majority of those serving in diocesan ministries are also religious. We have less than 60 diocesan priests in active ministry, and over 80 religious priests.
So there’s a certain poverty here, but there’s a great generosity on the part of the people and the priests to be church. We’re relying on others. That’s who we are.
And it’s one of the things that has forced us to take Vatican II seriously, its universal call to holiness and the priesthood of everyone. We need our lay people. That need has really forced us to appreciate our calling. So we spend a lot of our time in lay formation. And a lot of our people do not finish high school or only finish high school, so a lot of our efforts are also to promote education in general. We partner with educational institutions, trying to get people to appreciate education and accompany their kids.
Our people are hungry. They want to be a part of it.
What would you say are some of the diocese’s challenges?
Our priests are challenged in that they have to meet the diversity that’s here. An Anglo-American priest told me, "For me to say one Mass in Spanish is like saying three in English, what it takes out of me." I said, "It’s the same for the Hispanic priest to say one Mass in English." So having to meet these needs and not having the education there for your people, the financial resources, that’s a challenge.
And a lot of the priests are not trained in management. They have these mini corporations that they have to run, and some of them are coming from other world experiences, so it’s totally new to them, totally new. I meet with them every so often and ask what the greatest challenge is. This African priest told me, You take the laws seriously here! If you get a ticket here, you have to pay. In Ghana, I don’t have to pay.
We have very good African priests. They’re involved in everything, they’re on committees, they teach in some of our programs, they’re pastoring. They tell me they know they’re appreciated here; I guess that’s different than their confreres in other places. We want to help; we want them to succeed.
Another guy from Africa told me, "When I’m preaching and I see the people, I know that it’s hard for them to understand me because of my accent, and I feel badly. I’m supposed to be preaching and they can’t understand me."
To hear the challenges some of our priests are facing... We’re all in it together. You do what you can.
We try to identify some goals. When we came into the new millennium we had four core values: first, hospitality—how do we receive people in our parishes, in our families, in our neighborhoods. How do diocesan men receive religious, how do Americans receive priests from Vietnam? How are we hospitable?
Second, faith sharing—when we have meetings in our diocese, we always open with a gospel passage and talk about what it says to each of us. We’ve been doing that for over 20 years, and we ask every meeting in our parishes to try to do that. How can a husband and wife do that? Our diocesan priests? How do we do that at home, how do we do that in our work place where we can?
Third, reconciliation—whether it’s between African Americans and whites, between the old timers and the newcomers, between women and the church, between diocesan priests and their bishop, how do we reconcile, and celebrate that reconciliation?
And the last is collaboration. I think we’re still trying to understand that word. How do we see the gifts that God has given each of us, and how do we share those gifts? I try to model it—I don’t chair meetings, it’s a rotating chair. Because everybody’s got the gifts. And if they don’t let’s develop them.
We try to encourage that so the leader of the parish doesn’t feel like they have to be that kind of powerful controller. I know who I am, I don’t need to chair or lead the prayer all the time. In fact this guy might be better at leading the community in prayer than I am.
Then we said there are five focus areas that we’re working towards: the development of our laity, not just for church ministry but for leadership in the community, the business world, in the political world, in the civic community. How do we train people to live their faith?
Partnership with others—we cannot do it alone. A prophetic voice—how do we form faithful citizens? Spiritual renewal. And vocations—as we are promoting lay leadership and development we’re also trying to address the ongoing formation and education of religious, deacons and parish priests, as well as those that are coming in.
Wow. That seems like a lot of things to be doing.
The thing is to integrate them all, tie them into one another. And we meet a lot. That’s the one way we know what everybody is doing.
We’re trying to break that silo mentality—schools here, evangelization here... Catholic Extension once approached us—we benefit greatly from Catholic Extension—and they wanted us to identify some areas where they could help us. So we brought our different groups together, and they all shared what they would do with that money. And then one by one they began to focus on two or three things. They put their own plans aside, because this is what the diocese needs right now. It was amazing.
When we celebrated our 25th anniversary thirteen years ago, we were at the university arena, and Cardinal Mahony [of Los Angeles] concelebrated with the other bishops. And at the end of the Mass he got up, and he said, "We will always look to the diocese of San Bernardino because they took Vatican II seriously." And then in Spanish he said, "We look to the diocese of San Bernardino to understand what hospitality is."
What’s it take to be a good bishop, do you think?
A lot of listening. One of the things that we do here that’s kind of unique is parish visitations as a two or three day visit by the bishop. In preparation the parish does a kind of self-evaluation looking at its demographics, how it’s changed in the last five years, what are some of its challenges. Then every office here [at the chancery] gives me a one-page evaluation of the parish from their perspective, so I hear what the parish is saying and then I hear what the office is saying....
Then we do a demographic study of the area of the parish, see what the demographics say is going to happen in the next 5 to 7 years. And we do a financial review or an audit depending on when the last audit was done. Insurance carriers give us a picture of the facilities as they see them. It’s very thorough...
When I go to the parish, I visit some of the parishioners, I visit the sick of the parish, give communion, pray with them. I meet with the staff, get some sense of what it’s like working with the pastor, assure them of their rights with HR, but also ask a lot about mission. And if there are people complaining about the staff, I tell them, this is what people are saying about you. We have a big discussion.
We have a town meeting where everybody’s invited, and I tell them what I heard them say. And they’re interested because it means I read what they said. And I tell the pastoral people ahead of time, this is what I’m going to say. And I tell the people, I’ve talked to the pastoral staff about what you’re saying. It’s two hours, and all the offices of the diocese are represented and introduce themselves, so that at the break the people there if they have a particular question about a ministry, they can go and ask questions. Then in the second half I take any questions they have for me, things they want to say to me...
So I get a very good idea of what’s going on. With Hispanic people it’s often about parenting—how to be a better father to my family? How do I keep my kids out of trouble? How do I get my kids to go to church?
With a lot of the English speakers issues often have more to do with the social element—we don’t have a women’s club here anymore, we don’t have an altar society any more, we don’t have enough donuts after Mass. I try to tell the guys, a lot of these are older people; they’re not going to come at 7pm for something. So try to have something in the morning for them once a month or twice a week, try to have a speaker on Pope Francis, they love that. Have a talk to address their concerns about their kids and their faith. Have a session on the funeral Mass, or issues of suicide, which come out a lot.
Or racism comes up a lot, i.e. “These people are taking over.” So how do we help them deal with this? They’re afraid.
Or one lady told me—her parish has four languages—they always thank the Tongans for this, and they always thank the Hispanics for the food after Mass, and they always thank the Vietnamese for the decorations in the church. When do they thank us? They built this church and they’re the ones still maintaining it financially. When are they thanked? When are they recognized? Maybe they don’t need to hear that thank you just from the pastor, they need to hear it from the other groups. These kinds of things come out in our visitations.
It also gives me a good time to talk to the priests personally. I always ask the priests, "What do you want to tell me about the parish that isn’t in the report, or is there anything you want to highlight? Secondly, how are you doing? Are you taking a day off, taking care of your health? And third, What do you want to tell me about the diocese, about the church in general?" And this isn’t part of the visitation report, this is a priest talking to his bishop. Same thing with the deacons.
Our interview with Bishop Barnes continues here.