Monday, June 22, 2009

Coming to Allentown: The Great Emancipator

For quite some time, John Barres' name has gone around this part of the world as a rising star to "keep on the radar screen."

There's always wisdom in the buzz, so it was little surprise when the chancellor of Wilmington got the call last month to lead upstate Pennsylvania's 270,000-member diocese of Allentown.

All of 48 and the first Delawarean tapped for the crozier since 1900, the son of converts with an Ivy pedigree doesn't take the reins 'til late next month, but he's already getting what'd normally be the Ordination Week treatment in the Lehigh Valley press, which followed the bishop-elect to the Diamond State stomping grounds he's been sharing with a certain Vice President:
Barres [pronounced Bar-riss] will become the fourth bishop of the diocese on July 30 and perhaps the first to find as much inspiration in a secular saint, Abraham Lincoln, as in more typical representatives from the heavenly rolls. The martyred president's name arose time and again in a daylong interview at his chancery last this week and in the homily of the noon Mass he celebrated in St. Joseph on the Brandywine, a handsome 1840s church built with the pennies of immigrant Irish workers in DuPont's blasting powder factories.

''Look at the virtues of Lincoln,'' Barres said, urging appreciation of the man through the lens of the Beatitudes, Christ's lessons of mercy and forgiveness from the Sermon on the Mount.

After all, Barres told parishioners, Lincoln was the president who ordered a military band to play ''Dixie'' out of respect for a vanquished foe. It's a perfect symbol of the kind of conciliatory outreach -- to other faiths, to the dispossessed, to abuse victims -- Barres considers essential to mending the fractures of a troubled world.

By all accounts, the bishop-elect is a man of quiet holiness and genial charisma who sometimes flirts with exhaustion from overwork in minding the umpteen tasks of a diocesan chancellor, which have ranged from mundane administrative errands to overseeing the installation of the bishop.

''An indefatigable worker,'' said Monsignor Joseph Rebman, St. Joseph's pastor and a longtime mentor to Barres. The monsignor warned, perhaps half-seriously, that Allentown shouldn't grow overly accustomed to its new bishop -- another way of underscoring Barres' rapid rise through the episcopal ranks. He is only 48, which won't make him the youngest bishop in the country but surely puts him near the top of that list. Who knows what's to come?

But that's getting ahead of the story. Right now, Barres is preparing to inherit a five-county diocese of 270,000 Catholics, many of them disaffected by last year's closing of dozens of parishes and many others barely hanging onto their religious identity.

Meanwhile, the ranks of priests and other religious continue to decline, and the task of drawing interest to a life of self-denial seems close to impossible in a culture of excess. When a young man considers seminary today, ''his manhood is questioned, his sanity is questioned,'' said Wilmington's retired bishop, the Rev. Michael Saltarelli. But in Barres, the bishop said, potential priests will see a model of the vocation: someone whose demeanor and discipline reflect a life that thrives beyond material yearnings.

''Your bishop,'' Saltarelli said, ''has shown me the face of Christ in so many ways.''...

Perhaps it was inevitable that Barres' path would lead him into the priesthood and episcopacy. He is the son of Oliver and Marjorie Barres, Protestant ministers who converted to Catholicism after growing convinced of its historical claim to be the church founded by Christ. The Barreses were brought into the church by Bishop Fulton Sheen of New York, a renowned prelate who preached to millions in the early days of television. Sheen, who also baptized the bishop-elect, is now a candidate for sainthood.

Barres attended seminary at Catholic University of America and studied canon law at the Opus Dei's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. He was ordained by Bishop Robert Mulvee in October of 1989 and served as an associate pastor at two churches before returning to the Pontifical University, where he earned a doctorate in theology in 1999.

In 2000, he was named chancellor of the Diocese of Wilmington, essentially second-in-command to the bishop....

He offered no grand vision for what's ahead -- indeed, he said he is still studying the major issues of the diocese identified during the Second Synod of Allentown, a gathering of clergy and lay people that charted a course for the future of Catholic education, vocations, church consolidation and other topics. But he's no a stranger to the Lehigh Valley. His father is a Bethlehem native who grew up on Linden Street near Liberty High School, and Barres made many summertime visits to his aunt, uncle and cousins as a boy.

Now, ''you're going to have to force him to take vacations,'' said the Rev. Joe Cocucci, one of Barres' closest friends. ''He begins his day early with prayer, and gets right to work. He's a priest's priest.''
And video, complete with a very happy Mickey:

Despite his youth, Barres is the second member of the Theological College Class of '89 to get the high-hat -- the first of the group was Seattle auxiliary Joseph Tyson, one of the first US bishops named by Benedict XVI after his 2005 election.

The two bishops are among 11 priests celebrating 20th anniversaries from the DC house.

Tip to the Bench.

PHOTO: Monica Cabrera/
Allentown Morning Call