Bishop of Oakland Michael Barber, SJ, 63, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, where his father, an insurance agent, was on temporary assignment. He is the oldest of three sons, another of whom would go on to become a Jesuit priest. Bishop Barber was baptized at Mission Dolores in San Francisco in the same baptismal font used by St. Junipero Serra in the 1700s, he said.
He grew up in San Francisco, Novato, and Sacramento, California, graduating from St. Pius X Preparatory School in Galt. His parents instilled a “humble faith” in their children, he recalled; since his childhood, Bishop Barber wanted to become a Catholic priest. While in high school, he visited diocesan seminaries and wrote to religious orders requesting information. He found what he was looking for in the Society of Jesus. “When I first looked at their informational brochure I felt drawn to the Jesuits,” he said. “When I visited their novitiate, I felt it was where God wanted me to be.”
Part of the appeal, he noted, was that he wanted to teach, something for which the Jesuits are known, and he wanted to teach young people at a time in their lives when he could be most influential.
He entered the Society of Jesus in 1973, and was ordained a priest in San Francisco in 1985. In 1991, while studying in Rome, he was asked to celebrate Mass onboard naval vessels heading to and from the First Gulf War. He was told, “Father, the next time you come aboard, we’re going to get you some [US Navy Chaplain Corps] gold stripes for your suit.”
After meeting Navy chaplains and a period of prayer, he requested and received permission from his superiors to join the US Navy Reserve. He has been a commissioned officer for the Reserve for the past 26 years.
He has served as a seminary teacher and, besides English, speaks Italian, French, Samoan, and liturgical Spanish. He became bishop of Oakland, California in 2013.
CWR: Can you give our readers an overview of the Diocese of Oakland today?
Bishop Michael Barber, SJ: We were once part of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and broke off to become our own diocese in 1962. Oakland is to San Francisco what Brooklyn is to Manhattan. We have a lot of industry, including factories and shipping, which makes us attractive to immigrants, because they can find jobs. And, until recently, the real estate was relatively cheap on our side of the bay.
The Diocese of Oakland comprises Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the “East Bay” region of the San Francisco Bay Area. Within its 1,467 square miles, the current population of Alameda and Contra Costa counties is 2.7 million people with a Catholic population estimated at 394,000.
Serving the needs of the faithful are 347 priests, 112 deacons, and 399 religious brothers and sisters in 82 parishes, 11 pastoral centers, and other diocesan offices. Including parish religious education programs, there are 45,000 students under Catholic instruction.
We baptized 276 adults into the Faith last year, with another 291 professing full communion with the Catholic Church. Additionally, we saw 6,027 infant (newborn to age 6) baptisms and 768 children between the ages of 7 and 17 being baptized. It’s definitely a growing diocese!
The diocese offers a range of service ministries assisting those in need. As such, the Church is the largest provider of social services in the East Bay, delivering shelter, meals, counseling, education, and other critical services free of charge to 540,000 people of all faiths each year.
Our city is a little rough around the edges, but we’re coming back. The technology boom of the Bay Area has spread to Oakland. We had a good mayor in Jerry Brown, who did more than anyone else to improve living conditions here.
CWR: At the end of this school year the diocese closed five elementary schools. What prompted these closings?
Bishop Barber: We are facing increasing costs and declining student enrollment trends that have been at work for a long time. And without students—without a critical mass of students—we have had to commit precious resources to increasingly empty buildings, eliminate “auxiliary” teaching positions critical for student success, and divert money that could have been used for scholarships to attract more students. It’s become something of a death spiral for many of our schools.
And we need to stop the hemorrhaging now. We have a plan to do so, and it is three-fold: close those schools that show no true path to flourish, create a unique Catholic schools network to bolster schools in trouble, and infuse our entire diocese with a pro-Catholic school mentality.
This plan is a serious and daring refashioning of our beloved Catholic elementary schools. While our schools have never had an easy pathway, a bold vision is needed now to ensure their very survival for our children, grandchildren, and generations to come.
Families with students at the five closing schools were notified in January so they would have ample time to apply at other Catholic schools. Our schools were very generous in waiving fees and processes to work with families in unique situations. At the same time, we are announcing a plan to build a unique Catholic schools network with seven other diocesan schools.
While we hate to close schools, I decided I wasn’t going to sit and watch our elementary schools die one by one. The cost of paying our school staff and school maintenance is expensive, and as we have to raise tuition, more and more families are priced out.
Also, people are having fewer children today. If you look at some of our parishes which once had thriving schools in the 50s and 60s, today they are mostly parishes of seniors. Families can’t afford to buy houses in the neighborhood, and move to cheaper locations.
So, I’m in a situation where I’d rather have five schools with full enrollment versus 10 schools that are half full.
CWR: You have a Bishop’s Vineyard program that assists Catholic students.
Bishop Barber: That’s a cemetery-run program. In our cemeteries that have a lot of open space yet to fill, our staff found that it was cheaper to plant grapes than grass. The grapes were used to make wine that was given to our parishes, and people discovered that our wine was pretty good. In fact, our wine has won awards. It has become a commercial venture, so we decided to have a Bishop’s Vineyard wine club and put the money into school scholarships.
CWR: You were involved with a search committee that hired Jesuit Father George Schultze as rector of St. Patrick Seminary & University, which serves the Bay Area. Why was a new spiritual director/rector sought?
Bishop Barber: The seminary had been under the direction of the Sulpician fathers since its founding in 1898. About five Sulpicians were there. They staffed the property, but the property itself is owned by the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The Sulpicians gave notice to the archbishop [San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone] that they were going to withdraw this summer, so we had to get a new rector. Father Schultze had been working there for 10 years, and we’ve been very happy with him. In fact, I once taught there with him.
I think Father Schultze will bring a clear focus on the formation of new priests for the diocesan priesthood, balancing the spiritual, human, and pastoral, as well as the academic.
CWR: How is the Diocese of Oakland doing for vocations to the priesthood and religious life?
Bishop Barber: This has been one of my top spiritual priorities since coming to Oakland, finding good vocations from our diocese. I’ve been asking people to pray for this end, and I spend a lot of time promoting vocations myself.
We’ve been in the upswing in recent years, with more ordinations to the priesthood and diaconate, but we certainly could be better. We’d like to start a prayer campaign, asking people who are in the hospital or otherwise ill to offer their prayers and sufferings for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. They’ve done something similar in Arlington, Virginia and it’s been a big success. This is only one element, but it could be a huge element of a successful vocations program.
CWR: When you assumed leadership in Oakland in 2013, the diocese had a $114.7 million debt. How are you going about meeting this financial challenge?
Bishop Barber: Our CFO, Paul Bongiovanni, has been working with a team of professionals, both volunteer and financial companies, to bring the diocese’s stewardship of resources into a much healthier situation. Yes, we have an enormous debt, but I have had the benefit of help from excellent financial advisors so I don’t feel all alone in addressing it. We have launched our first-ever diocesan capital campaign to reduce this debt, and have already gotten it down to $70 million. If it is God’s will and work in our diocese, he will provide us with the means to accomplish it.
CWR: What led to the large debt?
Bishop Barber: We had about $50 million in debt before our new Cathedral of Christ the Light was built. We built the cathedral, but didn’t raise enough in funding to pay for it. That’s how we got to over $100 million in debt. In Los Angeles, when Cardinal Roger Mahony built the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, by the time he retired, he’d paid off its debt. That’s not the case here.
CWR: Speaking of the Cathedral of Christ the Light, the diocese reported that it was having difficulties with water intrusion, sagging floors, problems with doors, and cracking drywall. What is the status of the construction/repair work, and how will this affect it?
Bishop Barber: The main thing to keep in mind is that the church building proper is safe. It is the conference center and chancery office that are having these issues. So, visitors can come to the church; neither it nor its parking lot are affected. We are addressing these other problems, getting good advice and hoping the difficulties will be resolved. (For the latest information on the mediation process with the parties involved visit https://www.oakdiocese.org/offices/vicar-general/news/cathedral-center-construction-update-1.)
CWR: What good news in the Diocese of Oakland would you like to share?
Bishop Barber: Our diocese has responded well to Pope Francis’ call for mercy and support of the poor. We invited our priests and parishioners to consider sponsoring refugee families; over half have responded.
We will soon be opening Claire’s House, a home for girls who are victims of human trafficking. These are young women with no way to escape their current situation, and have no family to help them. We agreed to establish the program after the mayor, district attorney, and police chief asked us to. These girls are being picked up on the streets and there is no place for them. Once Claire’s House opens, we’ll have a safe place for them to go and receive an education.
We anticipate opening Claire’s House next February. We’re aware of one other faith-based program of this nature that is successful in Georgia, which is run by Protestants. The program appeals to me as a Jesuit; the first thing our founder, St. Ignatius, did was open a home for prostitutes.
CWR: What goals do you have for the diocese?
Bishop Barber: I could have a thousand, but I’ll start with these three:
1) We want to improve the quality of our Sunday worship so that our people experience beautiful music, good homilies, and feel connected with Christ and the community.
2) We want our people to focus on performing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Young people on our confirmation retreats, for example, do a service project, such as helping the poor, and a spiritual project, like attending the funeral Mass of someone who had few relatives.
3) I want to form missionary disciples who will go out and make an effort to grow our churches. We can’t just maintain our present size, we have to grow our congregations.
CWR: Surveys are showing that fewer young people are going to church and embracing Catholic morality. What steps do you think can be taken to turn things around?
Bishop Barber: I believe our overall goal should be to make the Church a place where people can experience Jesus Christ. The better we do this through prayer, worship, the sacraments, our homilies, and works of mercy, the better people can experience Jesus Christ.
Once we have people coming to church, we can start talking to them about morality. A man can learn to be chaste by leaving the bar scene and marrying the woman he loves. He gives up his old life because he loves a person, his wife. In the same way, a person can leave an immoral lifestyle when he comes to love a person, Jesus Christ. I believe it is the same principle, giving up what is harmful to us by falling in love with a person.
(Editor’s note: The Diocese of Oakland has already launched its capital campaign and is in the fulfillment phase of the campaign. The interview has been updated to reflect this information.)