New Bishop Lauded As Walking the Talk

By Antigone Barton
Palm Beach Post [Ogdensburg NY]
August 18, 2003

OGDENSBURG, N.Y. -- St. Mary's Cathedral sanctuary was warm and it was just 10 minutes before Bishop Gerald Barbarito's packed farewell Mass, but he took his time Sunday to explain how welcome the people of the Palm Beach Diocese already have made him feel.

He has hundreds of people to say goodbye to here, and he will, one by one, before he moves on, and he clearly expects to make new friends soon.

"People are people," he said. "They all show God's love."

The next bishop of the Palm Beach Diocese took his leave from the place he calls "God's country" in the same way people say he has spent his time here. What he brought to Ogdensburg was on display Sunday, even amid the pageantry of his last Mass.

Knights of Columbus from throughout the diocese lined the aisle of the 800-seat cathedral. Ostrich feathers dripped from their chapeaus; their capes were pinned back to show purple, white and yellow satin linings; and they wore swords at their sides.

The gathering became something more, something personal, when Barbarito ambled down the aisle as if he were strolling a familiar street -- pausing, smiling, making eye contact with parishioners he passed.

At 6-foot-3, he walks slightly stooped, the better to look into people's faces.

But at the altar, Barbarito stands straight, and his voice fills the cathedral.

He spoke of the splendor of northern New York's Adirondacks, the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain, and said, "All are far, far, far surpassed by the beauty of you."

"You have given me much more than I ever imparted to you," he said.

Barbarito inspires affection and admiration in those who try to describe him, regardless of whether they are parishioners.

In the church, in village diners or walking down the street, he makes people feel he knows them and then he does know them, parishioner Edna Montoi said.

"I remember the days when you were supposed to kiss the bishop's ring," said parishioner Madeleine Gray. "He'd never let you do that."

People enjoy familiarity

Innkeepers Rena and Milton Goldberg, who are not parishioners, talk with surprise and delight about running into Barbarito at Wal-Mart.

"No other bishop here has done his own shopping," said Chuck Kelley, publisher of the local Advance News.

Locals agree that Barbarito's being out among the people made him familiar with their problems. One result: His advocacy for farmers led to a "harvest Mass."

Allowing for the lack of village diners, Barbarito said he wants that same connection to the people of Palm Beach.

"I like to walk," he said with hope, before adding, laughing, "I understand people don't do that much there."

He enjoys the indoor pleasures of music and reading. Beethoven is his favorite composer; Frost, his favorite poet.

The bishop, who concedes to preferring snowstorms to heat or air-conditioning, will not concede to any obstacle that could keep him from establishing as familiar a bond with his new diocese as he has with the one he is leaving.

"I'll adjust," he said with a confidence that would sound breezy if it didn't also sound sincere.

He has done it before.

"This was a big adjustment," he said of his move from bustling Brooklyn to rural Ogdensburg, where he felt at home within the first week.

And, he added, the 12,000-square-mile diocese he has led consists of many different places.

"Each town and each village has a very different character," he said.

Low-key, unifying approach

With a low-key approach, his effort has been to unite them, said his secretary, the Rev. Douglas Lucia. He has celebrated Mass at all but a handful of the 120 churches in the sprawling diocese.

Barbarito said he will waste no time meeting the people of his new diocese. After he leaves the pastoral diocese he has led for three years on Friday, he'll spend just a day in Brooklyn before arriving Sunday in Florida, where he plans to spend the week visiting parishes before his installation Aug. 28.

Barbarito has acknowledged that the five-county Palm Beach Diocese and its 225,000 Catholics need healing. The 53-year-old priest will be the diocese's fifth bishop since its creation in 1984. He replaces Sean O'Malley, who took over the scandal-torn Archdiocese of Boston after only eight months in Palm Beach.

O'Malley followed two previous bishops, Anthony O'Connell and J. Keith Symons, who resigned because of sex scandals.

But the healing in the Palm Beach Diocese is under way, Barbarito believes. "The people were so positive."

One on one, Barbarito's voice is soft, his words quick but considered. His accent carries a hint of the last place he left, where he grew up and spent the first 27 years of his career, Brooklyn.

He has wanted to be a priest since grammar school, he said. "Priests always seemed happy, bringing people together."

He is happy, he added.

Barbarito stood outside the cathedral after Sunday's service for 45 minutes, greeting people lined up to say goodbye, posing for pictures, sharing reminiscences and promises to meet again.

"Hey, this is great," he said with a laugh. "So many people are saying they'll see me in Florida. When I left Brooklyn, no one said, 'I'll see you in Ogdensburg.' "


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