ROCKVILLE CENTRE (NY)
February 3, 2018
By Bart Jones
The Diocese of Rockville Centre’s spiritual leader, back to his New York roots, is racking up visits to parishes and intent on getting more people in the pews.
Bishop John Barres, who took over the Diocese of Rockville Centre a year ago with a reputation as an energetic one-man whirlwind, has by one measure more than lived up to the billing: He has visited 81 out of 134 parishes and dozens of Catholic schools from Elmont to the East End.
Marking his one-year anniversary as leader of Long Island’s 1.5 million Catholics, Barres said in an interview that he is launching a major effort to boost church attendance and vocations in the eighth-largest diocese or archdiocese in the nation.
The bishop, who touched on a variety of issues, also said he will not declare Rockville Centre a “sanctuary diocese” for immigrants who are in the United States illegally and may seek safe haven from deportation in churches.
Over the months, he has made ministering to Latino Catholics a primary focus, and last spring he attended the funeral of an Ecuadorean teenager who federal prosecutors said was slain by MS-13 gang members. He said he believes Catholic schools and parishes will play a key role in helping stem more gang violence.
The bishop also said he does not believe the diocese needs to open its books on past clergy sexual-abuse cases, as some who say they were victimized have demanded.
Barres, 57, who grew up in Larchmont, said he has realized that after some 35 years away from the state, he is at heart a native New Yorker. Those roots helped him slip easily into his role here soon after arriving from the Diocese of Allentown in Pennsylvania.
“I realized, deep down, I’m a New Yorker,” he said, laughing. “This is where I grew up. I am really comfortable here . . . I can get to the point quicker, can be a little more aggressive. We can move a little faster.”
The former Princeton University basketball player starts his days at 4:30 a.m. and continues well into the night. In addition to hitting nearly two-thirds of the parishes in the diocese, he has spoken at the United Nations, hosted a cardinal from El Salvador, and been presented with an honorary St. John’s University basketball jersey, emblazoned with his name, at center court at Madison Square Garden.
He has impressed many Catholics with his warmth, “people skills” and willingness to spend time speaking with them.
Before Masses, he roams the pews for up to half-an-hour chatting with parishioners, and he tries to arrange his schedule so he can be the last one to leave afterward, allowing for more time to talk to people individually. He has made a point of reaching out to young people, going to all 10 Catholic high schools and 16 of 47 Catholic elementary schools in the diocese.
“He’s a lovely man. He’s very friendly, warm,” said Sharon Swift, who as principal of Our Lady of Providence Regional Catholic School in Central Islip hosted Barres for a visit on Wednesday.
She marveled at how Barres, at a Mass last year at St. John of God parish where the school is located, memorized the names of some of the students within minutes, met their parents in another section of the church, and then came back to the students — remembering their names and connecting them with their parents.
For all of the goodwill that Barres has generated as a fresh and — for a bishop of a major diocese — relatively young presence, he faces challenges and some critiques.
Immigrant advocates want to see him match his supportive rhetoric with what they say could be more far-reaching actions. Survivors of clergy sex abuse want the books opened so that the full truth of the diocese’s role in the scandal can be publicly known.
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