WASHINGTON — Pope Francis has appointed Jesuit Father Michael Barber, director of spiritual formation at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Mass., as bishop of Oakland, Calif.
The appointment was announced May 3 in Washington by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States.
Bishop-designate Barber, 58, is a member of the Jesuit Province of California. He succeeds Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who was named head of the San Francisco Archdiocese July 27, 2012.
He is the first Jesuit named to the U.S hierarchy by Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope.
"I'm keeping my eyes on Pope Francis and seeing what he did in his first days as pope," Bishop-designate Barber said May 3 in Oakland at an introductory news conference.
Asked why he thought the pope had chosen him, Bishop-designate Barber replied, "I would think maybe he saw in my file or in the consultations done on me something he wants to do as pope. Picking bishops -- it's one of his biggest powers as a pope. Maybe he thought I could do in Oakland what he wants to do for the whole church. That's why I'm watching him very carefully, and that's why I'd like to imitate him. ... He had to start somewhere, too, when he was a bishop."
Born July 13, 1954, in Salt Lake City, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1973 and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1985.
Apart from a two-year missionary stint in Apia, Western Samoa, immediately after ordination, Bishop-designate Barber's ministry has focused on education.
His assignments have included assistant professor of theology at Gregorian University in Rome; researcher and tutor at Oxford University in England; director of the School of Pastoral Leadership in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, assistant professor of systematic and moral theology and spiritual director at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif.; and his current assignment since 2010 as director of spiritual formation at St. John's.
Bishop-designate Barber said he could like "from time to time to get into the classroom" because education is a priority of the Jesuits. He added he also wants to "visit city jails and county jails as the pope has" and to visit Catholic Charities facilities, "getting my hands dirty in soup kitchen by washing dishes, pots and pans."
He spoke of jail ministry: "It's one of those ministries expressly commended by Christ for us to do. 'When I was in prison you visited me.' You can't get more explicit than that."
While in California, he served as a chaplain in the Naval Reserves, and visited sailors in the brig. "On an aircraft carrier of 5,000, there's always a few in the brig," he said.
Unlike the response he said he got from other sailors after inviting them to attend Mass, the answer was always "yeah, yeah, yeah," if prisoners were asked if they wanted a visit from the chaplain.
"'Father, can you call my wife for me?' 'Father, can you talk to the captain on my behalf?' I try to use my resources as best I can," Bishop-designate Barber said.
Asked what plans he had for the diocese, Bishop-designate Barber answered, "I don't have ideas for programs and grand schemes. That can come later. People are important to me. ... It's listen first, speak later."
Bishop-designate Barber said he was approached by Archbishop Vigano about the Oakland appointment following an ordination Mass in Washington for an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese for the Military Services.
"He asked for my response in person when I was there," Bishop-designate Barber said. "The first thing I said to him was, 'Don't think of this as cheeky, but are you sure you have the right Michael Barber, SJ (the common abbreviation for Jesuits)? Because there are three Michael Barber SJs. Right now there are Michael Barber SJs in St. Louis and Baltimore being congratulated right now."
Bishop-designate Barber said he, like every Jesuit, "took a promise that I would never seek promotion or ecclesiastical office," accepting such only "under pain of him who has the power to command under mortal sin" -- the pope.
He added he told Archbishop Vigano he had never met Pope Francis and "will probably never know why (he was appointed) unless I get a chance to meet with him one on one."