As the Diocese celebrates his Silver Jubilee, Bishop Gerald Barnes sat down recently to retrace his steps in an interview with the Inland Catholic BYTE.
The Diocese is celebrating your 25th anniversary in many ways this year. What are your own thoughts on this milestone?
It’s been a long time—25 years is a long time, and yet it’s gone by so fast.
There’s a lot of old that’s here that I feel a part of and yet there’s a lot of new that I’m still learning. I’m uncovering a lot of new needs, and trying to look at new ways of addressing people and their needs. I often said, when asked a question like this, that by the time I retire I’ll be ready to be a bishop, because I’m constantly learning new things and hearing God’s call in different ways to shepherd the people.
You are the longest serving active Bishop in any diocese in the U.S. and barring an unexpected move from the Holy Father, this Diocese will be your singular assignment as a bishop. What do you make of that?
It’s actually, as I understand it, the way it’s supposed to be. You’re ordained for a diocese, for a local Church. In a sense you’re wedded to that Church. You’re ordained for the people of that local Church. There’s been talk ever since I’ve been here – within the first year or two - that I was going to be moved. I was going to Lubbock, I was going to Santa Fe, I was going to New York [laughs], I was going to Sacramento, I was going to Oakland, I was going to San Antonio, I was going to Los Angeles – yet I’ve stayed here. And I guess that’s the way it ought to be. I know that priests and deacons sometimes feel, we should be able to stay at a parish for 25 years and not be moving around but I think what we sometimes forget is that, as a bishop, as priests and as deacons, we’re ordained for the Diocese, for the local Church, not for a parish. Now, if the Holy Father says, ‘I need you to go somewhere else,’ then I go. But I’ve not had the ambition to go anywhere else, nor the desire to go anywhere else, even amidst the different conversations that I would be going. I think it’s been a good fit, with all its opportunities and challenges.
What is unique about the Diocese of San Bernardino?
I kind of equate the Diocese of San Bernardino as Galilee. It is the place that people cross through, to go to Las Vegas and Disneyland and Los Angeles and San Diego and Phoenix. So sometimes you don’t know it’s there. You just go through it. But when you stop here and you realize what is here, in the sense of its people and the faith of its people, you realize it’s more than just an oasis in the desert; it is part of that new Jerusalem. It is still considered a Mission Diocese, and yet there is wealth in the dedication and creativity of the people. We don’t have a lot of the resources that other longer established dioceses would have, like Catholic institutions of higher learning, and religious houses of formation and so forth. We’ve had to do a lot of it on our own, and that uniqueness has paid off. The wealth that is here is the people and their openness. We’ve had to create some things. Necessity is the mother of invention. We’ve had to create because we haven’t had the resources and the traditions. That makes us unique.
Are there any special memories that come to mind about the day you were ordained a bishop?
I didn’t know anyone here. It was a complete abandonment into this Church. It’s kind of like when you’re being taken to surgery. You just completely trust the doctors. I didn’t know a soul and in my first couple of days here they’re taking me around and, in a sense, every name, every town looks alike. We had a Phil, a Phil, a Phil and a Bill working in the Chancery [laughs]. I’m like, who’s who? The day of my ordination we got lost going to the church. I had been to the church for rehearsal the day before, and I said to the driver, ‘I don’t remember seeing this yesterday.’ Then he realized we were going to the wrong place. So it was an abandonment in the sense of trusting this place, these people, the church. [At the Ordination] I didn’t have a say in the liturgy, itself. I was asked to choose a reader. It was my sister. I asked if I could choose the deacons and they said, no, they would provide them, which is because it’s the local Church. It was like a kid going to school. It’s your first day.
What were your initial impressions of the Diocese of San Bernardino when you first came here?
I had come from a place [the Archdiocese of San Antonio] where there was a major city that dominated the entire diocese. There were a lot of small towns, a lot of empty spaces, but everything kind of came out of that main city, which was San Antonio. Here, there was no such thing. Things were dominated, in that sense, out of Los Angeles. Here, it was one city after another after another, so connected. And then you had these long spaces, too, to the desert and to the mountains. It was difficult getting adjusted, to know when you are in Riverside and when are you out, and then you’re already in Corona. There was nothing in between unless you were going out to the desert. It was difficult getting adjusted to that and to the local Church. You can’t bring one Church here, this is a different reality. We’re one Universal Church but we’re made up of unique individual Churches. And I discovered that when I came here.
How did things change when you became the Ordinary in 1995?
I was ready. I was more familiar. Bishop [Phillip] Straling had set up a very easy structure to build on. It was quite open and that was appealing to me. Some things, I could build on what we had, and I could begin some other things. He’d given a good tone or image to the Diocese, also. It was a Diocese that was moving, was learning, had taken Vatican II seriously, with intention, even with the challenges that that brought. It was easy for me to do that and, by that time, I had some familiarity with things. I came into my own with responsibility and Bishop Straling had set the process already for the consultation for the [Diocesan] Visioning and because I was part of that, I could now help lead it.
Why was it important to you to push forward with the Visioning Process for the Diocese early in your Episcopacy?
I came to know that this Diocese was made up of a lot of unique entities, and by that I mean the vastness of the small towns, priests from all over (religious and diocesan). It was like a scattering of a lot of things that did not sense yet a direction that they all had in common. Everybody was doing something good but we weren’t tied to each other. That happens in a new diocese. There were some areas that were not receiving as much attention and we needed to bring them on board, too. I had to witness the need to have people focus on a vision, that at least we could identify who we are. We were so different and mixed in many, many different ways, but who we are together is what was needed. So that was birthing of the Vision Statement and the Core Values.
What have been the most gratifying moments of your Episcopacy?
Right now I’m able to appreciate some of the things because formation is, for me, the key. Formation doesn’t happen in one day. It’s like a spiral. You work and you work and you work and then the time comes that you’re at the next level. You don’t know when, it might be months, it might be years. But you’re at the next level. To see that kind of maturity on the part of the people of the Diocese, of their faith, of owning their Church, trying to understand the uniqueness of their Church, with its multiplicity of entities, whether that is social status, education, ethnicity, age, economic. To see the growth, I think it’s like a father or grandfather, when you can see what the years have done, that, with all its challenges, how healthy [the Diocese] appears to be. You see new volunteers, you see people who were hesitant about going into formation programs, how they are now responding to them, how we’re developing people to meet different needs. Those are the satisfying things when people come up and say, “Bishop, thank you for the formation programs.” I get that all the time. There’s a great deal of gratitude on the part of the people for what the Church here has offered through the years, and that is satisfying.
One of the others is the growth of new ministries. As people begin to share their stories and their needs, the response has been in some ways to invite people to ministry, to minister to each other in the name of the Church.
What has been the most challenging moment of your Episcopacy?
The most challenging time was the sexual abuse crisis. To come to that kind of awareness of how people had been hurt and victimized by the Church was extremely painful – and rightly so. It took a lot of energy and time on the part of many people to understand and address this. I don’t think there could have been anything more painful than to see the pain that was caused by others and how that impacted the Church, meaning the people; the trust in the Church, the credibility of the Church. And the Church made this. We did that. It was painful for many people and it kind of put a stop on a lot of other things, because we needed to address it.
In addition to that, I think part of the challenge has been that I don’t think there is local ownership yet on the part of this local Church of the need for vocations [to the priesthood]. It is true that we have a good group of priests, but they are coming here from other places. We are not nurturing them, ourselves. We don’t have a culture of vocations in many of our parishes. People may not like some of the attributes of the priests who have served them, or they may love them, but the people are not thinking about what they are leaving their kids and their grandkids. Steadily, we have grown in the number of vocations but it’s not anywhere near what’s needed by the Diocese. The disappointing thing is that people have not owned that yet.
The other challenge is that we have not appreciated at the local level the responsibility that we have for accompanying our brothers and sisters in the faith. Sometimes our attitude or mentality is merely receiving the Sacraments; just to make sure you are baptized, or make sure you receive your First Communion or Confirmation, or get married in the Church. But the community of faith isn’t walking with the people. There isn’t that accompaniment of how to live the Sacraments. We haven’t become the missionary disciples that the Holy Father has asked us to be. We’re not out. We wait for people to come to the church, as in the Old Testament, “to the temple.” We haven’t taken to heart the mandate to go out into the world. That wherever we are, whatever our profession, we’re living our faith. When we’re not out there, what worries me is that there is a great temptation not to care, to become indifferent, to become cold and not compassionate. That is not living the Gospel. If we no longer feel for and with the people who are less fortunate, whether they are homeless, or orphaned, or immigrant, or aged, if we can’t feel and enter into solidarity with the people, then we are in a serious problem. Right now, the call in the battle is to fight that kind of indifference and cold-heartedness that has eaten away the compassion that we’re supposed to have for each other. That’s the challenge of the future. We need witnesses, more witnesses.
As you look to the future, what gives you hope for the Diocese and the Church in the United States, overall?
There are a lot of families and young people that are hungry for a knowledge and a relationship with God. The Church is not necessarily where some of them are looking. But even those in the Church are asking the questions about wanting to know more, and that’s a hope. People are looking for God. They may not be satisfied with what they have or the cost of it, but at least they’re looking, and the Church has to be there. In a sense, we’re not doing enough at the parish level with the young families. They need help. I think we need to help build in people, starting with the young, a sense of theologizing; to look at the experiences of our lives and where God is there. To help children and families go through that. Give them the kinds of tools and the right questions to ask themselves where they see God in their dreams and in their pain. I think people are ready for that, but I don’t know that we are ready to help them, to involve them in that.
[Smiling] Give me another 25 years and we’ll see what we can do….