Friday, May 3, 2013

Beefy Levinson's brushes with greatness

Great news for those of us in the People's Republic of California:

In an exceedingly rare appointment of its kind, Pope Francis has named Michael Barber SJ, 58 – a California Jesuit currently serving as a spiritual director at Boston's St John's Seminary – as bishop of Oakland.

Rare... Francis... Jesuit... Boston..."Super-Cardinal"...

Hmm.

At the helm of the roughly 600,000-member NorCal church, the bishop-elect succeeds Salvatore Cordileone, who was sent across the Bay to lead the more prestigious – yet less populous – archdiocese of San Francisco last July.
I know Fr. Barber. He used to be a spiritual director and instructor at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, CA before his current assignment in Boston. He left at the end of my first year there to continue work on his doctorate. There was a change in the seminary administration while he was gone, and to the surprise of no one the newly installed rector announced that Fr. Barber would not be returning. Barber is one of the few good Jesuits left in this country. He takes the spiritual life and the spiritual warfare seriously. When he was tasked with leading rector's conferences, we hung on his every word. I clearly remember his last conference. He couldn't hide his sadness. Looking back on it I think he knew he wouldn't be returning to St. Patrick's. He said that it's easy to grow sad and give in to despair given the state of the Church. Seminarians returned from field education and told him horror stories about liturgical dancing, about women preaching homilies, about the American Church's weak or nonexistent faith in the Real Presence, and all of the other Novus Ordo abuses every Catholic on the interwebs knows all too well. California lags behind the rest of the American Church by about ten years. All of that Reform of the Reform stuff taking place under Pope Benedict XVI is still thin on the ground out here.

He said that ultimately it's God's Church. It's destiny is in his hands. He urged the seminarians, if and when they became priests, to reintroduce splendor into the liturgy. God's people have had to endure Low Church liturgy for so many years, especially from his fellow Jesuits. We don't build beautiful churches and add all of the smells and bells to the Mass just so we can admire what lovely performers we are, he said. God is truth, goodness, and beauty. Beauty in the liturgy raises our hearts and minds to God. Even in our class chapels with only a dozen guys tops attending Mass, Barber made the Novus Ordo about as beautiful and reverent as it can be.

Like all men who take Catholicism seriously, Barber suffered for the faith. Typical of our day, he suffered the most at the hands of fellow churchmen. Barber's old school theology and prayer life were an odd duck among the California Jesuits where anything goes except traditional Catholicism. St. Patrick's Seminary is a mixed bag to put it charitably. Among a certain generation of California Catholics, both priest and lay, just to mention the name of the seminary is to conjure up images of heresy, error, and rampant homosexuality. It is much improved compared to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s though it still has a long way to go. I remember the upper classmen sighing when the new rector I mentioned earlier was announced. All they would say was, "Two steps forward, one step back..." The scars of those times remain and no seminary is perfect. Whatever improvements it has experienced were thanks to men like Fr. Barber.

Schadenfreude is not a Christian sentiment, but I can sense it within me when I think about the looks on the faces of the California Jesuits and a few seminary faculty when they heard the news this morning. If I ever see Barber again I will greet him with "The stone rejected by the builders has become the corner stone, eh Fadda?"

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