Whispers in the Loggia
In an exceedingly rare appointment of its kind, Pope Francis has named Michael Barber SJ, 58 – a California Jesuit currently serving as the lead spiritual director at Boston's St John's Seminary – as bishop of Oakland.
Rare... Francis... Jesuit... Boston... "Super-Cardinal"...
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.
Said to be a "low-key, humble" cleric, the Gregorian-trained pick – a Navy chaplain who likewise studied at Oxford – previously served as a spiritual director at the San Francisco seminary, St Patrick's at Menlo Park, before taking up the Boston post in 2010.
With the appointment, Barber – the fourth diocesan head named by Francis on these shores – becomes the first US Jesuit named a bishop by the first-ever Jesuit Pope. Ordained for the Company in 1985, the nominee professed his final vows in 2005.
For purposes of context, the last time a simple priest was named to a Stateside post of this size came at a similarly early point in the last pontificate, when Msgr Kevin Vann – then a pastor in Springfield, Illinois – was tapped in May 2005 as coadjutor of Fort Worth, then a 400,000-member fold, which nearly doubled in size over the subsequent decade due to migration, birthrates and, well, just being Texas church. Yet while Vann was intended to have a period of apprenticeship under Bishop Joseph Delaney, the long-reigning prelate died the day before his successor's ordination, suddenly placing the provided ordinary-in-waiting on the cathedra with no prep. (In his last top-tier appointment on the Stateside bench by population, B16 named Vann to the 1.3 million-member diocese of Orange last September, and Fort Worth remains vacant.)
Back to the Bay, as indicated yesterday by the Oakland's apostolic administrator – Seattle's retired Archbishop Alex Brunett, who was parachuted into the diocese's reins amid the intensity of Cordileone's transition to "The City" – Barber will be ordained in an astonishingly short timeframe, the rites set for Saturday, 25 May at 11am in the postmodern Cathedral of Christ the Light (above), dubbed by locals on its 2008 opening as the "Space Egg."
The diocese carved out of San Francisco in 1962, the fifth bishop of Oakland will be the first appointee to the post who requires episcopal ordination before taking office. A wildly diverse fold with a long history as a progressive bastion – not just among the secular clergy, but given the presence of institutions like the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley – beyond the challenges of the fold's broad ideological and cultural spreads, a notable hurdle Barber inherits is the remaining debt on the cathedral's $190 million construction cost, which is still said to extend into significant eight figures.
More to come.