Bishop Barber delivers his address

Three Suggestions to Save Your Soul — and Others

by the Most Rev. Michael C. Barber, S.J.
Bishop of Oakland
Commencement 2020
Thomas Aquinas College, California
May 29, 2021


Thank you, President McLean; and first, I would like to thank the founders, trustees, and benefactors for creating this college and supporting it. Thomas Aquinas College is what a Catholic college is supposed to be. Thank you for fighting to uphold your Catholic principles.

On behalf of the United States Catholic Conference Committee on Catholic Education, I thank you, Dr. McLean, for successfully leading the College in a four-year legal effort that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, securing an exemption from a federal mandate that compelled employers to provide free contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization coverage to their employees. 

You are not alone. The government likes to pick on small, faith-based colleges. The government, through the National Labor Relations Board, tried to tell Carroll College in Helena, Montana; Saint Xavier University in Chicago; Manhattan College in New York; Duquesne in Pennsylvania, “You’re not Catholic, and you don’t get any exemptions that apply to faith-based schools.” The government went after these schools because they had modest endowments compared to Notre Dame and Boston College. The Catholic schools fought back anyway, and the Supreme Court recently ruled in their favor. We as a church will decide if our schools are Catholic or not, not the government.

Just this week, a federal judge ruled that students of the opposite biological sex must be allowed to share shower spaces and dorms at a small Christian college in Missouri. They are fighting back. Women shouldn’t be forced to share private spaces, including showers and dorm rooms, with males, and religious schools shouldn’t be punished simply because of their beliefs about biological sex. Worse will come if the so-called “Equality Act,” as written, ever becomes law.

But enough of politics. You have created here what a Catholic College is supposed to be. That was recently summed up to me — what a Catholic school should be, whether it’s an elementary school, a high school, or a university. I was going to Safeway, outside the U.S. Naval Base in Bangor, Washington, to get some groceries, and there was a big banner outside and a table, where volunteers were taking signups for a local parochial school. The banner had a picture of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and it said, “Good Shepherd School: For a Christ-centered education.” That’s what a Catholic school is supposed to be. As evidence of this Christ-centered education, I point to your class quote that you selected that speaks of the Resurrection.

So where do we go from here? Where do you go from here? You have already started your journey, as technically you graduated last year. I would just like to give you my personal advice as a priest, as a bishop, and as a fellow Catholic.

I want you to reach the resurrection. St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “Why does a young man enter the Jesuits? First, to save his soul.” I want you to save your souls. But second: “To help others save their souls.” And if you are a Christian, you are commanded by Christ not just to save your own soul, but to assist others in achieving the resurrection in saving their souls.

Well, how do you do that today in the present state of the Catholic Church in the world? I only have three suggestions.

Worship the Lord, Feed Your Soul
First, worship the Lord, and thus feed your soul. Find a church, a Catholic church, where the Mass is celebrated with reverence and holiness, like here. Find a parish where the priest has restored the sacred. Find that parish where you experience the presence of Christ.

You may say, “Well, the Mass is the Mass; it’s always holy.” That’s true, but you shouldn’t have to close your eyes and plug your ears and say, ‘I can at least go to Holy Communion and get through this.’” I know the current state of affairs; I have 84 churches in my diocese. I went to one in my first round of Confirmations eight years ago, and after, I told the pastor that the music was so loud, so obnoxious, so irreverent, and so offensive that if I weren’t the Bishop, I would never come to Mass in this church again.

What’s the Mass supposed to be like? Pope Francis said it well in his homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration in 2014. The Holy Father said, “Every Mass should be an experience like the Apostles had at the Transfiguration, an experience of heaven on earth, a place, the place, where heaven and earth meet — a taste on earth of the glory of the Lord.” I believe that is why the Lord gave the Apostles this experience of His glory on that mountaintop, to strengthen them later when they experienced His passion, and then their own passion.

How does the Church create this place of heaven on earth?

First, through the beauty of sacred architecture, like you have in this chapel. I felt like Mother Angelica the first time she visited a television set when I first went into your chapel. I said, “Lord, I gotta have one of these.” The confessors who man the confessionals in St. Peter’s in Rome say they are approached by tourists every year who ask them, ‘How do I join a church that could create such beauty?’”

At the Josephinum Seminary in Ohio in the 1970s, they destroyed the original chapel interior. They tore out the high altar, painted over the frescoes, took away the baldacchino, ripped out the pews, and in their place put in carpet and chairs and made it look like a living room. It was total destruction. But a few years ago the new rector framed a picture of what the chapel used to look like and put it in the vestibule of that ruined chapel, so that everybody coming in and out could say, “Is this what it used to look like? Can we put that back? Can we fix that?” He raised the money, and he has now restored the chapel to its original full glory and splendor. It’s a fantastic teaching moment for the seminarians going through that seminary in Ohio, that you can repair damage that has been done to beautiful churches.

We create the holy also through sacred music, like you sang this morning at the Mass. How many people have I met who have come back to the Faith, who have converted to the Church, or who drive by five other parishes to come to a church where they have a spectacular, beautiful choir singing Gregorian chant and polyphony?

We also create the holy through the reverence of the ministers, and our souls are also fed through an intelligent homily. I tell my priests, “The better your golf score, the worse are your homilies.” 

When you find such a parish, please support the priests who run it. As we heard in the Gospel this morning, if you do the Lord’s will, you will get beat up. You will be opposed. And it’s very true, especially with young priests. Often, it’s older priests from another generation who don’t share this vision I have just enunciated, who tell young priests that they are going backwards, that that’s not what the Church wants. But another thing is true: The parishes where they restore the sacred, where the Mass is celebrated reverently, they grow, while other parishes are shrinking and closing.

Remember what Cardinal Newman said: “Growth is the only evidence of life.” Help those parishes grow. If you can’t find one like I just described, go to your priest and encourage him to create it.

I don’t know if you remember Mother Angelica — God rest her soul — but she used to have this program called Mother Angelica Live. People could phone in from all around the country and ask a question or tell her about a problem, and she would give advice over the air — kind of like Dear Abby in a veil and a habit. One time this lady phoned in, and she said, “Mother, the priest in our parish, he took Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament out of the tabernacle on the high altar, and he put Him in some small room somewhere, and we can’t even find Him. What do we do? What do we do?”

Mother Angelica said, “Honey, go up to Father, and tell him as politely as you can to please put Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament back on the altar.”

And the woman said, “Yeah, but up there he put — in place of the tabernacle — a giant cactus!”

Mother Angelica said, “I know what he can do with that cactus!”

Feed your soul. Worship the Lord. Find that parish and support it. My second piece of advice is: Practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We don’t have time to list them all, but I’ll just point out two.

One is one of the spiritual works of mercy, and that is “Instruct the ignorant.” Our graduates — my graduates — if you want to change the world, if you want to change the Catholic Church for the better, teach First Holy Communion class in your parish. Teach Confirmation class in your parish. Use this outstanding education you have received here at TAC to pass on the Catholic faith to the next generation in its fullness.

One pastor told me — and pastors say this all across the country — “My Catholic grammar school is failing, Bishop. We’re down to 120 kids. Next year it will be 100. We don’t have enough money.” Catholic schools are closing, 100 per year in the USA. This past year, because of the pandemic, over 200 have closed. The pastor says, “My school is shrinking! What do I do?” And I said, “Father, how many kids do you have in Catechism for First Holy Communion?”


“How many do you have in Confirmation class?” 


Teach First Holy Communion. Teach Confirmation. They say up to 70  percent of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Teach those little children the mystery of Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament that you experienced here. In Confirmation class, you can help our teens by answering the objections they hear all about God and the Church from their friends at school.

I know teaching Catechism, teaching religious education, demands a great sacrifice of time, and the only payment you will get is the joy of seeing your students learn and grow in the Faith. You may feel you have greater things to achieve in life. You may, but what is greater than handing on the Faith to the next generation?

St. Ignatius of Loyola ordered the Jesuit theologians who were the periti at the Council of Trent — the best experts in theology and philosophy at the time, who were advising the Pope and the Cardinals — he ordered those theologians to also teach little children catechism when the Council was not in session. 

You’ve all heard Cardinal Newman’s famous teaching: 

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I will know it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between people. He has not created me for nothing. Therefore I will trust Him.

Did you know that Cardinal Newman wrote that for the Sunday catechism class for his oratory schoolboys? Although a cardinal of the Church and the leading theologian in the English language, he insisted on teaching the teenage boys their Catechism himself. If he had the time to do that, could you do that and help us?

Practice the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy. Of the corporal works, I’ll just mention one: “Feed the hungry.” 

In 2016 Pope Francis proclaimed a Year of Mercy for the whole church. I asked all the eighth graders in our Catholic grammar schools in my diocese to do a project on one of the Corporal Works of Mercy and then write and tell me what they did. One boy wrote: “Bishop, today I made 100 sandwiches for the homeless, and when I walked home from school, I felt lighter than a kite.” I wrote him back, “You experienced spiritual consolation, young man, for when you practice a spiritual work of mercy, a corporal work of mercy, you are connecting yourself with the Heart of Mercy in Jesus that is in heaven. Then that mercy flows through you to someone who is in need. You become a channel of mercy from Jesus to the poor and suffering. That’s why you feel so good.”

At our diocesan St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen I was handing out trays of food, and I asked the volunteer next to me, “What parish do you belong to?” And he said, “Oh, I’m not Catholic. I’m Jewish. But I really like being here.” 

“I really like being here.” Mercy is attractive. Christ spent most of His earthly mission healing and feeding people. Even if people do not know or share our doctrine, they are drawn to our charitable works, to our works of mercy.

Be a Missionary Disciple
This leads to my third and last suggestion: Be a missionary disciple. Most Catholics don’t jump at this idea. Most Catholics think, “It’s enough to practice the Faith myself and then try and help my family.” But watch what will happen if that is your viewpoint.

When I visited a parish that had shrunk from 3,000 people attending Mass on a weekend to 50 over the years, I told them that I could not give them a priest, and I would have to merge their parish with the next one. One very devout elderly lady came up to me and said, “Bishop, I don’t understand. I’ve been attending this parish for 30 years, and I have been putting in my contribution every Sunday. Why are you merging us? Why don’t we get our own priest?”

And I said to her, “Ma’am, have you looked up and seen that almost everyone else has left, and you are one of the last ones here? Have you, ma’am, ever invited anyone to join this parish? Have you ever invited someone with no faith to come and experience a Mass?”

We usually look to the Mormons as the religion that does outreach. We Catholics are more hesitant. It doesn’t come natural to us. Faith with us is more personal. But Jesus did command us: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It was a command. Jesus told the Apostles, “I will make you fishers of men.” To follow the command of Jesus, we have to go fishing. 

A priest from Nova Scotia told me this story. “Most Catholic parishes are like this,” he said. “I’m from Halifax in Nova Scotia. It’s a fishing town; there’s a great harbor, filled with fishing boats. They are all tied up at night. In the morning, early, the fishermen come at dawn and take the boats out into the ocean for their catch.”

The priest said, “What a contradiction it would be if all the boats just stayed in the harbor, all tied up all the time, and never went out.” He said, “Sure, I suppose every once in a while a fish might spontaneously jump out of the water and land on the deck of the boat. That’s RCIA. Someone just shows up!” 

Have you gone fishing? You can do that just by putting a little Madonna statue on your desk at work. Or, I see taxi drivers all the time who have a Rosary, or a little icon there, and people say, “What’s that? Who’s that?” It just starts a little conversation. Or they see you’re wearing a Rosary or a scapular: “What’s that about?” It’s an entrée to talk about Christ and the Church.

I welcome groups like FOCUS, St. Paul’s Outreach, Amazing Parish, Catholic World Mission — they are great. But you don’t have to join a group to be a missionary disciple. Just be yourself, but be open to inviting someone to share the joy you have from the Catholic faith. 

Worship the Lord. Practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Be a missionary disciple.

One person who exemplifies these three essentials for me, one of my heroes, is Margaret Roper, St. Thomas More’s daughter. She was regarded as “the most learned woman in England.” She could translate classics from Greek into Latin. She was the most learned woman because she had the best teacher: her father. Her father raised her in sound and deep piety, and even though the priests in their village may have been simpletons, the Mores attended Mass daily.

Two — she was a missionary disciple in that she refused to abjure her Catholicism. She stood up for the Faith and did not take the oaths declaring Henry VIII head of the Church. Many people were moved by her example, but most impressively, she practiced the corporal works of mercy to a heroic degree.

At the time of the persecution, a whole monastery of Carthusian monks was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The white-robed Carthusian order, the strictest in the Church, the most devout, with the strictest amount of penance: These monks were imprisoned in the Tower for refusing to recognize Henry VIII as head of the Church. As part of their punishment, they were chained with their arms behind them and their legs together, and they were denied all food and water, left to die a slow death. Margaret disguised herself as a milkmaid, bribed a guard to get into their cell, and — at the risk of her own life — she went monk by monk, feeding them with morsels of food and with drinks of water, because they could not feed themselves. You can hear those monks’ cries of joy, thanking her and blessing her. They were so happy and grateful.

They all eventually died, canonized martyrs for the Faith.

Margaret escaped to Belgium to raise her family in safety. Some years later she became seriously ill, and there was nothing the doctors could do for her. She was on her deathbed; her death was near; she was surrounded by her family; when all of a sudden she startled up off her pillow and said, “Look! The white-robed brothers — they’re here! They’re here!”

Then she died, aged 39. The Carthusians remembered and came back for her.

If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with Him in glory ( Col, 3:1-4).