Congratulations to Rev. Michael Barber, S.J., who was named Bisohp of Oakland May 3 by Pope Francis. Fr. Barber lived in residence at SI for many years in the 1990s and 2000s. In June 2003, SI's alumni magazine, Genesis, published the story, below, on Fr. Barber's ministry as a chaplain and lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. (He was later promoted to Captain.)
Fr. Michael Barber, SJ, cannot speak his mind about the recent war in Iraq. As a chaplain and lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, and as one who saw parts of the war first-hand from Kuwait, he might be guilty of insubordination if he were to criticize his superior officers.
But he will say this: “As a Catholic and a priest, I agree with the papal teachings regarding this war. And as a member of the military, I know what my duty is: to serve the Marines wherever they are. If they are put into combat, I want to be with them to give them the sacraments.”
Fr. Barber did just that in Kuwait between January and the start of April. He returned to San Francisco when his mother died April 2, and since then, he has worked at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego, where the movie Top Gun was filmed, ministering to the needs of servicemen and women returning from the Gulf, some of whom are coming back to broken marriages.
“These are men and women whose spouses divorced them via e-mail while they were in Iraq or Kuwait,” said Fr. Barber. “When they return, no one will greet them at the plane. When they go home, they find their wedding pictures gone and an overgrown lawn. I’m there when they land to help them deal with these broken relationships.”
Fr. Barber doesn’t teach at SI, but he does lives in McGucken Hall as a member of the Jesuit community. For his day job, he teaches theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park.
He first joined the Chaplain Corps shortly after the first Gulf War while he was studying at the Gregorian University in Rome. In 1991, U.S. Navy ships began arriving in Naples, and the call came out for Catholic priests to say Mass aboard ship.
In Naples he learned that 30 percent of Marine officers are Catholic — greater than the percentage of Catholics in the general population — and that there weren’t enough Catholic chaplains to minister to them. As a result, many were converting to other religions.
“All of this inspired me to sign up,” said Fr. Barber. “I never knew much about the Navy, but I was inspired by the tremendous needs of these people and by their great generosity.” He applied in Naples, where he eventually received his commission, and was assigned to the Third Marine Air Wing. He is one of four Jesuits in the Navy Chaplain Corps and the only reservist of the group.
As the U.S. prepared for the invasion, Fr. Barber listened closely to the news coming from Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Catholic Military Services. “Before the war started, he was very much against a U.S. invasion of Iraq and made the argument to all the chaplains and to the President that this did not meet the qualifications for a Just War. But after the war started, he sent another letter to all the chaplains noting that this is a matter about which intelligent people may disagree, but that the chaplains need to support those who have to go to war. I thought he was balanced and fair, and he continued to play a role in international discussion.”
When Fr. Barber was called into active duty last January, he flew to a large air base in Kuwait where he was the only Catholic chaplain ministering to 7,000 Marines. The base (he was not free to disclose the location) was a major launching area for the air war, and Fr. Barber soon found himself in the midst of frantic preparations for the invasion.
The worst part, Fr. Barber said, was sleeping in tents in the desert and having to wear so much clothing. “It’s like driving to Nevada, stopping in the middle of nowhere, and living there for three months with no electricity and limited water, all the while wearing body armor and helmets.”
Starting on the first day of the invasion, he had to wear his rubber biological hazard suit, gloves and boots over everything else. When the alarm sounded warning of a missile strike, Fr. Barber and the 7,000 Marines had 60 seconds to put on their gas masks, secure their suits and get into their bunkers.
Luckily, the Patriot missiles destroyed the scuds in the air, “but we didn’t know that when the alarms went off. You had to wear everything while you slept, and it was almost impossible to sleep.”
On Ash Wednesday and for feast days, Fr. Barber traveled to two other camps to say Mass and hear confessions, traveling with four bodyguards.
“When Marines see a priest going on marches with them and sleeping in the same tent, they show you tremendous gratitude. They are so happy I was there for them.”
He counseled soldiers of all denominations, with most soldiers wanting to discuss marital problems. “They would come to me with ‘Dear John’ e-mails,” said Fr. Barber. “This is the biggest issue, even in times of peace. The pressure is sometimes too much for spouses who worry about their partners dying. Even those of us who never left Kuwait were in danger, given the range of Iraqi missiles.”
He met a number of Jesuit high school and college grads among the servicemen, though none from SI, and he felt an instant rapport with them. One graduate of Regis High School in Denver waited for Fr. Barber to finish saying Mass and hearing confessions for two hours. “He was the last guy in line. I asked him, ‘What can I do for you, Marine?’ He said he wanted to shake my hand because I was a Jesuit. Then he told me that he left college after September 11 and enlisted in order to serve his country. I was so proud of him.”
However, while he enjoys meeting alumni of Jesuit schools, he believes his ministry is important because it allows him to reach men and women “whom the Jesuits didn’t touch through our school system, either because they didn’t choose to go to a Jesuit high school or couldn’t go for any number of reasons.”
Fr. Barber’s stay in Kuwait was cut short when his mother died. Before leaving for Kuwait, he arranged for her to live at St. Anne’s Home. After her death, he returned to San Francisco to bury her. At the funeral, he met a family friend who asked what he could do to help the soldiers.
“I told him about a Marine sergeant in Kuwait who had received a message from his wife, telling him she had been fired. This family has two children with another on the way, and they were in danger of losing their house. My friend arranged for the wife to get a job.”
After the funeral, Fr. Barber’s superiors transferred him to San Diego to minister to those returning from war. There he holds informal classes for spouses, letting them know what to expect when their partners return from combat.
He also tells them the story about sitting at a mess hall in Kuwait listening to soldiers talk about the one thing they would do upon their return to the states. “All the young Marines mentioned things like drinking a cold beer or eating a filet mignon. One older Marine, a master sergeant, said the first thing he wanted to do was to hug his little girls. All the younger Marines stopped and looked at this salty old guy with tattoos up and down his arm. That ended the discussion.”
Fr. Barber hopes to be back at SI by the end of summer, but until then, he knows where his duty lies: to minister to the Marines, helping to heal the spiritual and emotional wounds of the war.
While Fr. Michael Barber, SJ, was serving as a chaplain in Kuwait, he sent letters via e-mail to his friend, Br. Thomas Koller, SJ, who works in the SI business office, telling him of the day-to-day life of a Marine Corps chaplain. His messages ended on March 19 with the start of the war. Here are his letters.
February 27, 2003
I have arrived at my base camp. I am still in a state of shock. Life is worse here than I imagined: sand, dirt and dust in everything; cold water showers; long lines to get chow; gas mask must be carried at all times; tension and stress among the men. And there are so many people here. I am the one priest for 7,000 Marines in this camp. Plus there are Air Force, Army, Navy and Britain's Royal Air Force here. You have to hike a half hour to get chow or to find the chapel tent. The ten guys in my tent are all friendly: all pilots and one doctor. Everywhere I turn, the Marines help me. Days here are pleasant, in the 70s, but at night it is so bitterly cold we sleep in long johns, with three sleeping bags, one inside the other.
Could you please post this and let everyone at SI know how much I appreciate the prayers and support. They are carrying me through. Tension and anxiety here is very high among the men. When/if the shooting starts, we will lose communication with the outside world. In the meantime I hope this reaches you.
March 3, 2003
It's Monday, noontime here in Kuwait. There warned us this morning at a briefing not to mention anything about our mission in communications, and that all our emails are being read by the censors. There is so much I want to tell you and the Community but can't because of security. We are having chemical warfare drills today. I had to rush and put on my gas mask during breakfast. We are now in full body armor, helmets, backpacks and battle gear. It is getting a bit too scary for me. Had a great response for Masses on the weekend, with lots of guys asking for confession. One Marine came up and wants to convert to Catholicism. I have to work fast because he is going forward soon. On Ash Wednesday, I will go off the base with a full complement of bodyguards to take care of those Marines most at risk.
All the guys are asking for medals, crosses and rosaries to carry for Divine Protection. They are so young! I met a Bellarmine grad, Sean Stoup ’93. He's the doctor for a Marine group who will be in harm's way soon. I told him the Jesuits would be praying for him. Many, many grads out here from Jesuit schools. Our camp commandant is a Fairfield Prep and Marquette U grad. They all praise the Society. We may lose e-mail sooner rather than later. So my very best regards to everyone at SI!
God Bless. You are all remembered from the desert,
March 6, 2003
Our e-mail was not working for some days, but now it seems to be up for the time being. Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, was one of the most moving days I ever had as a priest. I went to another camp where it is much more primitive (they are living dug into the dirt and sand). I said Mass and most of the entire camp came, including their Colonel Commanding Officer. They filled their mess tent to overflowing. The Protestant chaplains stood outside marveling. These guys will soon be in harm’s way, so I preached on confession. Almost every single Marine stayed after, so I did confessions standing up, as we didn't have much time. Then they all lined up for individual blessings as I consigned a blessed rosary or medal to each guy personally and prayed for his protection. Many of the Latino Marines held photos of their infant children in their hands for me to bless. It was a very emotional experience. Then a guy asked to be baptized. He swore he had completed his catechism on the ship on the way over. Since he was soon to be in danger, without any book or oils, I took him outside and baptized him. He even had two buddies standing by as sponsors.
I can't believe what the Holy Spirit is doing over here. I am getting scared about next week. Many of us are planning on sleeping on top of our racks fully clothed and ready to jump in a bunker if the sirens go off. I pray God will avert the war still. Thanks for checking on my mom. I am relieved she is back at St Anne's. I'll continue to write while we still have the e-mail open.
God Bless and thanks for your prayers,
March 10, 2003
…. We neither saw nor heard about the President's press conference. We get very little news here. No CNN. I think the Iraqis get better info than we get in this camp. We have heard, though, that the war is definitely going to happen and soon. Last Friday we had the “pre-war pep talk” from the supreme Marine General in the theatre. You should have seen the occasion: 7,000 Marines arrayed in formation at attention in absolute silence, like a scene from a Cecil B. DeMille movie.
The general was atop a huge tower with a loudspeaker so all could see and hear. It was the first time we have all been lined up like that. His talk was very good and inspiring. He said we would all feel real fear at some point in the days ahead and that we would have to deal with it. He asked us all to do our job “with no stupid heroics.” He also promised to get us out of here and back home as soon as he possibly could when it was all over (loud cheers!). He said more, about the military strategy, etc., but we can't repeat it.
Please pray for our protection, as we will need every prayer we can get here when it starts.
My very best to all in the Community.
March 11, 2003
One third of the Marines had their e-mail cut off today. I seem to be still up and running. I saw a crew from ABC News outside filming this afternoon, so our base may be on the news tonight. (It's 2:30 p.m. Tuesday as I write this. We are 11 hours ahead of you). Nothing new to report. We heard the report about the British helo squadron that was practicing landings inside Kuwait yesterday, and a group of Iraqi soldiers ran up and surrendered only to be told to go back as it was too soon! We loved that. That may be true with the Iraqis in the south, but not in the north around Baghdad.
Most of the days here we are filling more and more sandbags, over 500,000 so far, and constructing bunkers and fortifications. I pray we will not need to use them.
March 12, 2003
Everything else here is the same. Warming up in the days. There's a Lt. Robert Barber here who has become a good friend. Our mail always gets mixed up. I get perfumed love letters from his wife, and he gets form letters from the Military Archbishop.
March 14, 2003
Wouldn't it be great if Saddam did what they want, and we don't have to have the war after all? I do think if we go in, the Iraqis will get their “butts kicked” as the Marines around here are fond of saying. But truth be told, we'd all rather not have to do it.
Enjoy your long weekend. Last night at chow I sat next to a “Lt. Colonel Noonan” (no one has first names in the Marine Corps!) who graduated from Brophy in 1978. He had nothing but praise for the school and the Jesuits, even though he is not Catholic. Also, I have met more Bellarmine graduates, but no one yet from SI. Not to say there's not some out here; it's just that there are so many people, I'll probably never meet them all.
March 15, 2003
Thanks so much for visiting my mother. It is a relief to me to know she's doing OK. Yesterday had something out of the ordinary happen to relieve the monotony here. A reporter from the "New York Daily News" was in our camp and sought me out. He was a Regis High graduate from New York and wanted to interview me. He asked all the hard questions: "What did I tell my Catholic Marines when the Pope has declared this to be an immoral war and the President wants us to fight?" My choices are ecclesial excommunication or military insubordination. We had a great talk though, and his photographer took lots of pictures. The Protestant chaplains were all giving me a bad time "Who are you to be interviewed, etc. etc." Don't know if anything will come of it in print, but it was nice to know he was interested in the moral issues surrounding this war.
Have to run to chow before they shut down the food line. God bless, and have a “wee drop of the dew” for me on St. Patrick's Day.
March 19, 2003
Thanks for the news. We are on pins and needles waiting. Sunday I preached on “Putting our trust in the Lord” to allay any fear. Yesterday I was having breakfast in the chow tent when a Protestant Seabee came in and said his Catholic Seabee tent-mates were getting ready to roll out and “move forward,” and were “desperately looking for the priest.” I went over to their jeeps as the convoy was forming and heard their confessions and gave them blessed medals. You have never seen more relieved men in your life. Makes being here all worthwhile. God bless and thank you, and the whole community, for your prayers and support. Even the cocky young pilots are looking grave.