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The new occupant of the Catholic Center chaplain’s office seems happy to be at BU, greeting strangers warmly and showing his sense of humor by balancing food on his nose.
The new chaplain is happy to be here, too.
Finbar, a 5-year-old, 65-pound German shorthaired pointer, is a four-legged business card for his owner, the Rev. David Barnes (he’s the chaplain). “Maybe people who’d be less likely to say hello to me at first might be likely to say hello to him,” Barnes muses, reflecting on their teamwork at his old church in Beverly, Mass., where he was a priest and pastor for 13 years. “I think they miss him more than they miss me.”
Replacing the Rev. John McLaughlin in June when he was transferred to St. John’s Seminary in Brighton to direct spiritual formation for priests, Barnes came with both a dog and blog. In a June comment on A Shepherd’s Post, he listed his positive first impressions at BU: the student who accompanied him on the drudge-filled hoofing between University offices while he filled out paperwork, the Mass-goers who knelt in thanks at the end of services rather than make a beeline for the exit, and the care students took to set up prior to worship services.
Barnes blogged that his new assignment reminded him of a Gospel story of Jesus’ healing amid a crowd. “We are called to meet people in the School of Education and in the College of Communication. We are called to meet the crowd at the Music House and at the Spanish House.…We have to act like Christ, who was moved with a sympathy for their particular interest, a sympathy for what brought them together.”
Dabbling in social media (he also tweets) might help Barnes relate to a decidedly younger flock than he’s used to. He won’t be helping parishioners arrange assisted living at BU, and he’s already realized that cultural references a 42-year-old priest considers au courant are prehistoric to the college set. Then there’s the worship schedule. In Beverly, he’d celebrate Mass as early as 7 a.m.; here, he’d provoke slumbering students into schism by summoning them at that hour. He’ll now have until 12:30 p.m. to get ready for Sunday’s first worship; the downside will be celebrating the day’s last Mass at 10 p.m. during the academic year. “I was writing to somebody last night around 9:40,” he says, “and I was thinking to myself, I’m ready to go to bed now.”
Whereas in his previous post he interacted occasionally with leaders of other denominations, he can’t walk down Comm Ave without bumping into them in his new position. As a member of the University chaplains, who advise Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Hill, he’ll work regularly with fellow religious.
One constant in ministry is the need to pass the collection basket far and wide. “Fundraising is still a necessary part of the Catholic Center,” which has a deficit and can’t rely on students to cover all the services provided, he says. He anticipates visits to alumni, parents, and local parishes with BU families in their ranks. That said, his “first priority is to preach the Gospel and to provide the sacraments and do all those types of priestly things.
“And then get the money.”
Raised in Quincy, Mass. (“You don’t get this accent just by visiting,” Hill recalls Barnes saying during their interview), the new chaplain first pondered the priesthood in 2nd grade and settled on it in 10th. His journey from interest in ministry to certainty was the product of a “culture of Catholic life”: raised in a devout Catholic family, attending parochial schools and being taught by nuns in every grade but second, surrounded by family friends from the church around the corner. “The thought about being a priest was the same as thinking about being a policeman or thinking about being a lawyer,” he says. “It was just a normal possibility.” Counting out loud, he recalls his childhood parish as a fecund source of priests: “One, two, three four, Billy, Tommy, Fred—I can think of six or seven guys who were ordained.”
Unlike many of his fellow American Catholics, who disagree with some of their Church’s social teachings, “I’ve never had any doubt about the faith teachings of the Church and the moral teachings of the Church,” he says. “I’ve always been convinced by their beauty and by their goodness.
“I think there’s only one Christ. He’s the one that the Church proposes to us. And the Christian life is not a conglomeration of my personal views on this or my opinion on that. There’s a truth that can be known and a truth that can be loved, a truth that’s beautiful, a truth that’s good—even when that requires a conversion of somebody’s heart or a conversion of my own heart.”
His is a heart that throbs with compassion, former parishioners attest. When the archdiocese shuttered their church in 2004, a heartbroken Michael Martin and his mother migrated to Barnes’ Beverly church, drawn by his reputation. When Barnes departed for BU, Martin wrote a farewell letter to his pastor, published in the Salem News:
“He brings together all the people as one. He is a true shepherd. My mother has a special bond with Father Barnes. She loves him as much as she does me, and I feel as though he is my younger brother, and we can joke around with him and he can give it back.…He brought me and my mother back to the Church when we lost hope in 2004.”