Bishop Gerald Barnes walks through Thermal after an Easter mass in this March 2008 photo. (Wade Byars/The Desert Sun)
Bishop Gerald Barnes — who oversees the diocese in Riverside and San Bernardino counties — spoke to reporters on Wednesday about the unexpected but “delightful” selection of Pope Francis.
Barnes oversees the No. 12 biggest diocese in the U.S. with about 1.2 million Catholics.
He is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs and a member of the board of the Inland Empire Hispanic Scholarship Fund.
Question: What was your first reaction to Pope Francis?
Bishop Barnes: I was surprised initially, because I had not heard that name circulated among the media as well as among some church leaders …
I’m happy that it’s a man from this continent that understands the life situation of people in this part of the world, and especially in the southern hemisphere, so I’m very happy.
Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
How significant is it that Pope Francis is the first pontiff from the Americas?
It’s of tremendous significance. We have not had a pope from outside of Europe for centuries now, and to acknowledge the universality of the church.
It points to the importance of the church in the southern hemisphere, and it also points to the importance of America and the gifts that this continent brings to the church.
There was just a tremendous amount of delight. There’s a real excitement right now on the part of our people, so I think that’s what most of us are feeling right now.
You mentioned that you hope Pope Francis — the son of an Italian immigrant — could shed more light on immigration.
There is a tremendous amount of work that has to be done throughout the world, not only in our own country, dealing with the flow of immigrants.
It is a major issue in all parts of the world, and I would hope that he would begin in his pontificate to show a strong leadership in the call that we must have to respect people wherever they are from and to treat each other as sisters and brothers.
We must not lose respect for any person, and in many parts of the world including some places in our own country, there is a lack of respect for other countries or immigrants.
My prayer is that the son of an immigrant in the new world would help guide us in that way also.
How much of an impact will Pope Francis have on the U.S.?
He seems to be a very saintly type of person — very simple, humble, a man that seems to give the impression of being close to his faith and close to his God, and I think that is something that will benefit the American church.
(He seems to be) a man who has through the years … brought people of other Christian denominations to come together and pray, and to pray for peace.
He’s been that kind of a figure of peace. I think Americans will find those things very appealing, because I think that’s something that poses a hunger in our heart.
How do you think he will handle the sex abuse scandal in the U.S.?
He’s going to have to address it vigorously and courageously. It is a scandal. It’s a scandal. It’s affected our church, there’s no doubt about it and it has not been handled always in the right fashion.
My prayer is that as we address this issue, which cannot continue in our church — it cannot continue anywhere — and my prayer is that we would begin to address this to our churches to help all our families and our parishioners eradicate this wherever it exists.
This has to end, and I would hope that he would take that strong leadership in this.
The Catholic Church has a firm stance against gay marriage. Do you expect Pope Francis, or his successor, to ever evolve on that issue?
I do not. I think it’s the way we as Romantic Catholics view marriage. Marriage, a commitment of love, yes, and marriage a commitment to the openness of life.
This cannot take away from the respect that we must have for people of whatever orientation — gays, lesbians, transgenders, heterosexuals. All people must be treated with respect.
But when we as Roman Catholics speak about marriage, we speak about marriage as the commitment and love of one man and one woman with the openness to life.
In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis waves the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, ho)
Why do you think the pope’s selection is of such interest?
It isn’t only Roman Catholics who look to the pope.
People of good will, of other churches, look for a moral leader, whether they agree with the church and all its teachings, whether they’re members of the church or not.
I think the world looks for someone like this, that we have a recognizable moral leader that we know is going to give that kind of attention and thought when he speaks and when he leads his people, so I’m very excited to see it’s been a great opportunity for people in our country.