Bishop Barron expresses 'great gratitude' for his appointment to Winona-Rochester

Bishop Robert Barron Bishop Robert Barron speaks at the Holy SeePress Office, Oct. 12, 2018. | Daniel Ibanez/CNA

In a Thursday press conference, Bishop Robert Barron, newly appointed to the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, said he got on his knees early that morning and asked the Lord to make him “a good shepherd.”

"My sincere prayer this morning is that the Lord will give me the grace always to be a good father," Barron said during the June 2 press conference, expressing his "great gratitude to Pope Francis” for his appointment. "Nothing of importance is ever accomplished outside of prayer."

Barron is the founder and face of Word on Fire, an Illinois-based Catholic multimedia apostolate that produces blogs, podcasts, videos, and educational materials. 

Barron has served as an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles under Archbishop Jose Gomez since 2015. Pope Francis appointed him Bishop of Winona-Rochester on Thursday. 

Barron noted that a bishop is called to be, as Pope Francis has taught, "a shepherd with the smell of the sheep." He said he looks forward to working with local charitable organizations in Minnesota to assist the poor and disadvantaged in the diocese. 

"I want to spend a good deal of time, in the spirit of Pope Francis, listening to you, learning what's on your hearts,” he said to the press and faithful gathered at Rochester’s Co-Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. 

Listing his pastoral priorities as bishop, Barron emphasized Catholic education, reaching out to the disaffiliated, the cultivation of priestly vocations, and above all "The New Evangelization", which he defined as “declaring the Lordship of Jesus Christ and inviting people to share in His life, in the Church.”

The Winona-Rochester diocese is large and relatively sparsely populated, with 130,000 Catholics spread among 20 counties in southern Minnesota. The diocese declared bankruptcy in late 2018 after facing more than 100 claims of clerical sex abuse. 

Barron expressed his “sincere sorrow and apology" to those affected by the scandal, and spoke of his "absolute personal commitment" to do "everything in my power to make sure that environments are safe, especially for our young people, but for everybody. And to do everything I can to end the scourge of the clergy sex abuse scandal."

In response to a question about whether he considered his new diocese a “backwater,” Barron replied that he did not, adding that “I’ve always done what I’ve been asked to do” and that he has striven in his ministry to “go where the Church sends me.” He also expressed interest in working with the colleges and universities in the region, and also gave a nod to the Mayo Clinic, the world-renowned medical campus located close to the co-cathedral in Rochester. 

Barron said he “savors the opportunity” to engage with universities and the clinic, calling it an opportunity to show the Church’s support for science. 

He also said he is excited for the opportunity to be the leader of a diocese, noting that as an auxiliary bishop, he didn’t have as much authority to implement a vision as he will have as an ordinary. He compared his appointment as an ordinary to his past role as rector of Mundelein Seminary, where he was able to implement his vision for the school’s educational direction in a way he couldn’t as a professor.  

Barron described the Church’s “disaffiliation” of its own members as a pastoral concern he wants to address, adding that his “number one concern” is to reach young people who are leaving the Church. 

In his introduction of Barron, departing Bishop John Quinn said he suspected the diocese would be "trading up" when a new bishop was appointed, but said he "didn't know we'd be trading up so high." Barron in turn praised the outgoing bishop for being known as one of the "kindest and most grace-filled" bishops in the national conference. 

Winona and Rochester are about an hour’s drive apart, with Winona sitting on the western bank of the Mississippi River, across from Wisconsin. A Chicagoan, Barron joked that his heavy winter coat had gone unused during his years in California, but he was ready to take on Midwestern winters once more. 

Barron expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work closely over the past seven years with Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles, whom he called "one of the great Churchmen on the scene today."

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Gomez said in a statement that Barron “is a man of prayer, with a fine intellect and a beautiful zeal to spread the love of Jesus Christ. I am certain that he will be a great shepherd for the family of God in Winona-Rochester. I am very grateful for his service here in the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region over these past several years.”

Discussing his existing connections to his new diocese, Barron said he was befriended and mentored as a seminarian by Bishop John Vlazny, a Chicago native who led the then-Diocese of Winona beginning in 1987 to 1997.

Apart from that connection, Barron admitted he did not know much yet about the diocese, but that he is excited to visit and get to know all 107 parishes spread across the bottom portion of the state. 

When asked about whether he will continue with his role at Word on Fire now that he is an ordinary, Barron said he will continue to do audio recordings of his weekly columns and homilies. Word on Fire has main offices in Chicago and Dallas, he said, plus a small office in his former city of Santa Barbara. He said he plans to bring that small office with him to Rochester. 

Describing Word on Fire as his “pride and joy,” Barron said that although he has always contributed a lot of content to WOF, "I've never been involved in its day-to-day management.” He said WOF has historically taken up "about 10% of my time" and that there is "no ambiguity" that his work as bishop is his primary role. 

Absent from the press conference was a discussion of recent questions raised about the workplace culture of Word on Fire. In recent weeks, Word on Fire has faced claims that its leaders mishandled charges of sexual impropriety related to the personal life of a high-ranking Word on Fire staffer. 

Word on Fire has said that the process of handling the misconduct of the Word on Fire employee, Joseph Gloor, was undertaken by a sub-committee of Word on Fire’s board of directors, not by Bishop Barron. 

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Gloor ultimately was fired after an investigation, but a few anonymous former employees have said that they were left feeling discouraged and uncomfortable by the episode, and by certain aspects of the workplace culture at Word on Fire. Several staff members, including Catholic speakers Jackie and Bobby Angel and editor-at-large Elizabeth Scalia, announced their departure from Word on Fire amid the controversy in May.