After nearly seven years serving as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a new chapter in Bishop Robert E. Barron’s ministry as one of the Catholic Church’s most recognizable evangelists began halfway across the country.
On Friday, July 29, the 62-year-old Chicago native was formally installed as the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota. The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Rochester was filled with friends, family members, and hundreds of local faithful, along with 25 bishops and cardinals and the more than 100 priests and deacons who were on hand to witness the event.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., was there as the representative of Pope Francis, who appointed Bishop Barron to the post on June 2. His remarks at the Mass gave some insight into the thinking behind the pope’s decision.
“Bishop Barron, you have brought with you an uplifting spirit … and have unveiled yourself to countless people who thirst and hunger to satisfy themselves with the message of the good news,” said Archbishop Pierre.
Citing his episocopal motto “Non Nisi Te Domine,” or “Only you, Lord,” Archbishop Pierre said that the core of Bishop Barron’s ministry of evangelization and preaching has helped countless people want God before anyone or anything else.
“May your witness as a good shepherd, and may your preaching and writing always reflect the same spirit which you communicate to your people,” the nuncio told Bishop Barron.
Bishop Barron’s new mission brings him to a diocese with more than 100,000 Catholics in 107 parishes spread across more than 12,000 square miles in southern Minnesota. Winona is home to St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, a Catholic liberal arts college founded in 1912, while Rochester is home to the world-famous Mayo Clinic. The diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018, and in 2021 announced a $21.5 million settlement with survivors of sexual abuse as part of a court-ordered reorganization plan.
In his homily, Bishop Barron said that his threefold plan for the members of the diocese was represented by Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, whose feast the Church celebrated that day: to worship God alone; to care for the poor and those whom Jesus loves; and to evangelize others after being “unbound” by Jesus.
Referencing Pope Francis, his longtime mentor the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash, Bishop Barron called on those in attendance with humor and sincerity to become close friends of Jesus Christ.
“The task that’s been entrusted to me today by the Holy Father is to facilitate the process by which the people of this diocese become ever more deeply friends of Jesus,” Bishop Barron said.
Back in Southern California, those who worked most closely with Bishop Barron during his time in the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region said he brought a special kind of energy that will be missed.
In the early 2000s, Msgr. Jon Majarucon was pastor at Santa Clara Church in Oxnard when — via then-Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Gustavo Siller-Garcia, one of his St. John’s Seminary classmates — Father Robert Barron of Chicago and his Word on Fire evangelization ministry came to his attention.
“Bishop Gustavo told me great things about Father Barron,” recalled Msgr. Majarucon, who soon tuned in to his podcasts and weekly homilies. “They were wonderful, and I started telling people, ‘You need to hear this fellow.’ ”
In 2015, Pope Francis named Father Barron an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles for the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region, much to the delight of Msgr. Majarucon. “When he arrived,” said Msgr. Majarucon, now pastor of St. Raphael Church in Goleta, “people said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. This is the guy we’ve heard about. He’s like a modern-day Fulton Sheen. And he is our bishop!’ ”
Over those seven years, Bishop Barron came to be known not only for his powerful preaching and deep commitment to faith, but for his personal warmth, friendliness, and accessibility.
“From a professional perspective, Bishop Barron upped our game,” said Noel Fuentes, pastoral associate at San Roque Church, Santa Barbara, who served as an assistant to Bishop Barron when he first arrived in his regional office. “He deepened our theological understanding of Church teaching, and why we believe what we believe.”
But on a personal level, Fuentes said, Bishop Barron made it evident that “every single person matters to him.”
“When he expresses gratitude, it’s real because he knows the challenges people face and he appreciates their kindnesses.”
Priests of the region have also felt that kind of support.
“For us as pastors, he understood our stress, especially with the shortage of priests,” said Msgr. Joseph Hernandez, pastor of Holy Cross Church in Moorpark. “He was very sensitive to that, and when we needed someone to fill in he would come, or he’d find someone who could. He had great energy, and that was very much evident in his ability to connect with people. He would stay after Mass and talk with them as long as they wanted to.”
“He has a gift of relating to all people,” added Fuentes. “He can speak just as easily and meaningfully with a 90-year-old parishioner after Mass as he can with a roomful of theologians.”
After a few years in LA, he also improved his Spanish with the help of regional office executive assistant Silvia Morgan, a native of Argentina who became Bishop Barron’s Spanish tutor, using a method involving no use of English.
“For the first two years of our acquaintance, he didn’t know I could even speak English,” Morgan recalled proudly. After a few years, Bishop Barron was able to celebrate his Holy Hour and even the entire Mass in Spanish.
Perhaps more importantly, Bishop Barron demonstrated an ability to speak the language of the Church’s next generation.
“He knows how to utilize social media,” asserted Msgr. Majarucon, recalling how, “at his first homily to our confirmation class, he pulled out his Smartphone and started to speak in the confirmandi’s language. The teens were delighted. He knew all the social media apps — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Waze — and knows how to effectively evangelize in this arena.”
Msgr. Majarucon said that digital fluency, combined with his knowledge of Scripture and Church history, was “an inspiration” to him and other priests.
“The quality of my homilies and RCIA teaching has improved very much since knowing him,” said the priest. “He gave his Word on Fire materials to us priests of the region, and they are very precious indeed if you listen to, learn, and apply them.”
Bishop Barron’s presence and response to those in need was also appreciated by those of the region, especially during the massive fires, flooding, and other natural disasters that impacted Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in 2017 and 2018.
“Santa Barbara was cut off from the rest of the archdiocese for nearly a month after the Thomas Fire,” said Msgr. Majarucon. “But Bishop Barron weathered it well and made numerous phone calls to see if we were OK. He was the right bishop at the most difficult of times.”
Archbishop José H. Gomez, who ordained Bishop Barron in 2015 at the age of 55, together with the two other so-called “triplets” named auxiliary bishops for Los Angeles at the time, David G. O’Connell and Joseph Brennan, said he is certain that Bishop Barron “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,” Archbishop Gomez said. “Personally, I am going to miss him, and so will the people of Santa Barbara and all of us in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.”
The people of the region have observed, with awe, Bishop Barron’s ability to balance and maintain a hectic schedule filled with regional responsibilities (including confirmation Masses), U.S. Bishops’ committee obligations, and his Word on Fire ministry.
“His schedule is insane,” chuckled Fuentes, one of several regional representatives who traveled to Minnesota for Bishop Barron’s installation. “The people of Winona-Rochester won’t know what hit them, in a good way, because he is a dynamo.”
During his time in the region, Bishop Barron became a “treasured friend” to St. Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, according to college president Paul J. O’Reilly.
“He has shown great concern for our students, and regularly visited campus to celebrate our milestones,” said O’Reilly in a statement. “We are very grateful for his service, and we will pray for him as he ministers to the faithful of Minnesota.”
“He is very young at heart,” added Msgr. Majarucon, who noted the bishop’s guitar skills and singing abilities. “Winona can expect a bishop who is energetic, courageous, and a great champion of the Catholic tradition. I was proud to serve under him and will miss him very much. His priests will love him.”
“He is primarily and preeminently a priest,” said Morgan, part of what Bishop Barron referred to as his “family” in Santa Barbara. “The center of his life’s mission is to evangelize the culture, without dumbing down the faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ and without becoming a guru.”
“The people of Minnesota,” believes Msgr. Hernandez, “are fortunate to have Bishop Barron in their midst. It will be very much to their benefit.”