Q&A: Dr. Michael Barber talks Psalms

The Psalms and the book of Revelation are two of the most interesting books in the Bible; just ask Dr. Michael Barber, accomplished Biblical scholar and founding Chair of the Graduate School of Biblical Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego. He is also a professor of theology and scripture who specializes in the Psalms and the book of Revelation; he’s written books on both topics which have become staples of Biblical school programs throughout the nation.

The Denver Catholic Biblical and Catechetical Schools are honoring Dr. Barber at this year’s Servant of the Word Gala on Feb. 5-6. He’ll be imparting his vast Biblical wisdom during a workshop at Christ the King Parish in Denver, and trust us: hearing him speak on the Psalms and the book of Revelation is worth the price of admission alone. We sat down with Dr. Barber ahead of his visit to Denver and talked shop.

Dr. Michael Barber will be the guest of honor at this year’s Servant of the Word Gala Feb. 5 and 6. Dr. Barber specializes in the Psalms and the Apocalypse, and has written books on both topics. (Photo provided)

Click here for more information on the Servant of the Word Gala and Workshop 

Q: As a Biblical scholar, you specialize in the Psalms? What drew you to the Psalms in the first place? Why did you choose to study them so closely?
A: There’s really no book of the Bible that is read more frequently at Mass than the Psalms. Think about it: every time you go to Mass, there’s a responsorial Psalm. Yes, it is true; every now and then you get a responsorial Psalm that isn’t taken from the book of Psalms. However, the vast majority of the time, the responsorial Psalm is actually, shocker: a Psalm. Thomas Aquinas actually said that in some ways the Psalms contain the entirety of Catholic theology. I’m paraphrasing there, but he definitely saw the Psalms as a uniquely important book. The New Testament quotes the Psalms more than any other book, with the exception of Isaiah. And of course, the Psalms make up the prayer of the Church, they make up the Divine Liturgy. John Paul II said, “the Psalter is the book par excellence of the prayer of the people of God.”

Q: The Psalms can be a difficult book to dive into. What tips do you have for someone who wants to dive into the Book of Psalms but isn’t quite sure how to?
A: One reason I really like studying the Psalms is because in studying the Psalms we can see in a real, practical way what it means to implement the rules for Biblical interpretation given to us by the Second Vatican Council. The Second Vatican Council talks about the need to recognize the historical context of the Bible, so when we pray the Psalms, we want to recognize that these Psalms were used in various circumstances in Ancient Israel. We want to apply a historical study to understand the historical context that the Psalms emerged out of. We want to read the Psalms in light of the whole rest of the Bible. In the Catholic perspective, we can see how the Psalms are, for example, fulfilled in the New Covenant, and that’s the way the Church reads the Psalms. We also want to pay attention to the living tradition of the Church. We can learn quite a bit from the early church fathers, learning how they applied the Psalms to the life of the Christian. We can pray the Psalms in that spiritual sense and that’s also very fruitful. Finally, we want to pay attention to the analogy of faith and recognize how what we have in the Psalms coheres with all the truths that God has revealed to us. When we pray the Psalms and we’re offering God thanksgiving for his work of redemption, we can understand how his work of redemption in the psalter is also applicable to his work of redemption in the sacraments and in the other ways the Church teaches that Christ saves us.

Q: The Monastic tradition of the Liturgy of the Hours is increasing in popularity. Do you teach Liturgy of the Hours as part of your curriculum?
A: Absolutely. In fact, I’ll be talking about it a bit when I come out to Denver. The Liturgy of the Hours is a way of extending the liturgy of the Mass; in other words, how to keep the graces going (laughs). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says we do that especially through the Liturgy of the Hours, which are primarily composed of Psalms. What we want to see as Catholics is how the Psalms can be read ultimately as prayers of Jesus. When we start looking back at the Psalms we see how they were used at, for example, the feast of Passover. We know Jesus would have prayed Psalm 116 the night before he died because that was a prayer you prayed at Passover. Even today, in the Mass, when we celebrate Holy Thursday, we read Psalm 116, the very Psalm Jesus would have said at the Last Supper. It’s amazing to understand the historical backdrop and then realize that Christ himself as an ancient Jew would have prayed these prayers in various contexts, and once we understand that, we can better relate to the Psalms and pray them ourselves because now we’re seeing them as the prayers of Christ.

Q: Another of your specialties is the Book of Revelation and the end times. As I’m sure you’re aware, the state of our world today is leading to speculation that we’re nearing the end. What are your thoughts on this?
A: First, I’d like to remind everybody of what Jesus says: no one knows the day or the hour (laughs). We always want to stay clear of sensationalistic readings of the book of Revelation because there has never been a time in Church history when there weren’t people saying, “Oh, this is it.” But, there’s a reason people have always thought they’re living in the time of the book of Revelation, and that is because in the book of Revelation, we hear over and over that Christ is coming soon. So how do we understand that? I would suggest that rather than reading the book of Revelation as a commentary on the local or national news, we should pay attention to what Jesus says in Revelation 3. He explains, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). Jesus links his coming with a meal because Jesus is coming to us in every liturgical celebration of the Eucharist. It’s always true that Christ is coming soon because although yes, he’s coming on the last day, every time we celebrate the Eucharist, Christ is coming. It’s not a coincidence that in the book of Revelation, Jesus’ coming at the end of time is described with imagery taken from the liturgy of Ancient Israel. You have incense, priests and altars, and the idea is that Christ’s coming is associated with the Eucharist, and ultimately, I would say that meal is the Eucharist.

Purchase Dr. Barber’s book on the Psalms, Singing in the Reign, here, and his book on Revelation, Coming Soon: Unlocking the Book of Revelation, here.

Click here for more information on the Servant of the Word Gala and Workshop

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”