Local Lifestyle

Friday, Sep 07 2012 10:42 PM

From warship to worship

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Rev. John Burns from Christ the King Catholic Church in Oildale was an airplane mechanic during WW II. He became a priest after his wife, Grace, passed away.

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BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

John Burns has lived four different lives.First: A single young man. Second: A married family man. Third: A deacon in a Roman Catholic church. Fourth and finally: A Catholic priest.

"I was 78 when I became a priest. And most priests retire at 70," said the Rev. Burns.

Burns is a priest at Christ the King Catholic Church in Oildale. That job comes after growing up during the Great Depression, serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, marrying, raising 12 children, servicing aircraft and becoming a deacon in the Catholic church.

Burns was born in Long Island, N.Y., in 1925. He held numerous childhood jobs while the Great Depression plagued the country. He sold pretzels on the ferry to Long Island. He collected coal on the side of the railroad track. He drove a truck picking up potatoes from farms to take to market.

He needed to work, he said, if he wanted a nickle to buy a soda. He preferred Pepsi to Coke, he said, because he could buy a bigger bottle of Pepsi for the same price as the smaller bottle of Coke.

Shortly after the United States entered World War II, he joined the Navy in 1942 because, as he said, "it was the thing to do."

"It is a duty," he said. "We're Americans, and America was raided by the Japanese."

He was stationed aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. Part of his job entailed loading planes with weaponry like guns and bombs. But working aboard the carrier was like any other job, he said.

"You get up, you have breakfast, you go to work, you work all day and hope that you go to bed at night without" nighttime raids, he said.

Japanese planes tried to bomb the carrier a few times while he was aboard, but they always missed, he said. And when the carrier was attacked, he just continued doing his job, he said.

After the war, he went to aviation school. During a job search, he met his wife, Grace, who was a secretary at a publishing house he applied to. They married in 1947.

He got his pilot's license at school, but never became a pilot because his wife wouldn't fly. Instead he worked in quality assurance in the aerospace industry.

"I'd rather have her than fly," he said.

The two had 12 children together. On the difficulty of raising 12 children, Burns joked that it was only half as difficult as it would have been had he had 24 children.

Loretta Berry, 51, is the third youngest of bunch. She remembers her father as a disciplinarian who worked hard and was generous with his time.

"On Saturdays we had to clean the house from top to bottom before we could play," Berry recalled of one of her parents' house rules.

But the family had plenty of fun, too, she said. Her parents hosted backyard barbecues where Burns would make his special chili. To make the chili, Burns would fill up a giant pot that took up two burners and use fresh jalapeno, Berry said.

Calling from God

Catholicism was always an important aspect of the household, Berry said. Even on vacations, the family celebrated Mass. Berry remembers backpacking through the Sierra Nevada with her family. Her parents invited their priest to come with them, and the priest celebrated Mass every night.

"Religion has always, always been a part of our life," Berry said.

So, it was no surprise to her, she said, when her father decided to become a deacon.

In 1979, he was ordained as a deacon. A deacon can do much of what a priest can do, but can't, for example, give absolution, anoint the sick and consecrate Communion. But unlike a priest, a deacon can be married.

The process of becoming a deacon was arduous, he said. He took classes two nights a week, from 7 to 10 p.m., for three years. His wife had to attend the classes with him, and his children still living at home had to write letters to the Archbishop of Los Angeles, the Diocese he was living in, about how they felt about their father becoming a deacon.

But he went through it, he said, because he felt a calling from God. He also felt a conflict between his religious life and his work in the aerospace industry: peace and justice versus building weapons.

Becoming a deacon "was not what I wanted. It was what God was telling me to do," Burns said.

Two years after being ordained, he transferred to the Diocese of Fresno. During his time as a deacon, he opened up St. Stephen's Mission in Big Pine, worked at Santa Rosa Parish in Lone Pine and worked at the Parish of St. Ann in Ridgecrest.

Nearly 24 years after being ordained a deacon and a year after Burns' wife died, he became a priest. He started his priesthood at Santa Rosa Parish before settling at Christ the King in Bakersfield in 2004.

In his view, most men who had a religious upbringing want to be a priest at some point. But it usually never materializes, he said. It did for him, though, because he had already spent so much time dedicated to the church as a deacon, he said.

After years of having people come to him to confess their sins while he was a deacon and not being able to give absolution, Burns now spends most of his priesthood doing just that.

At Christ the King, he hears confession in a closet-like office in the back of the chapel while he sits on a cushioned, reclining leather chair. The church bought him the chair so he would be more comfortable because he spends most of his time there, he said. He also has migrating arthritis.

He enjoys giving absolution "just to see the tremendous relief that comes to people when they know they have been absolved of whatever it is they have done," he said.

Barbara Evans, an office administrator at Christ the King, has been associated with the church since before Burns was a priest there. Because Burns was married for more than 50 years before he became a priest, he is able to better counsel his parishioners than some priests who have only ever worked in the religious sphere, Evans said.

She seeks Burns' advice when she is frustrated with her four children, she said. He reminds her she needs to be patient with them.

"I know that when he listens to me, he can tell me and let me know, 'You know what, Barb, this isn't the first time a child's going to do this. This isn't the last time a child's going to do this. This is nothing new to the world of parenting,'" Evans said.

And if that doesn't work, Burns can pull out one of his go-to Bible passages. His favorite, he said, is Psalm 37:5:

"Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass."

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