Coming to an end; and yet, a new beginning
It is late Sunday afternoon and I am sitting in my office watching the snow increasing in intensity and looking at our beautiful Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. I just celebrated Mass there for the feast of the Holy Family and preached on this beautiful feast. It is hard to believe that this is (I think) the second last column that I will write as the bishop of this diocese. I began this practice as soon as I became bishop; and somehow by the grace of God, I have written a column every week missing only once a year while on vacation.
The idea of this column has been to tell you what a bishop does and to share with you the extraordinary activity that goes on in our parishes. This is what I will remember most and cherish most, and what I hope to still enjoy; namely, the throbbing, spiritual life of the diocese. I usually prepare these remarks late on Sunday evening, sometimes after I have returned from South Bend. I always wondered what I would write about, but once I started taping the remarks they came full-force. There was always something interesting and joyful. There was always the life of the diocese and of parishes. There was always the splendid example and sacrifice of our priests.
People seem interested
I was always encouraged in meeting people around the diocese who spoke to me about these columns and how they enjoyed them. I have no illusion that it has been great literature or deeply insightful. I always saw it as a conversation with the people of the diocese, an attempt to teach and to bring alive for everyone all that was happening so that our love for the Catholic Church might grow.
A heart that is full
This is a great transition in my life and it is the intensity of prayer, for me personal prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, which helps me to understand this precious moment. On the one hand, there is the difficulty of laying down a precious responsibility. I am currently reflecting and putting together in my mind some thoughts that I will share with my beloved priests when I meet with them on Jan. 5 at Sacred Heart, Warsaw; a place where we have met so many times over the years. Over 24 years, I have made every Day of Recollection with priests except one, and part or all of every retreat. In addition, we have met to ponder difficult things and to give thanks to God at special moments. This meeting will be to share with them some things in my heart.
A responsibility of love
It is the laying down of a responsibility of love that is on the one hand difficult and on the other hand beautiful. The responsibility, so sacred, is something you carry in the center of your being. Indeed, the same could be true of any good pastor of a parish. I think it is somewhat like being married. Indeed, that is the ancient image which is given of the relationship of a bishop to his diocese. The episcopacy has been described as an “Officum Amoris,” an “Office of Love” or a “Work of Love.” The Second Vatican Council had as a central focus the spiritual renewal of the Office of Bishop. It has been said that the bishops who left Rome after that extraordinary meeting realized that the Office of Bishop would never be the same again.
Challenges to be met
My strongest realization as I live out these final days filled with joy, but also trying to comprehend every thing that has happened, is to put it all in the context of God’s love. I find myself not concentrating so much on those times when I should have done better, areas of incompleteness. I am aware of them, but the grace I am receiving is one of gratitude to God for all that has been accomplished.
In my prayer, I place these years into the hands of Christ and of his mother, the Blessed Mother Mary, as my mother called her when she prayed to her at night alone in her room after she had lost her husband. Our Lady has been with me since I was a boy, and I can remember riding my bicycle during the month of May up to Our Lady of Presentation Church to attend May devotions.
A period of time
The realization that the church does not belong to any of us. The parish does not belong to the pastor and the diocese does not belong to the bishop. There is a temptation to think it so. Both the parish and the diocese belong to Christ. What an extraordinary gift it is, that the diocese is placed in the hands of a bishop and the parish in the hands of a priest for a period of years. It is important when the time comes to give it up, and to do so with joy and acceptance. It is a time to give thanks to God that he allowed me to care for this diocese in the name of Christ for so many years.
Almost a quarter of a century. In my prayer, I have always felt unworthy of such a gift and that has intensified as the days slip down to a precious few. Unworthy, but at the same time very grateful and thankful to Christ and his mother for their constant protection.
The promises made
On the anniversary of my ordinations: Feb. 2, 1957, as a priest; Feb. 11, 1975, as a bishop; and May 1, 1985, as bishop of this diocese; I always try to sit down with the Ordination Service and read over the beautiful words.
I will do it again on or near the Installation of our new bishop and this time with immense gratitude; sorry for my sins and failings, but trusting always in God’s mercy.
Rise; let us be on our way
Those words taken from the Gospel of Mark represent the striking title of a book Pope John Paul II wrote about his years as Archbishop of Krakow. He was sentimental about those years, but grateful and filled with thanksgiving. So am I. Pope John Paul II even referred to his guardian angel that protected him. I am also grateful to my guardian angel for, among other things, bringing me back and forth, often late at night, between our two major cities. I believe that this beloved angel kept me from serious accidents, sometimes just barely. However, in his special angelic wisdom, he chose not to protect me from an occasional speeding ticket.
I remember one night, after the chrism Mass, when I had stopped as a result of an invitation to visit briefly with the Holy Cross priests at their provincial house. They had been to the chrism Mass and renewed their promises. So it was very late when I approached Fort Wayne, and I was trying hard to get home at a reasonable hour. Suddenly the lights flashed behind me, and I will never forget the words of the firm, but gracious, state trooper as he gave me a slip, “Be careful now, Bishop, this is a warning. After all, I cannot give a ticket to the man who gave me the sacrament of confirmation.”
I am grateful to Mike and Dee Dee Dahm, and Steve and Marilyn Steckbeck, and a number of other people who have worked to prepare the house where our new bishop will be living. It is where the legendary priest, Father Tom O’Connor, lived next to the historic St. Mary’s Parish. They have done a wonderful job. It will be a comfortable, but modest, home for our new bishop. I will be meeting with Bishop Rhoades this week, and I hope he can attend two events related to vocations: The luncheon of the Serra Club and The Andrew Dinner — we have two, one in Fort Wayne and one in South Bend, and this has been a great instrument for the recruiting of priests.
Congratulations to Father David Voors and the people of St. Mary, Decatur, for the erection of a beautiful facility — a gymnasium for their school with a beautiful hardwood floor. It was a joy to bless it this week. That parish is very devoted to the continuation of their school and it was a joy to be among them.
And I will look forward to seeing you next week in this same place for the final time. God bless you all.
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