Ten years and two months ago, I attended a reception at the Vatican Embassy in Washington (the Apostolic Nunciature) to kick off the Annual Cardinal's Appeal (we're not the only ones who do an annual appeal in the spring!). As the crowd began to dwindle, I said to Cardinal Hickey, then the Archbishop of Washington, "It's time to go home. I'll get the car." The Cardinal told me we couldn't go just yet because the Nuncio (the Holy Father's representative) wanted to see us.
Thinking the "us" was the editorial "we," I replied, "Fine. I'll wait for you in the car."
"No," answered the Cardinal with just a glint of impatience. "He wants to see both of us."
So, within minutes, the Cardinal and I were taking our seats in the office of Archbishop Cacciavillan, at the time the Papal Nuncio to the United States.
It was over in a flash. "The Holy Father wants you to be Cardinal Hickey's Auxiliary Bishop," Archbishop Cacciavillan said, and he added, "You accept, of course!" More than a little surprised, I stammered my answer.
Cardinal Hickey and Archbishop Cacciavillan then proceeded to set the date for my ordination as bishop without much participation on my part. It was to be April 20, 1995, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. That happened to be the Thursday after Easter. Teasing me after the ordination was over, the Cardinal told me that he chose that date because the Easter flowers at the Shrine would still be fresh and the Archdiocese wouldn't have to purchase floral arrangements!
At the time of my episcopal ordination, Cardinal Hickey was already in his 75th year. He was still vigorous and would serve five more years as Archbishop of Washington. Nonetheless, a time of transition was already in the offing and it was clear that my principal responsibility would be to assist the Cardinal in making that transition while sustaining the spiritual, educational, and charitable works of the Archdiocese. It was a very busy time which, among many other things, saw the opening of a new suburban Catholic elementary school, the revitalization of the inner-city Catholic schools in the District of Columbia, the construction of new parish churches and other buildings, the celebration of the Great Jubilee of Redemption with a three-day Eucharistic Congress as the centerpiece, as well as a large benefit dinner on behalf of Catholic Schools and Charities for about 2,000 guests in honor of Cardinal Hickey's 80th birthday.
As you can imagine, I have many happy memories of the day when I was ordained a bishop. My mother and father were in the front row. Many friends and relatives came from Indiana and Kentucky, and other parts of the country, to be on hand for that occasion. Numerous former parishioners and co-workers from the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Washington were present, as well as friends and acquaintances from Washington and beyond, many of whom I had come to know in my years of service to the Cardinal. About 30 bishops were also there. The gathering reminded me of the old T.V. show, "This Is Your Life."
But what I remember most vividly is the large number of priests who took part in that ordination. I don't recall the exact number, but I do clearly remember the procession of priests that wound around the Eastern side of the Shrine while more than filling its very long center aisle. Many of the priests were from the Archdiocese of Washington, where I had served for 18 years, but there was also a goodly number of religious order priests as well as priest friends and seminary classmates. At least one priest from the Diocese of Bridgeport, Msgr. Kevin Wallin, was on hand. As I waited my turn to enter the Shrine, I was overwhelmed by the presence of so many priests. Coping with humor, I said to a priest-classmate standing nearby, "This looks serious!"
The presence of so many priests made me realize what happened to me on the day of my ordination as bishop. Through no merit of my own, I received the fullness of the priesthood, conferred on me by the power of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands and the prayer of the Church. I was to share to a new degree in the priesthood of Jesus Christ to which they had devoted their lives. I was called to remain a brother to my fellow priests - sharing their ministry fully, together with their joys and sorrows, their problems and opportunities. But I was now also called to serve as a spiritual father, working with my brother priests as well as laity, deacons, and religious, to ensure that the mission of Christ would be carried out in a spirit of holiness through various ministries of service and institutions in a particular church, a diocese.
I did not imagine, ten years ago, that my ministry as bishop would bring me to Fairfield County. As of this writing, I am beginning my fifth year in your midst. What continues to bring me the most joy in my service to the Church is the priesthood, to which I was called early in life: baptizing adults and infants; offering the Holy Eucharist on Sunday morning in one or more of the 87 parishes of the Diocese; confirming young people sixty or seventy times a year; hearing confessions, sometimes at penance services and sometimes on airplanes; preparing couples for marriage; helping the sick and dying prepare to meet the Lord; consoling grieving families.
And the questions that preoccupy me are the same questions that preoccupy the priests who serve us day after day: How can the Word of God be preached more effectively in today's culture? How can minds and hearts be won over to truth and love of Christ? How can we reconnect those who are unconnected with the sacramental life of the Church? Are young people coming to know Jesus and to understand their faith well enough to live and defend it? What's the best way to provide a Catholic education for parents who want this for their children? How can we help families live their vocation?
Will there be enough priests in the future? Are priests being assigned in ways that benefit the People of God and help the clergy grow in their ministry? How can we continue to attract talented lay persons to serve the Church?
Are we doing the right things to bring about healing and reconciliation in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis and to prevent such terrible things in the future? How can we be light and leaven in a culture all too ready to disrespect the vulnerable? And . . . what about that leaky roof and depleted checking account? The more these and other pressing questions penetrate my mind and heart, the more I respect and love the priests who bear these joys and burdens day by day in parishes and other forms of priestly ministry.
I always wanted to be a parish priest. God, in His mysterious ways, entrusted 87 parishes to my pastoral care. And His ways are indeed mysterious. An old New Yorker cartoon depicts a minister greeting members of his congregation after church services. One of them, commenting on the sermon, says to the minister, "Oh, I know God works in mysterious ways, but if I worked that mysteriously, I'd get fired!" More than a few times, we mere mortals find ourselves second-guessing the Lord's H.R. department.
No school teaches a bishop how to be at once a father and a brother - except the school of holiness whose sole master is Jesus Christ. Like all of you, I am continuing to learn how to live the vocation I have received. I thank you for your patience, your love, your input, your support, and your prayers.
Please join me in giving thanks to the Lord for this ministry, at the Cathedral of Saint Augustine, at 12:10 p.m., on Thursday, April 21.
Above all, please pray that I shall be a good man, a holy priest, and a wise and loving bishop.
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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