The bishops of the state have arrived in the state capital and gathered early this evening with our fine and extremely competent staff of the Florida Catholic Conference for a “renewing our acquaintance and getting to know you” opportunity. Later the bishops had dinner together and we were happy to celebrate Bishop Frank Dewane’s birthday today. There was a cake with four candles and best wishes to the bishop for many more happy years.
I spent the day driving the panhandle. You may recall that last week in this space I mentioned that I wished to arrive a day early so that I might visit my friend and fellow-bishop, John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee who was in therapy at a rehabilitation facility in Panama City. So at 1015am, my driver for this jaunt and I departed our hotel in Tallahassee for the two hour drive to Panama City. The bishop had initially suffered an incident of blood being unable to return to the heart from his brain on December 22, 2009 and was hospitalized in Pensacola in intensive care for several weeks. Since then he has suffered several more incidents and found himself in rehab at the facility in Panama City.
Well, about twenty miles out of Panama City I received word via cell-phone that the bishop had left the rehab facility and was at that very moment enroute to his house in Pensacola (another 120 miles west) via medical transport. What to do? It was fairly easy for me as I had determined that I would see my friend on this trip so back to I-10 we went and on to Pensacola. Finally reunited, Bishop Ricard and I had a visit of about an hour and he was both surprised and happy to see me.
I have previously asked for prayers for Bishop John and I renew my request now. His recovery is far more challenging in a number of ways than my own was. The bishop, as you may know, is an African-American from Louisiana originally. He entered the Josephite Fathers and was ordained for priestly service with that wonderful and predominantly African-American religious community. I first saw him when he was pastor of a parish on New York Avenue in Washington, D.C. and then from there he was chosen by Pope John Paul II to be an auxiliary bishop in Baltimore and Vicar for the city of Baltimore. Priests and people loved and respected him. In 1997 he was sent to Pensacola-Tallahassee as its fourth bishop and his acceptance and affection quickly visited his service here. It was a bold move by the Pope to assign an African-American to an area of Florida which others call “The red-neck Riviera.” The bishop has shared with me some anguishing stories of what it was like to be black, to be a black Catholic, to be a black Catholic priest in the Church in the United States. The cruel hand of racism was as strong an image for this good man as the hands of the bishop on his head when he was ordained priest and ordained bishop.
With a doctorate in psychology and a deep personal commitment to Africa, he served as chairman and president of Catholic Relief Services (he preceded my term in the same capacities) and has also chaired the USCCB Committees on Domestic and International Social Justice. In the man’s blood there has always been a passion for the poor and a yearning for justice. He is a genuine article, a pastor par excellance, and for me a confidant, mentor and wonderful friend. On the three hour drive back to the capital city, I thought how tough it was to say good-by to him this afternoon though I know we shall see more of one another in the months and time ahead. The Church of Pensacola-Tallahassee is praying for their good shepherd and I hope you will join me in doing the same.