Today is a sad day for me personally. Pope Benedict has formally accepted the request to resign from my good friend, Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee. Long time readers of this blog should recall that almost a year ago to the day I wrote here about a visit to Bishop Ricard who was then recovering from a series of strokes. I included a picture of the two of us taken that day and I was shaken then by how much my friend had changed as a result of his medical challenges. At that time also I was beginning to finally fully recover from my own series of operations and recuperations and I hoped that +John would make the same progress which I had made, although I was also skeptical at the time. To my and everyone’s amazement, he managed within days to celebrate the Chrism Mass in his diocese and preside at Holy Week Services, all the time working to recover as much of what he lost as he could. He still was not the old +John Ricard, however. The two of us often think alike on matters before the Florida Catholic Conference and especially at the meetings of the Board of Trustees of St. Vincent de Paul Seminary. He was my predecessor as Chairman of the Board and President of Catholic Relief Services and continued to serve CRS by countless trips into Darfur in the Sudan and other challenging parts of the African continent. Even in the last twelve months he continued to go to Africa for CRS but those travelling with him could see how tired he would become and the limitations on his stamina were obvious to everyone else but the bishop who just wished to soldier on.
An African-American bishop of the Society of St. Joseph (or Josephite Fathers), John Huston Ricard was born, raised and educated until the seminary in Louisiana. After joining his religious community and being ordained, while serving in parishes in the Washington, D.C. area he earned his Ph.D. in Psychology. Ordained again as an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, he served there for a number of years prior to coming to Pensacola-Tallahassee thirteen years ago. There we renewed our friendship and since then my admiration and affection for this man has steadily grown to the point that today I feel a great loss. So do the priests, deacons and people of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee who know well how much he loved and served them and they returned that love in great measure.
Now I am the longest serving bishop in the province of Miami at fifteen years and Bishop Gerald Barbarito of Palm Beach is the senior among us in episcopal ordination. I never thought it would come to this. A great deal of sophistication in dealing with the Governor and Florida legislature in Tallahassee leaves our state with the retirement of Bishop Ricard and while we have an extremely competent lay staff at the Florida Catholic Conference led by Dr. D. Michael McCarron, they would be the first to say that when they needed “a cross and chain” to make a case for the Church, they could count on the Bishop jumping in his car and driving three hours plus to represent us. They just don’t make us like that anymore.
I used to look forward to the seven or eight times each year when the Florida bishops would gather because there would be a reunion of sorts with the “panhandle bishop.” Now, he will no longer be there. This has been a very painful moment of transition for Bishop Ricard and for his diocese – he and they are hurting. But the genius of our Church is that none of us are irreplaceable and our service to the local churches which we love is finite. It is just the reality of separation and farewell which is so difficult. I have five more years to try and be half the bishop my brother +John has been so as someone else in Tallahassee is so fond of saying, “let’s get to work.” Thanks, Bishop Ricard, for your tireless and generous example, for your friendship and support. I will miss you terribly.