Several things have happened in the last few days which cause me to pause and reflect on my role as bishop. I really think that the definition of what a bishop is expected to be is evolving in the Church though not theologically or canonically. We know that when we were ordained to this ministry of service, we were told that our three principal tasks were to teach, govern and sanctify. Those three words are right there in the episcopal ordination rite itself. However, the office has evolved to include a lot of things which are not directly related to those three munera. The bishop also has to pastor people, albeit in a sometimes slightly different way than say your pastors and priests “pastor” you in your parishes.
I have a special obligation to my brother priests which transcends governance and acquires the characteristics of a familial relationship. Some say the bishop is to be a “father” to his priests and some would say, wrong person in the family food chain, the bishop should be a “brother” to his priests. In the last decade as a result of the sexual misconduct scandals, the bishop’s relationship with his clergy has become in some instances strained. There is hardly room in the typical family definition of either father or brother for a prosecutorial role, yet that is how some priests view their bishop. One phone call can change their lives, whether they are innocent or guilty. I don’t think bishops in the past were ever truly “fathers” to their priests unless what I would call (forgive me, men) the Irish notion of father was operative in the Church. They were administrators, often remote, sometimes threatening in their very character, neither frightfully loving or expressive of their gratitude. Often isolated and insulated by the “trappings” of the office, one did not approach the bishop except for the most serious of reasons. Better to ask forgiveness than permission was often the norm for dealing with one’s bishop. The Second Vatican Council attempted to “humanize the office”, taking away a lot of the trappings and suggesting a more servant oriented definition of bishop.
Today’s bishop, even with the newer paradigm, probably needs to ignore the comparisons of father/brother and just be present to his priests, in moments of happiness and sadness. I had some time to think about all of this yesterday as I was traveling to and from the funeral Mass for John Schneider, the 92 year old father of our Father Bob Schneider, pastor of Espiritu Santo. It was not easy for me to get to Salina, Kansas and Father Bob and his family would probably easily have forgiven me for not being there (I had missed his mother’s funeral several years ago at Christmas time). But I try whenever possible to be with my priests when they lose a parent. I am successful honestly about half of the time and the parental deaths of our Polish, African and Indian priests are very hard to attend, primarily because of the custom of immediate burials (so quick that if the priest son is not present at the time of death, he too misses the funeral) and, of course, the distance, time and expense. I hate to miss them nonetheless and often feel a sense of guilt for a while when I know it was impossible. There is no time when a priest needs the support of his bishop more than the death of someone dear to him. Yesterday, it was particularly heart warming to see the priests of the Salina diocese gather in great number to support Father Bob who prior to coming to the diocese of St. Petersburg had been ordained for and served in his home diocese. The current and retired local bishops were present and about twenty priests and several hundred friends of the family. I felt good coming back last night, feeling that being there was as important for me as for Father Schneider.
In fourteen years, I have had the privilege of saying the funeral Mass for almost all of our deceased priests, if they lived in the area. I shall not soon forget that during even the height of my incapacity last year I was unable to attend the Mass for our beloved Father Stephen Dambrauskas. I still think of that, long after everyone else probably has forgotten it. I feel a strong sense of going to the cemetery after the funeral Mass for our priests even though it is not always the custom for a local bishop to do that. I guess I would want my successor(s) to be with me to my grave and so many of our older men have no natural family, only myself and their brother priests. Whatever we are called, there is a strong element of family among us.
Driving back to the Wichita Airport, I called my office and learned that a Marine son of one of our long-time employees in Finance, Tracy Kelly of Christ the King parish in Tampa had been shot and very seriously wounded in Afghanistan late last week. Alex is going to live but rehabilitation will be long and begins today as he is flown to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Most of Tracy’s children are serving in the armed forces of the United States and each time they are sent to Iraq and Afghanistan she has asked me for prayers for their safety. Learning that Alex was shot was like a blow in the stomach to me. How often his Mom had asked for my prayers when Richard (“Ricky”) left for an Army deployment or Katherine (“Katie”) left for the Navy. But I remember especially Tracy asking for prayers for Alex, the Marine, headed back, this time to Afghanistan. Yesterday when I talked to Tracy, she was a strong mom but one could tell she was struggling. I promised more prayers for Alex and she said a remarkable thing: “Alex asks for prayers for his buddies in his company he left behind. He is alive and grateful for it. He is most worried about his buddies.” Even bishops learn a lot from the lived experience of other people.
Maybe I had too much time on the two plane rides, but each year I learn more and more about what the role of the bishop is in the family of Christ’s church. Perhaps in six years, God willing, at the time of retirement, I will have finally learned what being a good bishop really involves.