“Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka takes a moment of prayer in his private chapel. | Photo by Larry A. Peplin”. Photo originally in The Michigan Catholic newspaper, August 2011
Let me begin with a simple declarative sentence. I very much liked Edmund Cardinal Szoka and I lament his passing. As most of my regular readers know, I spent eleven of my early priesthood years in the office of the General Secretary of what was then the National Conference of Catholic Bishops-United States Catholic Conference (from 1984-1995).
Twice during that period of time, Archbishop Szoka of Detroit served as Treasurer and a very good Treasurer at that. He was sharp, incisive, and most of the time fun to serve. He understood the worlds of accounting and investments and he was a great steward of the conference’s resources which ultimately could be tracked back to the offerings of God’s people in many of the dioceses.
He could be intimidating and often would revel in putting someone off guard and in a defensive posture but if you gave it right back to him, he appreciated that and never pulled rank or took offense. If you wish to learn a lot about his life, go to the website of the Archdiocese of Detroit where they have very fine tributes to this Churchman.
I wish to share with you from probably a unique standpoint one of the major moments in my life when dealing with him. Beginning in 1985, the Conferences knew Pope John Paul II wanted to make a second, but this time “pastoral visit”, to the United States of America and my boss, the General Secretary at the time, Monsignor Daniel Hoye remembering that I had organized the first papal visit in 1979 asked me as his Associate to lead the effort in the U.S.
I flew to Rome where I met with now Cardinal Roberto Tucci, S.J., Dr. Alberto Gasbarri who is now still in charge of all arrangements for papal trips, and Monsignor Emil Tscherrig who is now the Apostolic Nuncio to Argentina. The mind of the Holy Father and his collaborators were already fairly clear in that he did not wish to return to any of the places he visited in 1979: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, DesMoines, Chicago and Washington.
Additionally, President Reagan had taken the initiative never before undertaken on behalf of the government of the United States (the 1979 trip was at the invitation of the United Nations and the U.S. government under President Carter simply approved) to invite the Pope to make a pastoral visit.
From as early as 1985, we knew that the trip would focus on the South, Southwest, and West and we would not be traveling to the East or Midwest. There was an additional wrinkle which I was charged to address: in 1983 when making a pastoral visit to Canada, the Pope had to cancel a visit to native-Americans in Yellowknife in the Yukon Territory because fog prevented his plane from landing at Fort Simpson. Saint John Paul II promised the tribe that he would return and come and see them and he and his handlers wished me to make arrangements with the airline which would fly him back to Rome from the U.S. to divert to Fort Simpson prior to flying him on to Rome. It made good sense to end the trip on the West Coast where the flight to Fort Simpson would be only four hours during which the TWA 747 which I had chartered for the Rome trip would wait on the ground for the Pope to return from Yellowknife prior to making the nonstop journey back to Rome. (p.s., the Canadian bishops wanted no part of paying for a charter plane to fly the Pope from their country home which until that moment was established protocol).
Archbishop Szoka, then in Detroit, approached the NCCB/USCC and asked for the inclusion of Detroit which he claimed had the highest concentration of Polish American Catholics in the U.S. The Conference’s response to him was negative but I knew in my heart that that would not be the last of it. I then learned that the good Archbishop had made a trip to Rome to personally ask the Holy Father to come and he was given a noncommittal response. When I called my colleagues in Rome, I was told that when they met with the pope after Szoka’s visit, the Pope had somewhat amusingly asked, “how many events did Pope Paul VI schedule in his travels to meet with Italians?” [The answer is zero]. A month or two more passed by before a call from Father Tucci asking me if I would do two things: explore the possibility of including Detroit at the end and then seeing if TWA would agree and could do it? I knew then that we were headed to Detroit come hell or high-water and shared that with my Secret Service head of the papal protection detail, Joseph Petro.
But the story does not end there. In November of 1986, I made my first visit to Detroit with SAIC Petro and my associates to see what we might do and whether or not it could be done logistically. The U.S. portion of the trip was already 9 days long at a cost then to the local Church of about three million dollars a day plus additional cost to the communities, the federal government, the state governments for security and logistical assistance. Some things fell into place almost immediately. The Mass would be at the Pontiac Silverdome. We would not go to SS Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake even though it was the only Polish language seminary in the country. But the Archbishop wanted a pure Polish event in Hamtramck, a largely Polish neighborhood in Detroit.
At dinner at his residence that evening with Agent Petro and his Detroit SAIC Jim Huse, after telling us how much money the crystal stemware and china we were using cost, Archbishop Szoka promised that the next morning we would visit Hamtramack where he, the Archbishop, was a rock star in his own right and could not walk ten feet without being stopped, ring kissed and adored and if that could happen to him, how much more would Poland’s great son be welcomed.
At the far end of the table were to be found the Archbishop’s two priest secretaries: Father (later Bishop) Kevin Britt and, I think, either Father Leonard Blair (now Archbishop of Hartford) or possibly Father John Zenz and they were laughing and joking among themselves. Later Father Britt said to me, “Bob, wait till tomorrow and you’ll see why we were laughing.”
The next day dawned very cold, dreary and rainy. We drove to Hamtramck, got out of the car and started walking and not one person we passed on the sidewalk took any notion to any of us, including the Archbishop. “I don’t understand,” he said, “they are usually falling all over themselves to greet me.” Frustrated he motioned that we should go into a meat market which had Polish sausage hanging from the rafters as well as surrounding a large framed picture of the Archbishop.” A butcher came up and simply asked if he could help us? Archbishop Szoka, now desperate, pointed to the picture of himself surround by the sausage and finally a “connection” was made and the Archbishop recognized. Father Britt was beside himself laughing.
We finished a proposed schedule for the visit which I promptly flew to Rome with, Detroit was included, all went well, and I became a friend of Cardinal Szoka for the rest of his days, including a frequent guest at his table when visiting Rome but only after being reminded of the cost of the table settings which was really something for a “poor boy from Grand Rapids.”
Finally, several years ago I attended the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Gaylord where the Cardinal had been their first bishop. It was a proud, homecoming day for him made more so by the gracious attention showered on him by their fourth bishop, Bishop [now Archbishop] Bernard Hebda. Every time the Cardinal heard his name mentioned he would smile and stand up and the congregation would applaud.
He did very good things in his ministry and please don’t allow my story above to color your sense of what a great churchman he was. I admired him deeply and in my case that is hard to earn too often or easily. He never shied away from anything which he thought was good for the Gospel or the Church and was a real leader and that is what is most important about this once poor son of immigrant parents. May he rest now in the peace of the Kingdom to which he pointed many in his lifetime.