Today is the day when the church universal celebrates what is called “The Chair of Peter”. I intended to use this day to reflect on the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI which will come to an end next Thursday at 2p.m. EST as the Holy Father vacates the papacy for his remaining years in prayer and solitude. But that reflection will have to wait because last night about 850pm Bishop John Noonan, the Bishop of Orlando notified me of the death of Norbert Dorsey, C.P., third bishop of Orlando, a few minutes earlier. Bishop Norbert was a brother in the episcopacy, a friend, a wise, lovely, cultured, deeply spiritual man. So I have lost a brother, not Tim or Jim, my blood brother, but a brother bishop, a neighbor, and a dear friend.
Norbert M. Dorsey was a passionate Passionist. No one my age who ever thought of being a priest in the ’40′s and ’50′s could possibly forget something called SIGN magazine. In many ways, next to Catholic Digest, it was THE Catholic magazine. My paternal grandparents in Boston, surely worried about that wing of their family living in Protestant West Virginia and Virginia gave my family an annual subscription to SIGN magazine hoping that it would keep the “Catholic” flame of faith alive in the “heathen” lands where their son, daughter-in-law and three children were living. And in many ways SIGN did just that. When old enough I always read it and looked at the advertisements for priests in the back. Passionist priests also preached parish missions in the small churches of my youth. They all seemed to come from the east coast and Boston with their distinct local dialects and to me that seemed especially sent as messengers from God.
I recalled this feeling once in conversation with +Norbert and he told me that I was not far from wrong – they were messengers from God sent to preach the faith and win souls for God. Bishop Norbert was from western Massachusetts (Springfield) and he did not have to travel far to enter the religious community which he loved all his life. A gifted musician, after ordination, his religious superiors sent him to Rome to study sacred music and to teach in their seminary. So loved and admired was he that in time he was called to the Passionist generalate in Rome to be their world-wide orders Assistant to the General Superior for English speaking countries. It was there that he was eventually surprised one day to be called and told that Pope John Paul II wished him to come to Miami as an auxiliary bishop. Shocked at this sudden news and saddened deeply to leave the comfortable climes of his Passionist community of priests and brothers, he consented and started his new life as an Auxiliary to Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy, whom he had never met, in Miami where he had seldom visited except for its airport on his way around the world visiting his community.
“Who is this man?” the Miami priests asked. It did not take them long to discover a kind, holy, loving and sympathetic bishop. Auxiliary bishops in Miami did not do a lot of administration in those days and were used mostly for sacramental purposes like confirmation and show the flag at things the Archbishop either did not wish to attend or could not attend. Bishop Norbert lived in a small two-room apartment at the Cathedral rectory. He “cut his teeth” as a bishop in multicultural and multilingual Miami and the priests came to like him as a person, though they had not known him as a priest or pastor.
When Bishop Thomas Grady reached the retirement age in Orlando, Bishop Norbert was called north to become the third bishop of that diocese. He started new parishes in the rapidly growing area, bought the downtown US Post Office and turned it into the Pastoral Center or Chancery Office for the diocese. Ever the gentleman, ever the kindly priest he was often tested, mostly by testy priests, but he calmly stayed the course and led by humble example. When the time came and he felt his energy diminishing, he asked the Holy Father for help and getting it, retired soon thereafter, turning over this beloved diocese to others. Two bishops have served Orlando since Bishop Norbert’s retirement and he has been in diminishing health for almost all of his retirement. Living with a Passionist brother, Gus, he privately celebrated Mass, prayed, read, and smoked cigarettes.
As his neighbor to the West for a few years prior to his retirement, he was always encouraging to me, ever ready to lend a hand or an ear. He loved priests, even those few who gave him occasional fits and that is what I will always cherish as my memory of him – he loved priests. It hurt him as we all hurt when a priest was credibly accused of misconduct with a minor and it was on his watch when many cases came to light. Each was a crucifixion for him as were their acts for their victims. So last night, after a long period of illness which ended as a result of cancer, he went home to the Father. The church in Florida was blessed by his presence among us, the people of Orlando knew they had a good shepherd, and I lost a brother bishop last night, a friend, a wise counsellor, a genuinely good and holy man. Your own passion is now over, dear +Norbert. May you rest in peace.