Last Friday a week ago I received a phone call in the morning from the Bishop of Covington, KY informing me of the death at age 91 of the former bishop twice removed, Bishop William A Hughes. Sixty-six years a priest and 29 a bishop, he had spent recent years in Carmel Manor, an assisted living and nursing home in his diocese owned and operated by the Carmelite Sisters. I thought the world of the good bishop and missed him very much in these later years. Amazingly, Bishop Foyes call was to inform me that Bishop Hughes had asked me to preach the homily at his funeral Mass which was yesterday (February 15th) in the beautiful Covington Cathedral. It was a labor of love so I wish to share it with all of you who have the time and patience to read it.
I must admit that I was somewhat taken aback when Bishop Foyes called me on Friday morning to inform me of the death of Bishop Hughes and indicate that in his funeral directions, he had asked that I give the homily this morning. I am honored since I have long held Bishop Hughes in admiration and once had the privilege of working for him.
Death allows for no survivors and is one thing which all humanity shares in common. No amount of money or any position of prestige buys a “pass” from death’s embrace. It is a reality which we all must eventually face and for which many of us prepare. Seeking a dwelling place in the Father’s house is our life project for “God shows no partiality.” Kings and Queens, Popes and Presidents, bishops and priests, religious and lay all await that moment when we either will or will not be called to the “mountain top” where we will either have the veil which hides our vision of eternity lifted and are invited to join the elect, or face an eternity doomed to never see the face of God. The person of true faith fears not that moment and often when they pass from this life to the next, few tears are shed because there seems to be a surety of a life well lived.
Ninety-one years was a long time to wait for that moment, but unlike Thomas in the Gospel, when one has a fairly certain instinct where Jesus has gone, where He is to be found among us today, and how we follow the path of holiness by following the one person once on earth who came as “the way, the truth and the life”, then a peace sets in and waiting and watching take second place to reflecting on and thanking God for the manifold blessings which have been at the heart of one’s life. So today we gather not in grief but rather in gratitude, today we lift our voices not in lamentation but in praise, today we celebrate a life well lived according to the Gospel and we rejoice, strangely enough, in Bishop Hughes’ passing to the place for which he longed, one with Jesus, Mary and all the saints, and reunited with James and Anna his parents, and with others among his family, friends, and the faith communities of the dioceses of Youngstown and Covington where he served as priest and bishop.
I first met the bishop in 1969 when he was Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Youngstown and I as a young, cocky layman interviewing for a position with the Catholic Conference of Ohio. All of the Ohio superintendents interviewed me that day but there was one who scared the daylights out of me, saying little and staring me down. That was Monsignor Hughes. I was sure I would not get the job and I didn’t. But they created a position for me anyway and in the ensuing months I came to know, appreciate and admire all the Catholic school leadership of Ohio and especially Monsignor Hughes. He believed in Catholic education and with the help of several highly talented religious women and one fine lay man, they ran the best diocesan school program in the state.
After my own ordination as a priest, almost ten years later, and my subsequent involvement as a staff person for the United States Catholic Conference, I came to know Bishop Hughes much better, as a friend, mentor, supporter, and defender. He helped me especially come to understand and deal with his seminary classmate, friend of many years, and eventually his bishop, James Malone, a formidable figure of our Church in this country in the ‘80’s who was capable of striking fear in any other person’s heart. Involved as almost a charter member of the new NCCB Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, Bishop Hughes was a silent author of many of that committee’s best efforts in defining the post-conciliar hope for the priesthood.
He, like his friend Bishop Malone, were bishops of the Second Vatican Council, the latter an attendee and the former a disciple. Excited by the possibility of preaching the Gospel with new enthusiasm and shepherding the Church in the modern world, Bishop Hughes devoted his truly pastoral years to implementing what he saw as the Council’s spirit and vision. I have reflected the last several days on the first reading of this Mass from Isaiah and truly believe that Bishop Hughes and his contemporaries in the episcopacy saw their roles in the Church in a new and prophetic manner – to reconcile all people to Christ and one another through collegiality, subsidiarity, and liturgy. Those three words, collegiality, subsidiarity and liturgy, led them to long for a more sensitive, loving, caring, inclusive Church, which would be at its best when “the People of God” gathered for Eucharist and the other sacraments. What he may have held sacred, as he was ordained as priest almost 66 years ago gave way to a somewhat albeit slightly different vision of Church when he was ordained a bishop 29 years ago. Those two men, both bishops from Youngstown, OH, could at times be stubborn, but they felt it was Gospel and Council driven stubbornness. And in the face of criticism at times from some who did not share their vision, they stayed their course and led as they believed their Lord would wish of them.
Early in my own life as a bishop, I needed the support of other bishops and through the kindness of the late Archbishop Kelly of Louisville, I was invited to join the bishops of the province of Louisville in their Jesus Caritas support group. I had to fly farther and travel longer but it was a grace to be with these brothers who were also bearing the “heat of the day.” Bill Hughes once again sat opposite and facing me on many occasions but this time there were smiles exchanged, words of comfort and support instead of the sharp questions of our first close encounter. He had retired and Bishop Muench had succeeded him so he seemed freer. He would come to my diocese on the Gulf coast in the winter for a few weeks in the sun and to play golf. And in the Fall, we would often meet in South Bend for a Notre Dame football game. He lived long enough to see the Fighting Irish in a national championship game but its final result may have hastened his death.
Nonetheless, I know that he felt secure that on the day when death and the Lord would come to claim their servant, he felt that he had served the Lord well enough. Last Friday was that day. We pray that he rests now in peace, having heard the words for which everyone in this beautiful Cathedral longs to hear: well-done, good and faithful servant. . . .come now to the place which the Father and I have prepared for those who love me.”
He was a humble, simple, loving and caring servant of Jesus Christ who like the Lord he served came not to be served but to serve. Rest in peace, dear Bill, and may perpetual light always shine upon you.