In his diocese, there are no liturgy wars because no fiddling is allowed. There is no heresy because anyone who speaks in a Catholic setting has to get his permission. There is no hanky-panky in the rectory because he knows his priests and he’s selective about whom he ordains. There have been no sex abuse lawsuits because long before there was a scandal he saw the problems with ordaining homosexuals—so he didn’t. Finally, there is no congregationalism because he, the most visible connection to Holy Mother Church, is always with his people: saying Mass, hearing confessions, answering questions, but also just taking time to know people and talk to them about their lives. He seems to know everyone by name, remembers where they work, remembers that her father had surgery or that his sister is away from the Church.
Before I moved to his diocese I had lived my Catholic life under bishops who were at best remote. I took it for granted that in any diocese there would be various factions always at one another’s throats—so much so that I found the tranquility of this new diocese kind of eerie at first. Here lay people didn’t identify themselves as liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive. They seemed to have no knowledge of or interest in the issues and controversies that were ripping the Church apart in the rest of the country. At first I took this to be apathy about the faith, but that wasn’t it at all. Puzzling.
It wasn’t long after arriving that I met the bishop. I quickly developed a profound respect for him: He had a keen intelligence, a quick wit, and took delight in conversation; he was fatherly both in his firmness and in his kindness. Still, it didn’t occur to me that he was the reason for the peace in his diocese.
The epiphany came at a young adult retreat. It was well past 10 P.M. The bishop had been answering questions for nearly two hours and showed no signs of tiring. He had just finished giving a long and rather technical answer to a question about the liturgy. He concluded, though, by saying, "When it comes down to it, John, the real reason we do it this way is that we are Catholic and that’s what Catholics do. The Church asks us to do this to preserve unity, and so we do it."
At that point a staff member ended the Q&A session and the group began to disperse. I braced myself to hear grumbling about the bishop and some of the tough answers he had given. But as the retreat went on I heard him spoken of only with affection. The closest thing to contrariness came from one of the bishop’s staff, who confided, "I don’t always agree with him, you know." She quickly added, "But he’s the bishop, after all. And he’s very dear."
That’s the heart of it—where the peace comes from. As a visiting priest remarked, "I have yet to see a diocese where there exists a deeper or more affectionate bond between the people and their bishop."
It was difficult to leave his diocese. Curiously, though, having seen the way it’s supposed to be done, it is much easier for me to be docile to the office of bishop—whoever the officeholder. Docility is not a virtue we Americans take to easily, and in many cases our bishops haven’t made it any easier for us. Leon Suprenant gives some tips in that regard on page 8.