By LIZ QUIRIN, Special Contributor | Published January 20, 2005
Liz Quirin, editor of The Messenger, the newspaper for the Diocese of Belleville, sat down for a final interview with then Archbishop-designate Wilton D. Gregory in December 2004.
It’s been almost 11 years to the day—Dec. 29—when you arrived in Belleville for the first time. What stood out at the beginning?
One of the things I remember is how happy people seemed to have been that I was appointed. A couple of people said “Oh thank you for saying yes to be our bishop.” It was almost as if given what was going on, people wouldn’t say yes. People were still very much bruised. It was a whole mixture of feelings: anger, betrayal, confusion, denial, frustration. People kept saying thank you for agreeing. And I was just delighted. It was a time in my life when I’d been an auxiliary in Chicago for 10 years, and I had 10 great years with (Cardinal) Joe Bernardin. I came to Belleville not escaping an unpleasant situation but anxious to begin a new chapter in my life, grateful to be a part of this diocese, which I had heard was a very fine diocese.
When I first began to hear my name being mentioned for Belleville during the late summer, early fall, I asked Cardinal Bernardin about it. That place is on fire, I said. “All Belleville needs is a good bishop,” he said. He had absolute confidence in this diocese: This was a good church; this was a healthy church; this was a church with potential. It just needed a good bishop to invite those gifts and qualities out.
What will you miss most?
I will miss the people. The office of the bishop, with all of its ceremonial, administrative, organizational responsibilities, centers around your relationship with the people. That’s what brings you happiness. That’s what gives you grey hairs. That’s what you think about when you go to sleep at night. That’s what you think about at the altar in the morning. It’s the people—it’s caring for them, it’s trying to respond to them.
I don’t mean the administrative parts of my responsibilities are unimportant; they are very important. I do work hard at that, but I always do so in relationship to the impact they have on the people.
Cardinal Bernardin told me once: “When you get to Belleville make sure you get out of the Chancery. Make sure you get out with the people. If you don’t, you’ll begin to think the craziness of the administrative headaches is really all there is to the church. You’ll begin to think the letters of complaint and confusion and anger define the state of the church, and they do not. The state of the church is healthy. And it’s to be found in the midst of the folks.”
What will I miss? I’ll miss the people that I’ve grown to know and to love and to become a part of, and I feel very much a part of this church.
Talk a bit about the farm blessings. Had you ever been on a farm before coming to southern Illinois?
I grew up on the south side of Chicago. The closest I came to farm life was when the stockyards, which were about a mile to a mile and a half from my house, when they were still functioning when I was a kid. You’d smell the convoys of trucks with pigs, cows and chickens being brought to the stockyards to be slaughtered on a good summer day when the winds shifted right. That was my only introduction to farm life.
I have come to appreciate the wisdom of farm families. To be a good farmer you have to be a jack of all trades. You have to understand chemistry, nature, weather. You have to be a mechanic, a business person. Farmers have to know all of those things in addition to being people of faith. They bring all of those skills to bear with their faith because they know it is at God’s pleasure that they do the work that they do. I always enjoy going to the farm because they set a farmer’s table. All of these farm blessings have a meal, and they invite their families—close and far—and neighbors. It was an experience of table fellowship that helped me understand Eucharist in a different way. Suburban urban table fellowship is wonderful. I grew up on it, but a farmer’s table is set with that which they helped produce. It comes back to some of the prayers of the Mass: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness, we have this bread to offer.” When you sit at a farmer’s table, you know what that bread took to produce, and that’s wonderful.
Any surprises through the years?
It’s people surprises. It’s the kids. It’s being at the youth ministry convention; it’s being with the kids, sharing their faith with other kids, especially if they come from areas where there are not many Catholic kids. They come together, and they rejoice at their youth and their religious heritage and in each other.
What is your legacy?
I brought the race issue to the front with a different perspective in this local church. I didn’t solve the problems of racism; it is a systemic problem, but I gave people some new facts to deal with.
The pastoral council: I came here wanting that to be created. It was key at this moment in the life of the church. People—for the past eight years since the council was formed—have spent a good deal of time with me during the meetings. This was a time when people said bishops didn’t understand their people, were too removed from them. But when we came together—the pastoral council and I—there was no issue we could not discuss, no topic too sensitive or too delicate or too controversial I couldn’t engage my people with. The pastoral council was key.
Any people or events that taught you about humility?
Dealing with victims (of clerical sexual abuse) humbled me. I’ve met dozens of people who have been harmed. While I’ve said—and have meant from the bottom of my heart—how sorry I am, I know I still, because of the office I have and the hurt they bear, I know that the healing I long for them will take time.
You have spoken often about Cardinal Bernardin over the years, even after his death. What influence has he had on you, your outlook and attitudes as a priest and bishop?
He’s been gone eight years. He was the only auxiliary bishop to serve in Atlanta. He was a good example; his wisdom, his holiness of life—all had an impact on me. Priests have to be fathers, not just by title, but we have to have a generative side to us. Sometimes it’s the buildings, it’s the structures, it’s the programs. In so many respects he was my father in the episcopacy. He gave me those kinds of insights a good father gives to his son.
God puts you where he wants you. One of the priests of Atlanta told me he wanted to tell me a story about being with Cardinal Bernardin when he was there. At the time, he was a young newly ordained priest when Cardinal Bernardin was in Atlanta, himself a young bishop.
Is it tough to say good-bye to the Belleville diocese?
It’s very tough. I know I’ll meet a lot of nice people in Atlanta. Every assignment I’ve had, from Mary Seat of Wisdom in Park Ridge as a deacon to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview to the seminary, to Chicago as auxiliary, to here, I’ve always met good people.
I always told the seminarians I was teaching: If you can walk away from an assignment dry-eyed, you never really left any of yourself there. You can’t walk away from people in a pastoral relationship without a few tears because you leave part of yourself there. It doesn’t mean you’re not anxious and hopeful to go to the next assignments.
I know I will meet thousands of wonderful people in Atlanta, but they will never take the place of the people here. Belleville will always be the first place where I served a diocese as bishop. People here own a part of me because we enjoyed a special and unique relationship.
What still needs to be done?
The planning effort still needs to be finalized. The clustering, Into the Future, still needs to move forward. Holy Trinity Parish in Fairview Heights needs to go forward. The school situation in the city of Belleville still needs resolution. Vocation work must be done. The new guy will not have an empty plate.
Will you have any input in choosing the next bishop of Belleville?
Usually the former bishop is asked to write up a description of the diocese and its needs from his perspective and to describe some of the qualities of the potential candidate. That’s pretty standard. The time frame: Six months would be quick; a year would not be out of the question.
A final word:
I want to thank the people of this diocese for welcoming me so generously, so lovingly. I want to thank them for really supporting so many of the initiatives that I proposed. I want to tell them how wonderful their kids are. Their kids are just fantastic. I want to tell them that I love them and will always love them.