Published December 4, 2008
There’s no place like home, and when you can’t live there perhaps the next best thing may be sharing memories of it with friends.
A cherished camaraderie has formed over the years for the four “Chicago guys” ordained auxiliary bishops together on Dec. 13, 1983. It continues even after they were sent by the church to serve in diverse places.
The three other bishops sharing Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory’s 25th anniversary date—retired Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Lyne, Bishop Placido Rodriguez, CMF, now in Lubbock, Texas, and Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Oregon—can trace their special friendship back to that date when they were ordained auxiliaries to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
The Auxiliary Bishops
Archbishop Vlazny received news of his appointment privately on Oct. 12 and was told the official announcement would come Oct. 18. He was not given the names of the other priests to be named auxiliary bishops.
“Three days later the nuncio called,” Archbishop Vlazny recalled. “He said he had to postpone the announcement. I thought next he’d call and I’d be told the whole thing was cancelled. I wasn’t sure then that the whole thing was real; maybe some friend was playing a game on me.”
What he didn’t know was that Cardinal Bernardin, who was in Rome, wanted the announcement to wait until he returned to Chicago. It came on Oct. 31.
Archbishop Vlazny also remembered a newspaper article at the time.
“The four new bishops were described as the Irish bishop, no surprise there; the first African-American bishop for the archdiocese (of Chicago) and the first in that part of the states; the first Hispanic-American bishop for Chicago; and then I was described as the ethnic bishop,” he said with a laugh. “They didn’t know what to call me. But I’d always tell the three others, ‘You guys have your individual constituencies, but I’m the bishop of everybody else.’”
All joking aside, Archbishop Vlazny was quick to point out Cardinal Bernardin’s desire that even though, for example, then Bishop Gregory had been given a vicariate with a large African-American population and Bishop Rodriguez had mostly Catholics of Hispanic descent in his area, “we were to be bishops everywhere to everyone, not any one group in particular.”
“(He) gave us each a vicariate but made it clear that we were not just a bishop for black Catholics or a bishop for Hispanics. … We were to move around the archdiocese.”
The Booming Chicago Church
The Chicago Archdiocese has been a dynamic hub for Catholic life for many years. Bishop Rodriguez, a Mexican immigrant who came to the city with his family when young, described Chicago as a “quilt of neighborhoods” because of the various ethnic groups that had settled in the city. He described the church there as “very, very strong” with Catholics making up about 40 percent of the population.
“The Archdiocese of Chicago has so many varieties of ethnic cultures that had come into the Chicago area because there was plenty of employment. Chicago at the time was strong with the steel mill industry as well as with cattle, beef. That’s where they prepared meat and why it was called the hog butcher capital of the world. The stockyards were also a source of employment, which was attractive and brought so many ethnic groups,” he said.
Ethnic eateries, food stores and churches popped up. It was a time when people “had to learn to deal with, to work with each other.”
Vocations to the priesthood and religious orders were abundant in the city, which had a strong footing in Catholic education from parochial schools to secondary schools like Quigley Preparatory Seminary and what was then St. Mary of the Lake Seminary.
“The church was able to produce wonderful priests,” Bishop Rodriguez, a member of the Claretian order, said. “There was the (Catholic school system) and the seminary. In the olden days, we produced great leaders, great and wonderful priests.”
Bishop Lyne commented on Chicago’s tradition as “a place of social action in the church.”
“There were so many lay movements that came out of Chicago, like the Cana Movement. It’s been the nature of this Catholic city.”
He credited priests like Cardinal Samuel Stritch, who he said was “very permissive” for his time and empowered other priests serving the church, and Cardinal Bernardin whom he called a “very good leader.”
“He was an unusual man. He had a unique ability of obtaining consensus. He started Common Ground and was good at getting people of opposite views together.”
Building a strong sense of fraternity among clergy has been important to church leadership in Chicago dating back many years.
“First of all, one of the advantages Chicago people had is that we all went to the same seminary and we had large classes. Thirty-eight were ordained in my year; we always kept together,” said Bishop Lyne. “Chicago has always been somewhat huge on the unity of the clergy. It’s big. For some reason we’ve had that spirit.”
Cardinal George Mundelein worked hard to create “a climate of unity,” he added.
“When he arrived in Chicago it was a city divided by national groups. He put them together into one group. It’s so important.”
Archbishop Vlazny, too, recognized the Archdiocese of Chicago’s “strong presbyterate.”
“There are many talented and capable priests and bishops who have come out of there. Most of us had the same seminary experience. It’s just how it was.”
He described the “great church” of Chicago and elsewhere in the 1950s and 1960s that took on social action and reforms in the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council. “The spirit spread in Chicago and across the land and to us young priests; we picked up on that.”
He commented on the “tons of churches” in the archdiocese.
The archbishop knew of one area of town that had 13 churches within a few blocks of each other. Immigrant families “made huge sacrifices” to build churches where they settled. “Building churches was their way of saying ‘I’m here. We have arrived.’ They were the symbol of a neighborhood.”
Their churches often times were majestic in scope, architecture and art. Archbishop Vlazny told how the various ethnic groups took pride in their church structures, saying, for example, “The Italians couldn’t be outdone by the Poles. … A little competition never hurt.”
It was in the vibrant church communities where vocations to the priesthood and religious life flourished.
“When I was in grammar school, we had a large parish with lots of priests. It was seeing the young priests; they were my inspiration,” said Bishop Lyne.
Archbishop Vlazny also credited his parish experience with contributing to his vocation. He grew up in the Southwest side of Chicago in a “wonderful parish.”
“It was a great church, and my experience at the church is probably what attracted me to the priesthood,” he said.
As a Chicago priest, he mostly shepherded inner city parishes, having been sent as a young priest to learn Spanish. “(Church leaders) saw the changes in population at the time.”
He enjoyed his time ministering as pastor in a parish of mostly Hispanics who took time for Mass. “There wasn’t a rush (on Sundays) for people to get to their country clubs. It was quite a blessing.”
“I have served in African-American neighborhoods. It’s tough, but the people are resilient. … I watched the single mothers, the sacrifices they made to give their children an education. I admired them and what they did for their children.”
The public schools in the area were poor, he added. “Some women made great sacrifices. The toughest times were in the late ’60s, around ’68.”
And while there were many praises to sing about the Chicago church at the time, “the Catholic Church was still facing racial prejudice.”
“It was one of the sad sides of that time.”
The archbishop described the visit by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a nearby city park. People threw stones at him, the archbishop recalled. “And they weren’t all from non-Catholics.”
Serving The Church As Auxiliary Bishops
Fast-forward to the years after the auxiliary bishops came on board. Under newcomer Cardinal Bernardin, the archdiocese had been divided into six vicariates, each new auxiliary bishop responsible for about 70 to 75 parishes.
Archbishop Vlazny described then Bishop Gregory’s beginnings in his new role as auxiliary bishop as “probably awkward at first” because of pockets of racial prejudice in the archdiocese. “Even though (then Bishop Gregory) did not talk about it, he probably heard, at times, ‘you’re not welcome here.’ But once he arrived (at the churches) all that ended. Then everyone wanted (Bishop) Gregory to come.”
His warmth, humor and evident love and knowledge of liturgy had won them over.
“(The requests) happened so much that Cardinal Bernardin used to joke with him, saying, ‘I’m still their archbishop!’”
At the time many Catholics in the city had moved out to Chicago suburbs and had abandoned the inner city parishes and schools, Bishop Lyne said. “With Chicago being so big … there were big changes at the time.”
Bishop Rodriguez recalled, “One of the main issues we faced was how to rearrange some schools and churches. We had so many churches and schools, and we were not able to support all of them. They were all wanting to be subsidized. We also had to deal with the issue of urban flight. The problem had been let go and not dealt with.”
The challenge was how to restructure the many parishes, he said. Bishop Gregory was faced with the same challenge and eventually had to close St. Carthage, his first parish and school.
“In my area I closed 25 churches and schools. We had to reorganize the many churches because many of them were practically empty. There was one parish and then another one or two blocks away. It was very difficult, but we had to face the challenges.”
The process of closing a parish or school “takes much attention,” according to Bishop Rodriguez. “You go in with patience and meet them where they are, let them express their desires and feelings. Most had great attachments to their parishes. However, I heard them out, and then we had to move on. So you do it patiently.”
Eventually three of the auxiliary bishops were called by Rome to become ordinaries in other dioceses throughout the country while Bishop Lyne remained in Chicago and eventually became pastor of Holy Name Cathedral and is now the vicar for senior priests in the archdiocese. Years later their friendships continue.
“Whenever the (U.S.) bishops meet, the Chicago guys get together with one another for supper,” Bishop Lyne said. “We can have 20 guys for supper. It’s always fun.”
Bishop Rodriguez credits Bishop Lyne for keeping the ties that bind strong, and added that Cardinal Bernardin frequently organized social gatherings for Chicago bishops and priests in the Washington, D.C., area during U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings as well as hosting a December gathering. “We’ve kept up the tradition. Cardinal (Francis) George is holding a gathering at his residence (in December), following in Cardinal Bernardin’s footsteps. (The gatherings) always go too fast.”
These times are important for the bishops on many levels.
“(Bishops) go through the same kind of decisions so it’s easy to empathize, to understand, to share concerns, to gather wisdom from others. Sometimes it’s to cry on someone’s shoulder,” said Bishop Rodriguez. “We try not to be very lonely, but share with others. … It’s a very supportive group that helps tremendously.”
He added, with a smile in his voice, that sometimes he looks around to the trying situations of other bishops and says to himself, “Well, I have it easy!”
Archbishop Vlazny has had his share of pastoral challenges, including repercussions from the clergy sex abuse scandal in the archdiocese he came to in 1997. He credited the “wonderful people of Portland” for helping to move the archdiocese forward. He is also thankful for his brother bishops.
“As an archbishop we’re called to respond to various challenges,” he said. “It’s been a blessing (to have the support of other bishops).”
While he has “suffered through” the scandal and its aftermath, he understands that “life goes on.”
“The church is bigger than the problem. Bishop Gregory suffered the most (as the USCCB president when news of the scandal erupted). … He had to keep morale high. Those were tough times.”
Archbishop Lyne recalled with pride the work of Archbishop Gregory in the months following the coverage of the crisis facing the U.S. church.
“There is no simple answer to it. The pain (of the survivors), it’s always there. Archbishop Gregory did as well as anybody could do. It’s no simple thing you can do; you can’t eliminate the past wrongs. He was always thoughtful, wanting to give help to those who were victims. … We bishops have an obligation to help (survivors) and that’s what we try to do.”
‘Bright’ And ‘Upbeat’ Archbishop Gregory
His peers expressed their admiration for and best wishes to Archbishop Gregory. Bishop Lyne recalled the young Wilton Gregory.
“He was always very, very bright as a seminarian and as a young priest. He did a great deal to eliminate racial tension because of his personal goodness and the fact that he is so likeable. People just like him.”
Bishop Rodriguez added his support. “He’s done an exceptional job in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, proving himself to be a good leader. His role with the bishops conference shows he has leadership capabilities.”
He shared that Archbishop Gregory “invariably signs a card saying, ‘Remember Oct. 31? Happy Anniversary!’ He’s been faithful with that.”
“I want to wish him congratulations for reaching this milestone, which we thought we would never get to, but it’s already here.”
Archbishop Vlazny commented, “I’m just proud to be a brother bishop. He’s a credit to us, especially to the church and Chicago. … He makes me proud to be a bishop.”
He is also relieved to know that the health of Atlanta’s archbishop is “on the up side.”
“I’m glad he’s got many years ahead of him,” he said, and jokingly added, “We tell him the only problem about being ordained a bishop at 36 is that you have so many years ahead of you! Still, he seems cheerful and upbeat.”