By CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE | Published August 15, 2013
RALEIGH, N.C. (CNS)—Retired Bishop F. Joseph Gossman, who had led the Diocese of Raleigh for 31 years before he retired in 2006, died Aug. 12 in Raleigh after a long illness. He was 83.
Bishop Gossman presided over the diocese’s growth during his tenure. An outspoken voice for social justice, he championed the rights of immigrants, the unborn, the poor and death-row prisoners.
The funeral Mass for Bishop Gossman will be celebrated Aug. 20 at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Cary, N.C., followed by internment at Our Lady of Guadalupe Cemetery in Newton Grove, N.C.
Raleigh Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, who succeeded Bishop Gossman in 2006, asked all in the diocese to join him “in praying for the eternal happiness of Bishop Gossman and to thank God for the gifts of his priestly example and faithful ministry as bishop.”
Born Francis Joseph Gossman April 1, 1930, in Baltimore, he was ordained a priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese in 1955 after studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and the Pontifical North American College in Rome, the U.S. national seminary in Rome. After ordination, he earned a doctorate in canon law at The Catholic University of America, Washington.
He served as an assistant pastor, cathedral administrator, vice chancellor, tribunal official and St. Mary’s Seminary professor before he was named an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore in 1968 at age 38.
He was the first U.S. bishop to be ordained in the new, simplified ceremony for the ordination of a bishop, which had just received Vatican approval for use in the United States on an experimental basis as part of the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council.
In place of the traditional banquet honoring a newly ordained bishop, he celebrated his ordination with a simple buffet and reception and had the money that would have been spent on a banquet sent for aid to Biafra, a short-lived secessionist state within Nigeria, which was then in the midst of a destructive civil war and faced massive humanitarian needs.
For his 25th anniversary as a bishop in 1993, though, Bishop Gossman was feted by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, three archbishops, 12 bishops, all the priests of the diocese, a 200-voice choir and 3,000 people in the Raleigh Civic Center.
When Bishop Gossman was made bishop of Raleigh in 1975, the 38,000 Catholics in the diocese formed a tiny minority, less than 2 percent of the 2.5 million people in the eastern half of North Carolina. During his 31-year tenure, the Catholic population more than quadrupled. An increasing Hispanic population fueled some of the growth. He embarked on a $30 million capital campaign in 2001 to assure that future needs of the diocese would be met.
Bishop Gossman used the sale of diocesan property in 1989 to establish a permanent $2.5 million diocesan endowment for the poor.
He supported a nuclear freeze in the early 1980s and in 1990, before the Persian Gulf War, warned against unilateral U.S. military action.
Bishop Gossman was a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in the United States and in 1991 was a leader in the formation of a statewide Catholic-Lutheran covenant, an agreement of joint witness and collaboration that at the time was only the second such covenant in the nation.
In 1992, he was one of five Southern bishops who issued a joint statement opposing use of the death penalty. That year, he also sharply criticized a roundup and deportation of more than 200 undocumented immigrants, most of whom were sleeping when they were taken by federal agents. He called it “cruel, heartless and (an) unnecessary use of force.” In a homily at a parish in the Raleigh Diocese, Bishop Gossman said, “Laws are important, but so are human dignity and family cohesiveness.’’
In 1994, Bishop Gossman was one of 33 U.S. bishops who, with the heads of 262 Catholic religious communities, sent a letter to President Bill Clinton asking him to end the policy of repatriations of fleeing Haitian immigrants to their home country without a hearing. Days later, Clinton revoked the policy.
Also that year, he was a participant in a joint Catholic-Anglican commission that unanimously agreed on a five-point affirmation of shared eucharistic belief.
In 1997, he and Bishop William G. Curlin of Charlotte, N.C., issued a joint pastoral letter on economic justice in their state, expressing concern that while North Carolina was enjoying economic prosperity and expansion, the working poor were being left behind.
In 1999, he started the Raleigh diocesan Reconciliation Initiative, a program of pastoral outreach to Catholics separated from the sacraments because of irregular marriages.
Also that year, Bishop Gossman was one of the first bishops to call for a boycott of Mt. Olive pickle products in an effort to secure justice for farmworkers in the fields of both rural North Carolina and northwestern Ohio.
He also forgave more than $200,000 in debt accumulated by 10 parishes in the run-up to the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.
In 2000, he joined with Bishop Curlin in seeking an end to the death penalty in North Carolina. “We call on all people of good will to join us in working toward ending this cycle of violence in our state and country,” they said. To that point, the state had executed 15 people since 1977; another 28 have been executed since then, with 161 others on death row. Later in 2000, Bishop Gossman administered the sacrament of confirmation to six death-row inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison.
As the scandal of clergy sexual abuse made national headlines in 2002, the U.S. bishops developed a charter outlining strict and comprehensive standards to be met in confronting future allegations. During their historic meeting in Dallas, the bishops heard from laypeople urging a greater role for them in the church. Bishop Gossman took their point to heart. “If we had had the laity involved, we would not have gotten to this level because they wouldn’t have let it,” he said.
In 2003, he put an end to the practice of charging Catholics for the use of churches for sacramental events such as weddings, limiting parishes to asking for an offering of no more than $200 to nonparishioners to defray preparation and heating and cooling costs. Before that, some parishes were charging up to $1,500 for the use of their church.
In 2004, as some U.S. bishops were denying, or threatening to deny, the Eucharist to Catholic elected officials or political candidates whose stand on abortion differed from the church’s, Bishop Gossman said in a statement the church’s long-standing practice was “not to make a public judgment about the state of the soul of those who present themselves for holy Communion. The pastoral tradition of the church places the responsibility for such a judgment on those who come forward to receive holy Communion.”