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Archbishop emeritus reflects on 30 years as a bishop

By Antonio M. Enrique
Posted: 12/12/2003

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On Dec. 5, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, archbishop emeritus of Boston, celebrated the 30th anniversary of his episcopal ordination. He spoke with The Pilot in a telephone interview that day from a train en route from Washington, D.C. to New York. From New York, the cardinal flew to Vietnam where he attended a Dec. 9 Mass of thanksgiving at Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City for the recently elevated Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man.

Q. Your eminence, the first question has to be about you. Pilot readers frequently contact us asking, “How is Cardinal Law doing these days?” They would like to know how you spend your time and if it was hard to adjust from a very hectic schedule to a more relaxed schedule.

A. Well, thank God, I think that things are going well. Obviously, it is a very difficult transition to go from the kind of a life and the kind of a schedule that I had as you say, to something that is not pressured. As you and I are talking, it is the 30th anniversary of my ordination as bishop, and for 29 years as bishop I had that kind of a schedule, so it does take a while to adjust. Thank God, I’ve managed to do that, I think, rather well.

Q. You served as a chaplain to the Sisters of Mercy of Alma in Maryland ...

A. I’m really not their chaplain, but the Sisters of Mercy of Alma have provided me with hospitality. When I am in Maryland I celebrate Mass, as I did this morning, for them. Their weekday Mass is at 6:15 a.m., and it’s good to get the morning started early. I really appreciate having the possibility of that community but, as you and I are talking, I’m on my way to Vietnam in response to an invitation from the new cardinal, the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City [Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man] to visit.

Also, I was in Rome for about six weeks participating in the celebration of the Holy Father’s [anniversary], the beatification [of Mother Teresa], but also attending routine meetings of [Vatican] congregations of which I am a member. So there is work to be done. I am able to devote more time to that work than I was able to do before. Hopefully, I will be able to continue to do that sort of thing.

Q. Your good friend and mentor, the late Bishop Lawrence J. Riley wrote in The Pilot five years ago that, as you were being ordained a bishop in 1973, he imagined you as “awed” and, paradoxically, “confident.” In light of that comment, would you like to reflect on your 30 years as a bishop?

A. I certainly was awed, I think, and confident ... well, confident as all of us need to be, confident in the presence of the Lord. I have to say that that’s been the source of my strength and peace during this time of transition. The Lord says “Do not be afraid” and He says “I am with you,” and we know that to be the case in the Eucharist and where two or three are gathered together in His name. He has told us that He is present in all of those whom we encounter — so, confident in that sense. Yes, confident in knowing that the Lord was with me, not confident in the sense that I thought that I knew how to do everything. I didn’t.

I remember being very awed at the fact that I had a diocese [Springfield-Cape Girardeau] in which I knew no one, and was awed by the fact that I needed to come to know the priests, the religious, the laity. I needed to come to know the parishes in an area that I had only been in twice in my life — for the installation of my predecessor and to speak to the archdiocesan pastoral council once — but that was the extent of my contact with the diocese.

It has been a profound privilege, so far, to serve the Church as a bishop for 30 years even though I am no longer the archbishop of Boston. I remain a bishop, obviously, and the ordination rite reminds one that one is the bishop not only for the [local] Church that one serves, but also to have a concern for all the churches scattered throughout the world. So, in a sense, going to Vietnam is really a part of my episcopal responsibility. I fulfill it in prayer.

After 30 years, there obviously have been many things that I was privileged to be a part of and give me great consolation. Obviously, as you know, and as everyone knows, there have been things that I wish to God had been done differently, but I’m very thankful that those issues are being addressed in a very positive and forthright way.

While a bishop is ordained to be a teacher and a pastor of a local church — as I was in the diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau — my identity as a priest and a bishop converge when I celebrate the Eucharist, which is the center of the Church’s life, and it’s certainly the center of my life. I’ve been able, thank God, to be much more focused on that this past year. I suppose that the awe and the confidence come together in the Eucharist everyday for me.

Q. In his apostolic exhortation “Pastores Gregis,” the Holy Father says the episcopacy “consists in a progressive advance towards an ever more profound spiritual and apostolic maturity.” Could you reflect on your personal journey towards holiness in the last 30 years?

A. Well, you know, “nemo judex in sua causa” [no one can be a judge in his own case]. But, I have to say that the burden of that call to holiness and the joy of that call to holiness, which every one of us has, is something that a bishop is called to in a very special way. He’s supposed to be a pattern of holiness, and that is daunting. It fills one with awe, but you know I could not call other people to live their call to holiness if I were not committed personally to that. Like all of us in varying degrees, I have been committed to that and at some times I do better than at other times, but prayer is at the heart of my life, the Eucharist is at the heart of my life. Every year as a bishop I have made a week’s retreat very much an integral part of my life. I think the call to holiness is where the focus of the Church has to be. It’s what we need more than anything else to be responsive to that call. I think we need it today, in every day, in every age.

Q. As a bishop, and then as a cardinal, you have had many different obligations both in your episcopal sees as bishop and archbishop and at the national and international level. What have been your most joyful experiences among your many callings?

A. A bishop is a pastor. I have to say that the ability to experience personally that pastoral sense, that pastoral relationship — that usually is a one-on-one thing — has been always a great [experience]. But that’s priestly as well as [episcopal]. I don’t think that a bishop ceases to be a priest, and those personal relationships have to be present.

I think that my working with a community of Vietnamese religious women after they were exiled from the Vietnam and helping them settle in the United States in the diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. The Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix was a tremendous privilege, a grace. I’m so grateful to have been a part of that. I worked a great deal with parish councils there and I am very pleased with that ... I was [also] able to see retirement benefits put in place for lay employees and I was delighted to see that.

In the Archdiocese of Boston, I think that the convocation that we had annually, the development of the archdiocesan pastoral council, the cabinet structure and the ease with which I worked together with tremendously competent men and women in the administration of the [arch]diocese — I found that a great consolation. I think that the way in which we worked together in the archdiocese to try to deal with a better allocation of our resources was significant and I was pleased with that. I was pleased with the developments in [St. John] seminary and to be a part of that. The ordination of priests, the ordination of permanent deacons — what a gift, a grace that was. I think [of] the development of the institute for lay and religious who are not priests — the Archdiocesan Institute for Ministry — and the graduate studies program that was developed in the archdiocese in the last several years. I think on yourself as editor of the Pilot as a great good, and the transition that took place at Boston Catholic Television after the untimely death of Msgr. [Frank] McFarland with Msgr. Paul McInerny — I think that served the Church very well. There are so many, many things ... Working with Caritas Christi, working with Catholic Charities to try and be sure that our services to others were as effective as they could be. So many things.

Q. One of the most difficult decisions you have undoubtedly had to take in these 30 years was to present your resignation as Archbishop of Boston to the Holy Father. Looking back over this past year, was it for the best?

A. Again, no one can really be a judge in his own case. All I can say is that what I did, I did in prayer, I did consulting some very close advisors, and I did it because I felt that it was paradoxically the best way at this moment that I could serve the Church in Boston so that it could move on. I felt that we had attempted to address the terrible issue of abuse in an effective way. I thought that what we had in place were things that needed to be in place, but I understood that really the confidence that people had in me as a leader had been eroded on this issue, and it’s very important that there be that kind of confidence generally. And so I made that decision. I think that it was the right decision. I’m very grateful to God that I have Archbishop Seán O’Malley as my successor and I pray daily for him as I pray for the archdiocese.

Q. Are you encouraged to see the progress made in the archdiocese during this past year?

A. I believe that it is very important when you leave to really leave, but I am convinced that generally the Church has taken a massive step forward in addressing what has been a terrible problem. I think that the steps that have been taken have been excellent steps. I think that the people that were in place before I left and continue to be in place dealing with this issue are just superb. I was privileged to have them as my colleagues and, yes, I think that things are moving the way they need to be moving.

Q. This visit to Vietnam, does it signal an upcoming appointment by the Holy Father?

A. I have been very close to the Church in Vietnam. This invitation is not an invitation from the Holy See. The invitation came from Cardinal Man and so doesn’t signal anything.

Just as a matter of routine, before going to a sensitive area like Vietnam, I have sought the counsel of the [Vatican] Secretariat of State, and the [Vatican] Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and it was felt that this would be a good thing for me to do. It doesn’t signal anything more than the invitation that it is.

Q. So, do you expect any new assignment in the near future?

A. I really don’t live in expectation of anything except the coming of the Lord in the most surprising of ways. I’m trying to do what I can as a cardinal and as a bishop in those areas that I’m called upon. That involves membership in [Vatican] congregations and responding to invitations such as I have just received. I have others for some events that are coming up ... and that really is what I look forward to.

Q. Would you like to say a word to the Catholics in Boston at this time?

A. One of the really difficult things for me is that, under the circumstances of my resignation and all that was happening at that time, it just seemed that the best way for that to be handled so that life could get on was to do it as I did it, to make the announcement and then simply to leave. Obviously, it was difficult not to have the ability to have a kind of closure with the diocese that I love and continue to love and for which I pray on a daily basis. I’m very grateful to all of those who have kept in contact with me during this year and I wish everyone the blessedness of this holy time of Advent — a time, as St. Charles Borromeo said, when we are more conscious of the mystery of God’s love for us.