Even a bishop needs a friend
by Joe Bollig
They were once rookies, full of fire and gung-ho for the vital work ahead. They did great things.
But they’re grayer now and fewer in number. But not everything has diminished with the passing of years. Some things — like friendship — have gotten better.
Six Catholic bishops have met regularly for some 26 years to pray, laugh, cry, think, talk, relax and share together. One of their number lives here in the archdiocese: Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher.
The early Oct. 11 afternoon was gorgeous, but the bishops were inside for one last huddle in the living room of Archbishop Keleher’s residence. Then, one by one, they grabbed their luggage and left for the airport.
Only Archbishop John G. Vlazny, of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, and Archbishop Keleher remained. They moved to the dining room to chat with their visitor.
Both archbishops are natives of Chicago and their shared history dates back to high school — Quigley Preparatory North School, where Archbishop Keleher was a senior; Archbishop Vlazny, a freshman.
Even after young Keleher’s graduation, they would be reunited soon enough — but this time, they were the teachers.
“We were assigned to teach at the same school at the same time, in 1963,” said Archbishop Vlazny. “We all taught religion. I taught Spanish, music and religion. He taught history and religion.”
“Those were the days,” said Archbishop Keleher, “when there were 40 kids in a class.”
Those ties of friendship stayed strong through the several assignments that followed. Archbishop Vlazny became an auxiliary bishop in 1983, and Archbishop Keleher became a bishop in 1984. The bishops’ group formed soon after their ordinations.
All for one
Eight bishops have been members of the group, but not all at the same time. Two of the eight are deceased.
The current roster includes Archbishop Vlazny and Archbishop Keleher; Archbishop Daniel Buchlein, retired from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis; Bishop Robert J. Banks, retired from the Diocese of Green Bay; Bishop William Higi, retired from the Diocese of Lafayette, Ind.; and Bishop Daniel Ryan, retired from the Diocese of Springfield, Ill.
In the beginning, the group, like other bishops’ groups, was somewhat defined by geography and the date of ordination. Some asked to join and some were invited.
“We were all new bishops,” said Archbishop Vlazny. “Priests had these prayer support groups, and we thought it would be important to get with a group of bishops.”
“We had very similar experiences, and we could be helpful to each other,” added Archbishop Keleher.
As has been the tradition throughout the years, the six member bishops still take turns acting as hosts for their gatherings, which used to be four times a year but now are three. Their gatherings last from late Monday to early Wednesday. They have meals together, pray the Liturgy of the Hours together, talk, relax, and celebrate Mass. They suggest books to each other and homily ideas.
In many ways, the bishops’ group is like Jesus Caritas, the support groups for priests, active here in the archdiocese.
“The idea is that three to six people who are similar in age and experience would get together and support each other through prayer and conversation,” said Archbishop Vlazny. “We’re all called to live lives as celibates, but we’re not called to life in isolation. We need support, forgiveness at times, and understanding.”
Such groups are also very practical.
“When you explain to someone your situation or question,” said Archbishop Keleher, “when you have people who have had somewhat similar experiences, they can give you insight into how you might handle that situation.”
At the heart of the group, of course, is the shared faith of its members.
“We have a common spirituality,” said Archbishop Keleher. “We keep prayer very high on our agenda because we really feel that it’s gotten us through very many difficult moments.”
No man an island
The bishops’ group is a living embodiment of an important teaching reiterated by the Second Vatican Council: collegiality.
“We bishops are reminded on the day of our ordination as bishops that we are called not just to be a bishop, but called to be members of the college of bishops, working in collaboration with one another and under the leadership of the Holy Father,” said Archbishop Vlazny.
What one bishop does in his diocese can have an effect on another diocese, just like neighboring parishes. That’s why bishops get together in small groups, provinces and national conferences.
“We aren’t called to private practice,” said Archbishop Vlazny. “We are called to be members of group of priests and bishops working together.”
Bishops remind us that all Christians are supposed to have a missionary spirit and a connectedness to the whole church throughout the world, said Archbishop Keleher.
When you’re a bishop, the personal and professional can become very intertwined. And then one day, it stops. That letter comes from Rome accepting one’s retirement.
“One thing I have found [the group] very helpful for is the transition from being the active archbishop of a diocese, moving to emeritus or retired status,” said Archbishop Keleher.
“That has its own challenges,” he continued. “And it’s really helpful to have other bishops, who’ve had that experience, assist you in how you are supposed to react, deepen your prayer life and do other good things.”
A person’s spirituality is a pilgrimage of faith, said Archbishop Vlazny. None of us are called to walk alone.
“Jesus has this wonderful idea that there be a company of believers who walk together, which he calls the church,” said Archbishop Vlazny.
“Obviously, you walk more closely with some people who share similar challenges and responsibilities,” he continued. “They keep you from wandering off the path too far.”
Receiving one-on-one spiritual direction is useful and necessary, but getting spiritual direction from a group of peers — just opening your heart to those who’ve been there, done that, and truly care about you — takes it to a whole new level, the two bishops said.
Since the group members are now elderly and travel is sometimes a challenge, they are not sure how much longer they will be able to continue to meet.
“It will end, I suppose, as we just ‘check out’ one by one,” said Archbishop Vlazny. “I think we’ll meet as long as we’re able.”