Pastor surprised by a new call — from the pope

When Holy Cross Father William A. “Bill” Wack got the call from the apostolic nuncio informing him that Pope Francis had appointed him as the next bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, he was fixing the air conditioner of St. Ignatius Martyr Parish in Austin, Texas, where he’d been pastor since 2009.

Bishop-elect Wack, 50, was born in South Bend, Indiana, and was ordained a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1994. He holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame, where his brother, Holy Cross Father Neil Wack, serves as director of vocations for the U.S. Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

While navigating the transition out of parish life ahead of his Aug. 22 episcopal ordination, Bishop-elect Wack spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about what it means to be a Church on the peripheries, his vocations as a pastor and religious priest, and how the local churches he’s served prepare him for his new assignment. The following is an excerpt of that conversation:

Our Sunday Visitor: How are your people doing with this?

Bishop-elect Bill Wack: I think they’re going through what a lot of people are, my family and friends. Really, they’re experiencing the same emotions. And that is, first of all, just joy, you know, at first just happiness and surprise. And then, when it sinks in, sadness; I think there is a little grieving that happens whenever we have a change like this. All of us are reeling, and I get letters or emails or phone calls from people saying the same thing: Our family was overjoyed, but then we also all started crying. I think it’s the range of emotions that everyone’s going through when you get a sudden change like this.

OSV: What are your early impressions of the diocese you’ll be leading?

Bishop-elect Wack: I haven’t had a lot of experiences with them yet. However, when I went down there I was very well-received. … And there’s also a great deal of joy and perhaps relief. ... I know other dioceses are still waiting and have been waiting a long time, but it’s been six months or more that they’ve been praying ... for a bishop. So they were just really relieved. They were anxious to meet me and to see what I was like and what I had in mind for them. But mostly just joy. Since then I thought it would be a good thing to ... call one church, one parish, one or two every day now down there and introduce myself to the person who answers the phone and the pastor if he’s there. I just want to create a little bit of a sense of excitement as well — and anticipation. I’m excited, and they tell me on the phone how excited they are, and that they are praying for me still and they can’t wait for me to get started there. … More and more, I’m really excited about it. I love a new challenge, and more than anything it seems the Church there is well established, and they’re hungry for the Faith and to grow, and that excites me more than anything else.

OSV: Pope Francis speaks of needing bishops who are “shepherds with the smell of the sheep.” As a pastor, what does that mean to you?

Bishop-elect Wack: It means to me that we need to be hands-on. We need to be real. We can’t be locked away in our offices, just kind of writing out missives or something like that. We need to be like anyone else, in with our families, in with our people, and yes, I love the metaphor of having the smell of the sheep. It’s kind of really dramatic, I think, to us especially, to our sensibilities. But it gets right to the point. You can’t have the smell of your office, I guess, or the smell of the Church all the time — incense. You have to be out there with the people and what are they going through. It’s always been a part of my life as well, and my upbringing, to jump in, get involved. If you’re standing there and tables need to be set up or a floor needs to be mopped, jump in. We’ve just always been like that, and that’s a part of our parish, too, which is really, really neat. I guess there’s a lot more to say about that. It’s not just with an air conditioner or mopping floors, but also with those who are homeless, those who are poor, those who are in need. It’s good to be there to go out and not to just say we need to serve the poor but to volunteer in soup kitchens and food pantries and hospitals and prisons. That’s how I see it. [Pope Francis] is really challenging all of us to do the work hands-on, to be with our people.

OSV: We forget that we’re the ones being evangelized when we do that. Jesus identifies himself with people on the peripheries. And what a deficit if we’re a Church not doing that.

Bishop-elect Wack: Absolutely. I agree. We talked about having a preferential option for the poor. That was a phrase that was very popular in the ’70s and ’80s, but I think it should be more than a slogan. And it’s not just to say we don’t reach out to those who are comfortable or wealthy at all. But it’s saying [that] we need to work harder and start with those who most need to hear the Gospel, who most need to experience the Gospel, and the others, those who are comfortable or well or wealthy, they will join us in that, and they, too, will experience the Gospel in that. But we need to really kind of compel ourselves to start with that. And the main reason is because that’s what Jesus did. He spent most of his time, it seems, in the Gospels with those who were, as you say, on the peripheries.

OSV: Some say what Pope Francis calls for in Amoris Laetitia is an investment in lifelong human formation. What has your pastoral experience taught you about discernment in human formation?

Bishop-elect Wack: This is a lifelong journey, and that’s how I look at the Faith, of course. That’s how all of us should look at the Faith. In the earliest years it used to be known as The Way. We were the people of The Way, and what a great metaphor that Jesus is walking along The Way, just beckoning, “come follow me, come join me.” And that continues for us today. It doesn’t just end, of course, at baptism or confirmation. It’s something that we continue to do, this lifelong formation. … We at Holy Cross hope to be educators in the Faith, according to our constitutions. And so ... in our homilies especially, we teach about the Faith. We kind of try to open things up a bit more, and we challenge the congregation to learn and to grow and keep being formed by God. In the diocese that is a call for whole local Church, but especially, I like to focus on younger people in our schools and in our religious education programs and seminarians as well, just to keep calling people to take a deeper step, one more step with the Lord. That’s really how I viewed my own call. It’s just a series of little steps. Sometimes I’ve fallen back, sometimes I’ve said no, but as I take these steps more and more and more, it’s clear that God is leading me — and all of us — to something glorious, obviously.

OSV: And something that happens along the way: surprises. How are you handling this surprise of being made a bishop?

Bishop-elect Wack: Time helps with everything, you know? I think, initially, it was absolute shock. … We joke, we priests, that if someone is doing well or they’re on a lot of committees as I am here in the diocese, people are saying, “Well you’re going to get that call,” but no, you just don’t … imagine it’s going to come, and especially as a religious, it’s even rarer, although it’s more common these days with Pope Francis, I think. … I protested with the nuncio when he called. I said, “I just have to ask you, are you sure?” … And he said, “Yes, yes, it’s the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit and Pope Francis have done this. You must trust, Father, yes, trust.” … Since then I’ve spoken to several bishops, and the ones that know me well I’ve asked … “Where did this come from?” One of them said this makes very much sense to us, maybe not to you, but it does to us. Francis has said repeatedly [that he wants] a joyful soul person, a pastor of souls who has a heart for the poor and social justice. A couple of bishops have said, “Bill, that’s you. We see it. You may not see it, but we see it.”

OSV: You alluded to your background as a religious. What does the charism of religious life bring to the table?

Bishop-elect Wack: I can tell you exactly what it is. It’s a missionary spirit. That’s not to say we religious have a monopoly on that at all — please understand me. Especially with my congregation, Holy Cross, we were from Day 1. ... It’s that missionary spirit that’s just very much a part of my life and who I am, so that when this phone call came, as scared as I was … immediately that connected. … Now I’m going to Pensacola-Tallahassee, to the Panhandle, and I’m going to really see what I can do there with the help of God’s people. For a lot of us, it’s that zeal that we still have to be missionaries. And so that connected with me right away. Here I am in Austin. And now I’m going to Florida. And also one more thing: I think it is obedience. All of us profess obedience to our local ordinary, our local bishop. But religious also do that to the provincial and to the constitutions of Holy Cross. Now I just see that I’m released from my vow of obedience to the provincial and to Holy Cross, but it continues with Pope Francis and his successors. That connected with me, so that really helps. How could you say no? That’s my life, to be a missionary and be obedient to the Church. To do what the Church feels is best for me and for the Church.

OSV: How has this transition impacted your relationship with your brother, who is also a Holy Cross priest?

Bishop-elect Wack: First of all, when I was able to tell him just before the announcement, you can imagine two siblings, two best friends, just kind of sharing this news and just kind of yelling out loud, “Ah! This is happening!” Neil was so supportive and happy for me, and I was for him. And even though there is that sadness that I’m in a sense now moving away from Holy Cross and have become part of the diocese there, that will never be broken, of course, that bond. And immediately we started thinking about how we can do things together, or how he can be involved, perhaps in the ordination, how we’ll visit each other still. It doesn’t really change the way we relate to each other. Neil more than anyone can understand what this means as a priest, as a religious, being called like this, so it’s just pure joy really.

OSV: What are you going to carry with you from Austin, a diocese that has produced a lot of vocations to the priesthood, as well as a few bishops?

Bishop-elect Wack: I think Bishop [Joe] Vásquez deserves a lot of credit, and Bishop [Gregory] Aymond before him, now Archbishop Aymond in New Orleans. I’m not sure if it was a conscious thing, but we’re growing, thanks be to God. We can’t build churches fast enough here. All of our churches are having growing pains. They have no parking, no space anymore. A lot of that is, thanks be to God, new immigrants coming to our diocese here and our Church and just helping us to grow. And I think because of that there’s a sense of excitement. ... When you have people who are selected for leadership, it kind of makes everyone proud in that diocese, and they kind of rise to the challenge as well.

OSV: What do you carry with you of Notre Dame?

Bishop-elect Wack: I think it’s a sense of community, certainly. We celebrate that in academics, in the dormitories and in prayer and liturgy. Everything that they do, there’s that sense of the Notre Dame family. … But I would say, really more than anything else, Notre Dame has incorporated the American ideal. It’s become part of Notre Dame, the sense of hope, the sense of optimism in the future, the potential in what we can do. We can change the world. … I think there’s that sense of optimism with Holy Cross as well. We embrace the cross. We acknowledge that there are many challenges, trials and difficulties in the world. But we know how all this ends. It ends in glory. I think that was just nourished there, that sense of hope, optimism, joy, community and hard work in the midst of what is a very challenging life often.

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OSV: Anything we haven’t touched on?

Bishop-elect Wack: There’s a lot I’ve been thinking about, but especially family. I would like to acknowledge where this comes from. Yes, I got the call out of the blue, but you don’t get a priest or a sister or a bishop just out of the blue. We don’t just float down from the sky. We’re not on a rack in the basement. It comes from the family. It all has to start there. I am blessed to be part of a large family, where my parents insisted that we pray the Rosary every day and that of course we go to Mass together and that we volunteer in the local church. That’s clearly where all of this started. I may be scratching my head, saying, “Why didn’t I see any of this? Why me?” and all of that. It’s because of the formation that I received at home that is just continuing now in another way.

Don Clemmer is managing editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @clemmer_osv.