On the death of Cardinal Law

With the death of Cardinal Law, my thoughts go back to the first time we met in the mid-‘50s, while seminarians at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. Bernie had entered somewhat late in the formation process but quickly became integrated into our seminary community. He was bright, affable and already then demonstrated qualities of leadership and initiative. In my last year of theology, he lived across the hallway from me, and the next year was appointed deacon prefect of the theology community.

We had some contact over the years after priestly ordination since he had relatives in the Walla Walla area in the Diocese of Spokane. Quickly he became known in his editorial work with the diocesan paper of standing up to racism and in his work with ecumenical and interreligious relations. I remember well his appointment as Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, and soon after I had fairly regular contact with him as a brother bishop in the then NCCB/USCC. Obviously, his skills and talents were recognized as he was appointed the Archbishop of Boston. He is well known for his efforts of facilitating the visit of Pope St. John Paul II to Cuba and his leadership role of initiating and encouraging the writing of the new catechism for the Church.

I was deeply saddened by the tragedy of events that occurred during his ministry in the Archdiocese of Boston but also was moved by his statement in the letter of resignation: “To all those who suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and ask for forgiveness.” That last phrase of requesting forgiveness speaks of humility and an acknowledgement of human and pastoral failure. He also added a further comment at the time: “Then added to that was the knowledge that Boston and I personally have been responsible for placing upon bishops of this country an added burden. And I apologize to them for that.”

His appointment by Pope St. John Paul II as Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major was controversial, but the Roman appointment helpfully made a clear personal, administrative and economic separation of him from the Boston archdiocese. He invited staff leadership of the USCCB and myself to have lunch in his apartment at the Basilica. Contrary to reports, the apartment was not luxurious as some pundits reported — to the contrary. He was most gracious, and we talked about old times at the Josephinum as well as what was going on in the United States.

When traveling with Committee of the USCCB on Eastern Europe on a trip to Moscow and then to Krakow for the installation of the new Archbishop of Krakow, Stanislaw Dziwisz, I again met Cardinal Law. On the day before the installation of the archbishop, the cardinal invited me to go along with him and his secretary to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. At the entrance of the camps where there was the Carmelite Monastery, he asked to be dropped off there while the secretary and I visited the concentration camps. We picked him up on the way back to Krakow, but he never mentioned anything about this visit to the monastery. One can only imagine what must have been going through his mind and prayer.

And now my friend and brother bishop, Bernie, has died. I would hope that at this moment of his death there would be a spirit of taking seriously what forgiveness is all about and how radically the command of the Lord to forgive can be very challenging especially when anger, trauma, bitterness and dashed expectations are involved. Our Church is always in need of redemption and so are all of us, I don’t care who we are. When someone asks for forgiveness, that request comes from the heart. Not to respond to that request from another leaves us fixated, enslaved, and spiritually weaker.

Some months ago at the TED Conference in Vancouver, Pope Francis spoke in a video message about the need for a revolution of tenderness. That calls fits in so well after the Year of Mercy we recently experienced. We all know healing can take time, and bitterness and hurt can be very deep. Yet we all are on the redemption road and deal with our own human limitations, scars and brokenness. Sometimes those personal limitations and failures are far more evident in very public figures than those of us who have less exposure to the people we serve.

Pope Francis tells us that “Jesus is the face of the Father’s mercy.” Yes, justice must be served, but also we must ask ourselves what do our faces look like? This season as we celebrate the Word made flesh reminds us of the call.

And yes, to you, Bernie, eternal rest and peace.

Bishop William S. Skylstad is the retired bishop of Spokane, Washington.