Thirty-five years ago we would be reading the writings of Bishop Joseph A. McNicholas in the Time & Eternity diocesan newspaper. As we would get closer to spring and the “Cardinal/Cub” contest, folks all over the diocese wrote to Bishop McNicholas (a Cardinal fan) making their predictions for the upcoming year. It really was a great way for him to connect with the flock and fans over the 28 Illinois counties that make up our diocese.
He was well loved throughout the diocese and it was certainly a shock and great loss when we woke up on April 18 to hear the news of his sudden death on April 17, 1983 from a massive heart attack. He had returned from preaching and celebrating confirmation at Stonington. For weeks, I remember reading the diocesan newspaper, which published countless letters sent from all over the country “heralding” the great work and ministry of Bishop McNicholas.
When made and named an auxiliary bishop in 1969 for the Archdiocese of St. Louis he took the episcopal motto “I Come to Serve.” He modeled this well — and taught us to work especially for peace and justice. Tirelessly up to his death, he lived each day in union with the mission and heart of Jesus who said as well, “I come to serve and not be served.” I was a seminarian in 1983. My heart was saddened by our loss, but I know when I remind myself of his life and ministry to our diocese, his memory truly will always be a source of invitation and encouragement to be a “servant” of the church.
Recently in Effingham, Sacred Heart Parish, St. Mary Parish in rural Shumway, and St. Anthony Parish held a gathering to celebrate all of our volunteers and active “servants” in parish and liturgical ministerial service. Hundreds gathered for a meal and social time to say “thanks” for the daily “yes” these wonderful folks offer to our parishes, our liturgies, and to their God. As a pastor I cannot say thanks enough for all the great gifts of time and talent that hundreds of folks give in their church ministries.
Many times, especially now that I am recently assigned to two “new” parishes, I will be asked, “How are your new parishes?” or “How do you like your new parishes?” I quickly remind them that they are “our” parishes. No pastor could ever “do it all” and would never be able to do his ordained ministry effectively well without the “side by side” sharing with all the many “stewards” in ministry.
For a parish to be vibrant and “Christ-bearing” to its fullest, it takes the hands, the hearts, and the gift of all the countless “servants” echoing Bishop McNicholas’ motto as they boldly come forward and profess, “I come to serve.” In their “yes” we are blessed, parishes become vibrant, and the flock encounters the living presence of a living God. In coming to be pastor at St. Anthony Parish and Annunciation Parish, in only a few weeks I have already felt many times I have “died and gone to heaven.” These parishes are filled with spirit-filled followers, Christ-like disciples who are willing to daily say “yes” to his call to “Come and follow me.”
In the past three weeks I have sat with our two oldest “servants.” I visited Margaret Hanfland, 105, and Mildred Buff, 103, in their homes. Both still serve by committing to the ministry of daily prayer of at least three rosaries for our priests and our parish families. Wow, I was inspired!
Thanks, Bishop McNicholas, for planting this seed of “service” in me over 35 years ago. I join the multitude who remember you and smile — and for this year, I’ll go with Cubs 97-65, Cards 82-82.