There are bishops and there are bishops. Indeed, the Diocese of Little Rock had four of them before a priest named Andrew McDonald came out of Savannah, Ga., to become the fifth, and Lord willing there will be many others to come after. Yet when people in these parts referred to the bishop, there was no doubt whom they meant. For the bishop would spend 28 years here in Arkansas, and many had known no other. Yes, there were bishops before the Very Rev. Andrew J. McDonald and there would be other bishops after him, but there was none like the bishop. He was singular.
Just why that should be is one of those mysteries faith is full of. Not even a close reading of his obituary offers just one explanation. Was it because he arrived in Little Rock as the church was remaking itself after the tumultuous 1960s? Or because, though he sought only to bear quiet Christian witness, he kept finding himself in the middle of the most controversial issues of his time? Which, of course, is what happens to pilgrims in this life. They don't seek out controversy; it seeks them out. It is the way of the world.
The bishop just wanted to witness for life, and wound up leading Little Rock's first annual March for Life, and led all of them as long as he was able. What started as an innovation, an experiment, became a kind of holy day of obligation for all those who would choose life whatever their religious denomination or none at all.
Everything the bishop touched seemed to turn into ritual -- or even an institution. He just wanted to stand up for the poor and homeless, for single mothers and their children, for the old in nursing homes, and for prisoners, for the least of these, as Christians and even bishops will, and before he was through Mother Teresa had come to bless the opening of Abba House here in Little Rock, which ministers to all such.
Even the bishop's all too extensive repertoire of corny jokes became a kind of ritual, like a familiar prayer you may not pay close attention to after a while, but that is still a comfort and assurance, always there. You know what to expect. It is one certainty you can count on in an uncertain world. And yet somehow different every time, which is what makes old rituals ever new.