The bishop was a pastor by nature, and not just of his own flock. He reached out to others. Which explains how he wound up promoting one of Billy Graham's crusades in Little Rock back in 1989. Some of us couldn't have a birthday or even a bar mitzvah in the family without being congratulated by the bishop, or just take a bike ride around the St. John's campus, a few blocks from where I live, and circling past the McDonald Center, without thinking of the man, and maybe feeling his watchful eye. Not to mention the flow of cards and letters and just good will from the man that never ceased.
How strange that in all the tributes paid to the bishop's memory last week, no one should have mentioned his charisma, his spellbinding oratory, his gladhander-for-God, razzle-dazzle Billy Sunday/Jimmy Swaggart magnetism. It's not strange at all, of course. Flash and dash and pizzazz and all that? The bishop didn't have an ounce of it, not a gram, not a hint. He was just a good and faithful servant. Just? How rare such a steward is in these perfectly-coiffed, mega-churched and Power Pointed times, and how prized such a Witness should be. In all times.
When the bishop did retire after all those years, it was to become chaplain at an old folks' home in suburban Palatine, Ill., one run by a little-known order of nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor. At last the bishop would get to relax, catch a breath, and fade away among the Little Sisters in well-deserved obscurity.
But that is not the way of the world. Sure enough, the sisters didn't stay little-known for long. For the next landmark case in the never-ending struggle to preserve religious freedom in this country will probably be styled Little Sisters of the Poor v. Sebelius, which is due to be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States any time now.
It seems the Little Sisters refuse to have anything to do with abortion, sterilization or any of the other government-mandated programs that take innocent life. Even as a condition for their providing health insurance for their employees. As I said, you don't have to seek controversy in this world for it to find you; just stand by your principles. Which is all the bishop sought to do over the course of his 90 years.
Ah, life. It ain't over till it's over, and certainly the bishop's wasn't when he lay down the burdens of his office. There's no such thing as early retirement for Christian witness.
It is an old prayer said at the close of day, and you can still hear it when the church bells ring Compline: The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. Which is just what was granted the bishop last week. Perfect.