Bishop celebrates anniversary: first year full of travel, collaboration

“Active. The only way for me to approach coming into a new way of life, so to speak, is just get fully engaged and jump in the water.” This is how Bishop Joseph Kopacz described his first year as the bishop of the Diocese of Jackson. He is set to celebrate the anniversary of his ordination and installation Friday, Feb. 6, with a day of reflection with Chancery staff.
True to his promise to visit as many parishes, schools and communities as he could in his first year, Bishop Kopacz put between 28,000 and 29,000 miles on his vehicle since he got it a few days before his ordination. He has celebrated Mass at all the schools and 90 percent of the parishes and missions. He hopes to complete his tour soon and will continue to make visits. He sees all the travel as an important part of his ministry.
“It’s much more than being a pastor. It’s not better, but it’s much more complicated. People seem to respond to the pastoral approach very positively. That’s been a wonderful surprise. I’m not doing anything different than I did when I was a pastor, in a sense. I am celebrating Masses and going to receptions and being there for significant parish events, but doing that as bishop. People are really grateful for that,” said Bishop Kopacz.
“That’s been a nice surprise; it’s been positive. It’s not like a bishop has to work on his approval ratings, that’s not the point, but a bishop’s ministry is one of encouraging people and you can’t do that easily without (being present). I know it was hard for Bishop Latino to do that in the last few years because of his health, so they are grateful I can get out and do that,” added Bishop Kopacz.
In the past year the bishop has brought a new focus to the chancery, leading the effort to reorganize and more clearly define the roles of those in leadership positions for the diocese. The leadership team has called the process re-envisioning. It includes structural changes in the chancery and leadership training opportunities for the priests through the Good Leaders Good Shepherds program as well as future work in the diocese as a whole.
He has also started to get to know his flock as individuals and communities. “So a year later, having met many, many people and having worked now with key leadership: priests, LEMs (lay ecclesial ministers) religious sisters and chancery staff, lots of other people – it’s a whole new thing when you know people by name – and now having gone through that (re-envisioning) process with the chancery I feel like I am part of something moving forward. Taking time to do what we did with re-envisioning really makes a big difference,” he said. (Readers can find a complete story about the re-envisioning process on page one of this edition.)
Bishop Kopacz said he still has work to do. “Now it’s not only touching lightly in some areas, it’s deepening that relationship with the parish communities,” he explained. “I felt that when I said hello and welcome to the priests at Good Leaders Good Shepherds. To look around the room and see 40-something priests, not only know them by name, but to know their religious communities, who is diocesan, the Indian priests, where they are – I’ve spent time with every one of them – that’s a very different experience than looking out at that body of priests at ordination. I didn’t have a clue who they were and they didn’t have a clue who I was!
“So I think there has been great relationship building. I love how Pope Francis articulates it, I think it’s true for a bishop coming into a diocese. There is a lot of dialogue, a lot of discernment, and all of that under the gaze of our loving God. Moving forward, the questions are: how do we strengthen that? How do we continue to build and work with our strengths in the diocese and yet understand that there are going to be areas that need attention? So both are at work in a really good way,” he said.
The bishop is also looking forward to getting to know the faithful in his diocese. “Going out to parishes has been another piece to this that has really helped me come to a greater knowledge and appreciation of this diocesan family that’s now 178 years old. It has an amazing history,” explained the bishop.
Among his most remarkable moments in the past year the bishop counts confirmations, Lenten prayer services and Sunday liturgies transformed by the work and spirit of those involved. He said he appreciates when volunteers put their hearts into welcoming him, getting their churches ready and preparing food for receptions. “Each of the celebrations – because there is so much variety – there are so many special moments,” he said.
In August, the bishop went to an acculturation workshop for new people coming to serve in the Diocese of Jackson. “Just to think about 44 new people coming into the diocese, that’s amazing. That’s people still coming to serve and that’s life giving. You look around that room and you think – whether it’s the priests from India or the Redemptorists or the sisters who are going to be in Camden – it just doesn’t end. The needs are great and we are constantly juggling with our leadership resources, but people keep coming,” he said. He is also very pleased and encouraged about those who are from Mississippi who step up to serve, from the newly ordained priests and seminarians from the diocese to those involved in parish leadership, there is great reason to be encouraged about the church in Mississippi.
Moving from Pennsylvania to Mississippi has taken some adjusting. Bishop Kopacz said he has been pleased with the rhythm he has been able to establish with going home to visit and he feels nicely settled into his new home. Some changes, he said, are definitely positive. “I am so geared in December and January to darkness and cold – I was in the cathedral one Sunday back a month ago and I’m walking out and what came into my mind is that in each church where I have previously served there was a bucket of ‘snow-melt,’ a shovel, a broom and a can to throw the snow-melt in the corner by the front door. So I said to Father Anthony (Quyet, rector of the cathedral), ‘where’s the snow-melt?’”
Amigo, the bishop’s beloved chocolate lab, has also found a good home in the Magnolia State. “That is a pleasant surprise too – he has adapted beautifully. He’s used to people, not other animals. And always being a homebody at the rectory,” explained the bishop. With his travel schedule, Amigo has had to make some new friends.
A couple of people have graciously stepped up to take Amigo when the bishop is on the road, including Kathie Curtis, coordinator of the Office of Youth Ministry, who also helps train service animals as part of the Gallant Hearts rescue group. A Jackson couple also dog-sits when needed. “If I just got out my calendar and looked at the last year, every day would have a moment of inspiration and gratitude,” said Bishop Kopacz.