By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
What a difference a year makes for anyone of us, and never has this been more true in my life since setting out for Jackson last year at this time to prepare for my ordination and installation as the 11th Bishop of this amazing diocese on February 6th. One year ago today I was loading up my Subaru Forester to the max in anticipation of the 1200-mile trek from the Northeast to the Deep South. It was a time of great anticipation along with a fair dose of anxiety and trepidation.
I mentioned to a few of the Chancery Staff over the last week that the time surrounding the one-year anniversary of my ordination is a lot less stressful than the same time last year. They could not agree more. The planning required for a bishop’s ordination is enormous and the time frame in which to do it is compact. Remember, a diocese typically waits a year for the announcement of a new bishop, and when it finally happens the Apostolic Nuncio arranges the date for the ordination, and or installation.
It’s not exactly mission impossible, but it does consume the time and talent of the diocesan staff and many others from the moment of the announcement to day of the ordination/installation. Kudos to the staff and volunteers who organized such a splendid celebration!
However, beneath the flurry of activity were the deeper blessings. Many people from the Diocese of Scranton and from the Diocese of Jackson were praying ardently for me and for all involved in this transition. The liturgy of ordination and all of the logistics in support of the pilgrims from afar, and the local groups of religious, civic attendees appeared to me to flow seamlessly.
Of course, what did I know; I was in the cloud of unknowing, in other words, in a fog. The deeper blessings, of course, flowed from our faith, hope, and love in the Lord Jesus, and his eternal love for his body, the church, and the great joy that the people of our diocese had in welcoming me as their new shepherd.
As I look back from the one-year perch, I cannot help but be amazed. Scrolling through the year’s calendar rekindles the library of memories that have become the foundation on which to build. Of course, there are the liturgical celebrations of Lent, Holy Week and Easter. They are so inspiring, and the Chrism Mass on Tuesday of Holy Week allowed me to celebrate with priests, religious, lay ecclesial leadership, and laity from around the diocese who come to gather around their bishop and receive the holy oils for anointing in the sacramental life of their parishes.
I soon realized that the Easter season is perhaps the most active time of year for a diocesan bishop. The confirmation schedule commences and the road trips took me to many corners of the diocese. Each pastoral visit was an opportunity to meet and celebrate with the particular parish communities. High school graduations and priests’ anniversaries of ordination became one blessed opportunity after another to enter more deeply into the life of the diocese. In the midst of these celebrations the ordination of three priests for our diocese was a singular moment.
I had never studied a ritual so carefully in order to assure a valid outcome. This time of year was marked also by the priests’ retreat, a gathering with the regional bishops in Covington, La., and my first national meeting with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in New Orleans.
As you run these events through your mind’s eye, I think you get the picture that a bishop’s settling into a diocese happens one brick at a time with each encounter. Along with getting to know the bishops from near and far, many events have given me the opportunity to know our corps of seminarians who are discerning the Lord’s call in their lives. Pray for them as they pray for you.
In harmony with all of the scheduled sacramental celebrations at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle and throughout the diocese, I have been able to make pastoral visits to many of our parishes and ministries across the 65 counties that comprise the Diocese of Jackson. Between my car and hitching a ride with others at times, I have amassed about 30,000 miles for the year. (This doesn’t include two occasions on which I could fly around.) Steadily I have been able to participate in the pastoral life of many of our parishes, and the goal is to visit all sites in as timely a fashion as is possible. These pastoral visits establish the spiritual bond that a bishop must have with the People of God entrusted to him which is intended to be pastoral and personal.
In the midst of this pastoral activity across 2014 I was able to arrange for vacation time back in the Northeast, and a few friends were able to visit from the home area. I must say that patterns of my pastoral ministry, leisure, and vacation jelled rather well throughout the first year for not having much of a road map with which to begin. A daily part of my leisure time, of course, is my regular walks and playing with my goofy Labrador Retriever. He is good for the nerves.
For the companion article that is part of this week’s edition, I was asked if I am happy in my new life. How does a person measure his or her state of happiness? I can say that after one year as your bishop I have ample motivation, energy, and enthusiasm for my ministry as your bishop, sprinkled with a steady state of peace and calm on most days.
So, I guess I can say that I am happy. I am grateful to have been called to serve in an area I knew not, but have grown to love in a short period of time.
I look ahead with trust, hope, and love as we journey together as the People of God in the Diocese of Jackson into an unknown future where the Lord Jesus awaits us.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz