By Joanna Puddister King
JACKSON – The late Bishop Emeritus Joseph N. Latino, retired bishop of Jackson, who died May 28 at the age of 83 is remembered as a gentle and humble shepherd.
A native of New Orleans, Bishop Latino was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of New Orleans at St. Louis Cathedral on May 25, 1963. During his priesthood, Bishop Latino served in parishes in New Orleans, Metairie, Houma and Thibodaux. When the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux was formed in 1977, he remained in the new diocese and served in many capacities including chancellor and vicar general. In 1983, Pope John Paul II named him a Prelate of Honor with the title of Monsignor.
He was appointed the 10th Bishop of Jackson on Jan. 3, 2003 and was installed on March 7, 2003 in the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Jackson, the place of his final resting place.
Msgr. Elvin Sunds, who served as vicar general for nine years under Bishop Latino and enjoyed his friendship for many years afterward, described him as a “humble, gentle and kind bishop.”
In his homily at a prayer vigil for Bishop Latino on June 8 at the Cathedral, Msgr. Sunds spoke about Bishop Latino’s episcopal motto – Ut Unum Sint – “that all may be one.”
The motto came from the Gospel passage of John that was read at the vigil, explained Msgr. Sunds. “In that Gospel Jesus is praying for his disciples, and he also prays, ‘For those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us.’”
“Jesus’ prayer is that through the proclaiming of the Gospel, may we all share together in the life of God as one. That was the motto and the focus of Bishop Latino’s episcopal ministry. He wanted all of us to be one in Christ Jesus. He promoted that unity in Christ,” said Msgr. Sunds.
During his years as bishop, Bishop Latino fostered Gospel-based social justice initiatives, lay leadership and vocations. During his tenure the office for the Protection of Children was established to help insure a safe environment for children in our churches, schools and communities.
Msgr. Sunds described Bishop Latino’s social justice work mentioning that he publicly addressed such issues as racism, the rights of immigrants, care for the poor, the death penalty, and the right to life of the unborn during his tenure.
Bishop Latino’s nephew and godson, Martin Joseph Latino delivered remarks about ‘Uncle Joe’ at the vigil service sharing stories of humor, of mystery and a little bit about his favorite movie “A Man for All Seasons.”
It is still as mystery to Martin Latino how his Uncle Joe was able to call him in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At the time, Latino was the chief director of safety and was with the Mandeville Fire Department. With all of the cell towers down in the area, no one was able to receive any calls, but Uncle Joe got through.
“His message to me that day was don’t lose heart. Work hard. Restore your community. Be a leader and keep everyone safe. … I still to this day do not know how he was able to get through,” said Latino.
In attendance at the Mass of Christian Burial on June 9, were bishops from around the region with Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of the Archdiocese of Mobile as celebrant, along with the priests of the Diocese of Jackson, seminarians, deacons and the people of the diocese. In his opening remarks, Archbishop Rodi extended his sympathy to Bishop Latino’s family, Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz and the people of the Diocese of Jackson.
“We gather here in sorrow over the loss of a powerful presence of a good man, a good priest, a good bishop, who in so many ways in his ministry blessed the people first in Louisiana, then in Mississippi,” said Archbishop Rodi.
During his homily at the funeral Mass, Bishop Kopacz recollected his first encounter with Bishop Latino seven and a half years ago at the Jackson airport. He recalled Bishop Latino smiling “to know he had a successor that was real,” laughed Bishop Kopacz. From that point the two grew in their friendship over the years and he shared stories of Bishop Latino’s background and interactions they had over the years through his last one hours before Bishop Latino’s death.
“My final encounter with Bishop Latino was sitting at his bedside within hours of his death, softly saying the rosary and praying … as he slowly passed from this world to the next. I spoke the words that he no longer could,” shared Bishop Kopacz.
He also gave thanks for Bishop Latino’s trustworthy service for nearly six decades, through times of strength and his experiences of accepting the changes in his health.
“In his retirement at times he grieved the physical limitations that prevented him from serving more actively in the diocese. But at the foot of the Cross, his ministry of prayer and presence was a treasure for us. And his early monastic formation served him well in his later years. He could be in that state for prayer and through it all he trusted in the Lord, who called him forth from his youth and in holy fear he grew old in God,” said Bishop Kopacz.
Diocesan chancellor, Mary Woodward also spoke at the vigil service on her special friendship with Bishop Latino, as he lifted up her talents, supported her and mentored her. The two of them, along with Bishop Houck, who passed in 2016, traveled to Rome many times. Woodward described the last trip they had to Rome for an ‘ad limina,’ where they also added a trip to Sicily to the Latino family’s ancestral hometown of Contessa Entellina.
Woodward described Bishop Latino as “energized” by the trip and said that he was excited that he would be able to celebrate a private Mass in the home church of his grandparents. “But when the doors opened the church was packed with the townspeople coming to see this bishop from America,” Woodward mused.
Bishop Latino was always there for her and she for him, making sure he was “ok” until the end of his earthly life, just as the women in the Gospel wanted to do for Jesus.
Most did not know that Bishop Latino was in constant pain for the last 40 years. “He had nerve pain in his legs and it never subsided,” said Woodward. “He bore that Cross with such grace and elegance.”
Through many surgeries over the years to help relieve the pain, Woodward often felt like a “cheerleader” who was there to “help him carry the Cross.”
“And that last day, … I felt like I went from helping him carry the Cross to being at the foot of the Cross. … It was a beautiful witness to ‘I’m in God’s hands. God’s going to take care of me. It’s ok,’” said Woodward who was with Bishop Latino up until his passing.
“I don’t ever think that I could say in a few minutes the profound impact he has had on me and on all of us.”
Woodward also took great care in organizing Bishop Latino’s vigil and Mass of Christian Burial, making sure all elements he wanted were included. As an “opera aficionado,” Woodward made sure to include some opera. During the vigil, Woodward included a piece from Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. The significance being that Bishop Latino would come in most mornings into their shared office humming that tune. She even had to step away during the vigil upon hearing it.
“The witness of his life, the witness of him carrying that pain was something that strengthens me and I feel very privileged to have been able to walk that journey with him. I will be forever changed,” said Woodward.
“Well done, good and faithful servant.”