(Editor’s note: Below is the homily that Bishop Kopacz delivered at the Mass of Christian Burial for Bishop Joseph N. Latino on June 9, 2021.)
By Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz, D.D.
My first encounter with Bishop Latino was at the airport in Jackson when I arrived the night before I was announced as the 11th Bishop of Jackson on Dec. 12, 2013. He was there to welcome me. He had a very broad smile knowing that his successor was real and had arrived. His gracious and welcoming spirit remained constant over these past seven and a half years in many ways. There were some light moments even before arriving. Some mistook his middle name, Nunzio, for Nuncio, and they thought I was following the Apostolic Delegate. Others observed that my facility with the Spanish language will serve me well because I was replacing a Latino. Oh well.
Ut Unum Sint – That all may be one
The unity that Bishop Latino’s episcopal motto proclaimed is at the center of the great priestly prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. This prayer has its source and summit in the unity that Jesus Christ has with the Father and the Holy Spirit, a mystery woven throughout the Gospel of John that so inspired Bishop Latino as seen in his Gospel selection for today’s Mass. The Gospel of John begins sublimely: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
In the middle of the Gospel at the Last Supper the washing of the feet commences with the bold assertion that “Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from his supper, laid aside his garments, and tied a towel around himself.”
Toward the end of the Gospel on the night of the resurrection Jesus breathed into his apostles the gift of the Holy Spirit, after embracing them in peace and saying to them, “as the Father has sent me so I send you.” His apostles, anointed in the Holy Spirit and consecrated in the truth for mission, were sent to preach the Gospel as a living body, in all of their diversity. They were one!
In his Episcopal motto and in his choice of the Gospel for today’s funeral liturgy, we find the core of Bishop Latino’s vocation to the priesthood culminating in his consecration as the 10th Bishop of Jackson.
Today’s Gospel passage is under the heading “The authority of the Son of God.” “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life … For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.”
There is no doubt that Bishop Latino lived his priestly vocation with a deep sense of the Lord’s call and authority over his life. Throughout his 58 years and two days in the priesthood of Jesus Christ he served with the heart of the Good Shepherd, to build up his body, the church, for the salvation of all, with that graciousness we heard at the end of the passage from Thessalonians: “Encourage one another, and build one another up.”
Like the prophet Jeremiah he felt the Lord’s call to the priesthood from his youth. Like Jeremiah, there were daunting challenges as one can expect when coming forward to serve the Lord as the Book of Sirach soberly states, but once Bishop Latino put his hand to the plow he did not look back.
He was ordained in 1963 in the middle of the Second Vatican Council. Just when he thought he had all the answers after 12 years of seminary formation, in a matter of two or three years, the church and the world changed most of the questions. Obviously, he dug deeper and in the words of Sirach he set his heart and remained steadfast, by the grace of God.
Forty years later, after steadfastly serving in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and in the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux as vicar general and pastor of the Cathedral for many years, he was anticipating downsizing in his priestly duties, so to speak, like maybe a smaller parish. Oh well!
The phone rang; he took the call, and answered the call, and once again he set his heart right and remained steadfast, and moved north to become the 10th Bishop of this amazing diocese.
Bishop Latino had come forward to serve the Lord early in life, and steadfastness endured as a defining virtue of his character and his priesthood, a mindset that motivated him to work in the Lord’s vineyard in a variety of pastoral ministries, to achieve that unity for which the Lord Jesus prayed and laid down his life. Over his ten years as Bishop of Jackson, the Lord brought forth new growth, fruit that lasts to this present moment. Of course, in his unassuming matter he might say, I just stayed out of God’s way.
St. Pope John Paul II on the occasion of his 50th anniversary of ordination wrote a reflection on his priesthood entitled, Gift and Mystery. In chapter seven, he asks: Who is the Priest? What does it mean to be a priest?
He recalled the words of St. Paul. “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Now it is required of stewards that they should be found trustworthy.” (1Cor. 4:1-2)
We give joyful thanks for Bishop Latino’s trustworthy service for nearly six decades, for years in the fullness of his strength and as time passed accepting the changes in his health that humbled him, in the words of Sirach, our first reading.
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. His early monastic formation served him well in his later years. Through it all he trusted in the Lord who called him from his youth, and in holy fear, grew old in God.
My final encounter with Bishop Latino was sitting at his bedside within hours of his death, softly saying the rosary and praying the Night Prayer, as he slowly passed from this world to the next. I spoke the words that he no longer could.
Now, Master, you let your servant go in peace. You have fulfilled your promise.
My own eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples.
A light to all the nations; the glory of your people Israel.
This is the cornerstone of Night Prayer that all priests offer at day’s end, reminding us of who is the master, and whose glory is at work.
I trust that as Bishop Latino’s body wasted away, his inner self was being renewed every day, in the words of St. Paul. What is seen is transitory, what is unseen is eternal.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual life shine upon. May he rest in peace. Amen.
May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.