Remembering two prophetic bishops

Remembering two prophetic bishops
By Dr. John A. Dick, from Another Voice:

On April 4th, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a Detroit, Michigan Catholic bishop, passed from this life. He was 94. Gumbleton became a national religious figure in the 1960s when he was urged by activist priests to oppose the United States’ role in the Vietnam War.

Tom, as friends knew him, was a founding leader of Pax Christi USA and a prophetic leader in the US Catholic peace movement. I first met him when I was a high school student at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary, where he had been a student. We met periodically over the years.

As Robert Mickens, Editor at La Croix International, wrote on April 06, 2024: “Tom Gumbleton was a friend and defender of the poor, the imprisoned, and the sexually abused, as well as those discriminated against because of their skin color, sexual orientation or female gender.”

Detroit’s strongly conservative Cardinal Edmund Szoka (Archbishop of Detroit from 1981 to 1990) and his conservative successors marginalized Gumbleton to the point that he eventually became the pastor of a parish of Detroit’s poorest and most run-down urban neighborhoods. He was still living there in a nearby apartment up to the day he died.

Tom Gumbleton’s death reminded me of the other Michigan Catholic bishop who was also a graduate of Sacred Heart Seminary and a very good friend: Kenneth Untener. On March 27, 2004, Ken, who was Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, died of leukemia. In many ways he was my hero as well as my good friend. His death on March 27th at age 66 also coincided with my 61st birthday.

When Ken first came to Saginaw in 1980, he introduced himself to the people of Saginaw in the city hall. “Hello, I’m Ken and I’m going to be your waiter.” He loved to tell the following story: One day he was walking down the street toward a church with his genuine $12 shepherd’s staff in hand. “Look, Mom,” cried an 8-year-old girl, “there goes a shepherd,” and indeed Ken was exactly that.

Ken was “one of the few bishops for all those alienated women in the church and for liberal Catholics,” wrote Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, then editor of America magazine, at the time of Ken’s death. “These people could look at him and say, ‘Yes, there is someone in the hierarchy who is sensitive to our views and is willing to speak out.’ In that kind of prophetic role you won’t get your way most of the time, but you know five or 10 years from now, what people call outlandish may be accepted as normal. He was a point man, and it seems the point man always gets hit first.”

A year before his priesthood ordination in 1963 Ken broke his right leg playing handball. Because he had a genetically deformed ankle, doctors removed the entire leg below the knee. Ken never regretted the amputation. “A deformed leg,” Ken later said “was socially awkward. A wooden leg is not. … You can kid about it. But the experience of my leg was most valuable to me. I think I know something of what it’s like to be the only woman in a room of men or the only black among whites. I know what it’s like to be noticed. I’ve been made sensitive to that.” Nor did the loss of his leg impair his dedication to golf and hockey, games he indulged in with a lively competitiveness throughout his career.

I conclude this meditative reflection with a prayer that continues to inspire and motivate me.

“Prophets of a Future Not Our Own,” was written by Ken Untener in 1979. It was originally written by Ken not as a prayer but as part of a homily to be given by Cardinal John Dearden in 1979, at the annual Mass for deceased priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit, Michigan.

It helps now and then to step back
and take the long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime
only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise
that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection;
no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds
that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations
that will need further development.
We provide yeast
that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and do it very well.
It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter
and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.

A Meditative Reflection: Remembering Two Prophetic BishopsBy Dr. John A. Dick, historical theologian, posted April 17, 2024, in Another Voice