March 12, 2010
There are many ways to remember Bishop John B. McDowell, our beloved auxiliary bishop who died February 25 at age 88 just months shy of the 65th anniversary of his priestly ordination and quickly approaching the 45th anniversary of his ordination as a Bishop. He was a devoted educator, a brilliant scholar, an inspiring preacher, an insightful counselor, a beloved friend.
He was also a wee bit frisky.
Thirty-five years ago, when I was a “wet behind the ears” newly ordained priest at Sacred Heart Parish in Shadyside, there were no telephone answering machines. As the young priest on the “totem pole” it was my duty to take calls on Saturdays. Saturday night duty meant answering all phone calls until early Sunday morning. You, my readers, could never guess how many phone calls came in during the night with the question: “What time are your Sunday Masses?” The story has it that sometime before my arrival at Sacred Heart, Bishop McDowell was there and answered the phone at 1:30 a.m. Bishop McDowell politely explained to the caller that he was a visiting priest and he would have to find out the Mass times. He then asked the caller’s number and if he might call back. Bishop McDowell then set his own clock for 3:00 a.m., went to sleep and when the alarm went off, phoned his earlier caller and informed the groggy fellow of the Mass times.
Auxiliary Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1966 until his death, Bishop McDowell was a giant of the Church and a national figure in Catholic education. He was instrumental in writing one of the most important statements on religious education in the years after the Second Vatican Council, the United States bishops’ pastoral statement, “To Teach as Jesus Did.” Pope John Paul II praised the document and its theme in a talk to America’s bishops when he first visited the United States as Pope in 1979 .
In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, he was superintendent of our schools when they reached the pinnacle of their enrollment, as Archbishop Donald Wuerl recalled in his inspiring comments at the end of the Mass of Christian Burial for Bishop McDowell on Thursday, March 4.
I remember Bishop McDowell as a friend and advisor who loved the Church of Pittsburgh, loved his fellow priests, and lovingly served the faithful for so many years as a pastor.
But when I think of all these roles and ministries he served so well, I realize that it was in and through the totality of his priesthood that he became of the sum of these many parts. Bishop McDowell lovingly embraced his priesthood, and lived out his priesthood every moment of his life.
I was at a planning meeting shortly after Bishop McDowell’s death. We were discussing an upcoming Symposium on the Priesthood which we are planning to hold in the Diocese before this year is out. One of those in attendance said that the goal of such a Symposium must be to “ennoble the priesthood”—that the priesthood cannot be something pedestrian or commonplace, but it is to be treated as nobility.
When he said that, I was reminded of a homily Bishop McDowell had given at the close of a convocation in the diocese years ago. He told a story of a French noble and his son in the 17th Century. The son had become far too immersed with the honors and baubles of a young man growing up in a noble family. The father decided, Bishop McDowell said, that the son needed a lesson. He sent him off to live a year with the poor, and to come home with a simple understanding: noblesse oblige. It literally translates from the French: “nobility obliges”—“nobility obliges” that one can be no less than a servant especially to the poorest of the poor. Bishop McDowell reminded us priests at that convocation that the nobility of the priesthood, the nobility of Christ Himself, requires that we be no less than servants—“noblesse oblige.”
More than anything else, Bishop McDowell encapsulated and lived the nobility of the priesthood and what it obliges. It is rooted in the very nobility of Christ Himself and lived out in the threefold ministry Bishop McDowell embraced: to teach, lead and sanctify.
He was a teacher and as a teacher he knew that the nobility of Christ obliged him to catechize, and to make certain that all the People of God, and especially persons with disabilities, had a right to a solid education in the faith.
He was a leader as superintendant for Catholic education, where he knew that the nobility of Christ obliged him to follow the path of Jesus and to lead others along that path to learn from Jesus the teacher.
He was a sanctifier—he knew that the nobility of Christ obliged him to bring as many people as possible closer to God inclusive of the well over 100,000 young people whom he confirmed in his years as bishop.
Bishop McDowell in his 88 years of life testified to the nobility of Christ’s priesthood that obliges all people, those baptized and those also ordained, to follow the nobility of Christ, a nobility that obliges each of us in turn to be a servant for others as Christ was Servant.
That obligation comes to us all in Baptism. The nobility of Christ obliges each of us through our baptismal call to teach by evangelization, by our outreach to others; to lead, by bringing others to Christ by our Christ-like example; and to sanctify others through our prayers for them.
You and I have lost a priest and bishop of deep faith and a generous heart who used his God-given gifts for the good of the Church. His life blessed us in so many ways.
“I learned about God,” Bishop McDowell wrote in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Catholic School Educator. “That made my life. Friends came and faded away, but when I learned about Him and became a friend of God, I could not get Him and his family out of my mind. As I look over my life, I realize that I had my share of problems, but I also had the best of everything. I have been one of the luckiest persons in the world.”
Yes indeed! “Noblesse Oblige” was more than just a story in Bishop McDowell’s life. It was indeed the story of his life! May he rest in the glory of God.