July 9, 2010

Bishop William Higi reflects on a lifetime of ministry

Bishop William L. Higi of Lafayette greets Sharon Butler, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Fowler, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese during the May 31, 2009, celebration of the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood and the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the episcopate. (Photo courtesy of The Catholic Moment)

Bishop William L. Higi of Lafayette greets Sharon Butler, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Fowler, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese during the May 31, 2009, celebration of the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood and the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the episcopate. (Photo courtesy of The Catholic Moment)

(Editor’s note: On June 16, Criterion reporter Sean Gallagher interviewed Bishop William L. Higi for Catholic Radio Indy 89.1 FM’s show “Faith in Action.” The following is an edited transcript of that interview.)

By Sean Gallagher

LAFAYETTE—For much of his life, Bishop William L. Higi has been closely connected to the Diocese of Lafayette, which he has led for the past 26 years.

He was 11 and lived in his native Anderson, Ind., when the diocese was created in 1944—on the same day that the Diocese of Indianapolis became an archdiocese.

A few years later, Bishop Higi was a junior in high school when he became a seminarian for the Diocese of Lafayette.

Bishop John J. Carberry, the second bishop of Lafayette, who would later succeed New Albany native Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter as the Archbishop of St. Louis, ordained him to the priesthood in 1959.

Nearly 25 years later, Pope John Paul II appointed then-Father Higi as the fifth bishop of Lafayette. It was less than three months after Bishop George A. Fulcher died in an automobile accident—just 11 months after being appointed to lead the Church in north central Indiana.

Now 76, Bishop Higi is on the verge of retirement after ministering for 51 years.

On May 12, Pope Benedict XVI accepted Bishop Higi’s letter of retirement, which bishops are required by Church law to submit on their 75th birthday. On that same day, the pope appointed Msgr. Timothy L. Doherty, 59, a priest of the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., to succeed him. Since then, Bishop Higi has served as the apostolic administrator of his diocese.

Bishop-designate Doherty will be ordained and installed on July 15, the day on which Bishop Higi will truly hand over the leadership of the Lafayette Diocese that he has led for the past quarter century.

Q. You became a seminarian just four or five years after the Diocese of Lafayette was created. So you’ve been connected closely to your local Church since very early on in its 66-year history. Does that have some importance to you?

A. “Well, when you’re a kid, a diocese doesn’t mean that much to you. You’re just a member of a parish. I was aware that I belonged to the Diocese of Lafayette. But I didn’t know much about the history of it. I had been confirmed by the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the Diocese of Fort Wayne at that time, Bishop [John F.] Noll. I went off to the seminary, and pretty soon I was ordained a priest.

“There are pluses to being a local man. But I think that they are far outweighed by the negatives of it. The tradition of the Church in this country is to bring in someone to be bishop from the outside.

“That didn’t happen in my case because there was a trauma to us when our fourth bishop died in an automobile accident. And so I was pushed ahead, so to speak, rather quickly.

“It has its good points. It has its pluses. It also has its negatives to it. But it is nice to be able [to share memories] when people talk about the old days, names of priests. I remember some of those. That is a helpful part of it.”

Q. What are some of the highlights of your 26 years as a bishop and 51 years as a priest in this diocese?

A. “Well, I tend to focus on the 26 years as a bishop, of course. It’s difficult, really, to isolate one specific highlight. There have been so many moving experiences. But I tend to focus on the privilege of ordaining men to the priesthood. It’s really at the top of my list. It’s a tremendous privilege.

“I have now ordained 50 men to the priesthood—41 of them to our diocesan Church. And, in the interim between Archbishop [Edward T.] O’Meara and Archbishop [Daniel M.] Buechlein, I ordained five men for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. And it’s been my privilege to ordain four men for religious communities.

“Another experience that has been surreal to me has been the four ad limina visits that I’ve been able to make. This is when a diocesan bishop [typically once every five years] spends a week in Rome visiting the heads of the various pastoral offices there and venerating the tombs of [Saints] Peter and Paul.

“During the days of Pope John Paul II—it’s changed some under Pope Benedict XVI—there were typically five points of contact with the Holy Father. We would always have Mass with him in his private chapel. We would participate with him in his weekly audience. There would be a private meeting with the pope of 20 to 25 minutes, perhaps. We had a meal with him, which was fascinating. And then he would give a talk to the group.

“It’s a fantastic experience. I never dreamed that when I was ordained a priest that I would be walking the halls of the Vatican or celebrating Mass at the tombs of Peter and Paul. And certainly, I never dreamed that I would ever have a private visit with the Holy Father.”

Q. You were ordained a priest a year after Pope John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council. That brought about many changes in the Church in the past half century. There are other things that have stayed the same, both universally and also here at the local level.

When you became bishop in 1984, the population in Hamilton County was much less than it is now, and there were less parishes there. What it’s been like for you to experience changes in the Church?

A. “It takes a while to realize that the Church is a living organism and, because of that, it’s the same, but it changes. The core beliefs are the same, but we certainly do things differently than we did 50 years ago.

“The Mass and the sacraments are the same. But how we celebrate them has changed very significantly. Our understanding of them is quite different now. The language we use, the various roles of participation in the Mass [is different now]. The Mass, particularly, has shifted from private prayer to communal prayer. The laity, now, are very highly involved in almost all aspects of the Church.

“What hasn’t changed? Well, people are human. The need to catechize is as great as ever, maybe even more so because the cultural support for Judeo-Christian values and institutional religion has diminished very significantly with the secularization of our society.

“The basic generosity of people is still a fact of life. I often marvel at the way that people in the mid- and later part of the 19th century built the huge churches that we have with their nickels and dimes and maybe even pennies.

“But, today—you mentioned Hamilton County—the growth there has been phenomenal. It’s hard to keep up with. We straddle ourselves with significant debt. And yet, the generosity of people makes that expansion possible. And those parishes are really thriving.

“There’s a love for the Church today and there’s a desire to be a part of it and to support its mission that, I suppose, has always been there.

“But those that are involved are more deeply involved than in the past. It’s much more than just going to Mass. It’s to be involved, really, to drive the mission of the Church.

“And that mission is no longer considered the sole occupation of clergy or sisters. People see themselves as part of that mission. I think that’s a tremendous thing.”

Q. What was it like when you received the call in 1984 from the apostolic delegate to tell you that the pope had appointed you as the new bishop of Lafayette?

A. “Well, it didn’t come at the best time. I had been elected administrator of the diocese after the death of Bishop Fulcher. But I also had a small parish 70 miles north of here, in a little place called Lake Village. I would go up on Friday evenings, and I’d come back on mid-afternoon on Monday.

“And several things had gone wrong. And I got this phone call. It sounded to me like someone was trying to imitate a poor Italian accent. I thought it was a priest down the road. And if I had said to that caller what I was thinking, I wouldn’t have been chosen as bishop, I’m quite sure.

“I tried to demur. I had worked closely with two bishops, and I thought that I had some idea of what was involved. Even that was kind of naïve because it’s one thing to sit in judgment of someone who is a bishop, and it’s another thing to sit there with the ring on and try to have to make decisions. There’s just no way that you can meet the expectations that the people have.

“And so I didn’t think that I had what it took. But I was reminded that when I was ordained a priest, I had made a promise of obedience. I had, in effect, pledged that I would accept whatever I was asked to do for the good of the Church as discerned by my superiors. I never really dreamed that the pope would be the one making those kind of decisions for me.

“So, in my efforts to wiggle through this thing with the conviction that I didn’t think it was a good idea, I asked if I could consult with the archbishop [of Indianapolis]. And that was the biggest mistake that I could have made because Archbishop O’Meara was very much involved in my selection, I’m sure.

“At any rate, I was told, ‘You have three days and then you get back to me.’ So I made an appointment to go see Archbishop O’Meara. Of course, he knew I was coming. And we had a meal together. And when the evening was over, he placed a call to Archbishop [Pio] Laghi [the apostolic delegate] saying, ‘The answer is “Yes, he has accepted.” ’

“I’ve come, over the 26 years, to believe that God really was calling me to this position. And a person does his best and the rest is in the hands of God.”

Q. What are your thoughts about the challenges and opportunities that are currently before the Church here in the Diocese of Lafayette and in Indiana as a whole?

A. “Well, the economy is a huge concern right now. The automobile industry was once a huge part of north central Indiana. At one time, I think General Motors employed some 25,000 people in my hometown of Anderson. General Motors doesn’t exist in Anderson anymore.

“Marion, Kokomo, Muncie—they all thrived because of the automobile industry. That’s a big concern.

“Hispanic ministry is a big one, too. Finding a way to integrate Hispanics and Latinos into our Catholic schools is imperative. But it’s no easy challenge to figure out how we’re going to do that. Just providing ministry to Hispanics is a huge, huge challenge.

“Catechesis is another great issue. So many people just don’t really understand their Catholic faith, the call to holiness, the values of Jesus Christ in this society that’s ever-more secularized. The secular media has a tremendous impact on how people think, what they accept as the truth and the voice of the Church. It’s tough to compete with that influence. So that is a great concern.

“Ministry to an aging population is also a biggie. We’re living longer. I think it’s one of the most revolutionary events of my lifetime.

“And then there’s always the issue of men for the priesthood. We’re very blessed in this diocese. Per capita, we may be toward the top of the country. … And yet, we’re not at replacement levels. So that’s also a big concern.”

Q. What are your hopes for the future of the Lafayette Diocese and Bishop-designate Doherty. And what plans do you have for yourself after July 15?

A. “I have great optimism for the future. Bishop Doherty will bring a fresh vision. He’ll bring energy. He’s only 59 years old. He’ll bring energy that I don’t have anymore. And he’ll bring a different experience of the Church. And, in my judgment, I think that’s going to be exciting.

“I told him that I can see areas of benevolent neglect. Well, if I can see that, he’s going to see a lot of that. And so there will be change. I think intellectually that I’m eager for that to happen. So I look to the future with enthusiasm.

“We had a very blessed moment here. The bishop-elect has spent some time here, several days at a time since the announcement. And on the Feast of the Sacred Heart [June 11], we celebrated Mass together in the bishop’s residence. There was just the two of us there.

“And the readings that day were like a job description of a bishop. And I became rather emotional and was saying to myself, ‘Thank you, God, that you have sent this man who’s standing next to me.’

“I want to help him in any way that he sees appropriate for me. I’m staying in Lafayette. I’ve got a little duplex. My intent is to make myself available to help priests so that they can get away.”

Q. What’s it been like for you to come to know and minister alongside, first, Archbishop O’Meara—he was the man who ordained you to the episcopate—and Archbishop Buechlein?

A. “Archbishop O’Meara was always so pleasant. I was always amazed at how filled with energy he seemed to be in the mornings.

“I was at his home several times for breakfast. My goodness. He was just full of energy.

“I have very, very deep admiration for Archbishop Buechlein. I think he’s been a great bishop. He’s played on the national scene, too, and has played important roles in the bishops’ conference.

“He has been a true brother, and I’m most grateful to him. I was particularly taken by his solicitation and support given at the time of The Indianapolis Star exposé of the diocese, accusing us of all kind of irregularities relative to clerical sexual abuse.

“It was about 10 years ago, and was a combination of some truth and a great deal of manipulation. It was filled with a lot of fabrications. But it was a very painful time. And it turned out to be a blessing in disguise to me because it awakened me to the issue rather early on. We then took steps to put us on the cutting edge, well ahead of the ‘Charter for the Protection of Children [and Young People].’

“But the archbishop was very, very supportive of me—he has been in everything—but especially at that time.”

(To listen to a podcast of the complete interview with Bishop Higi, log on to www.catholicradioindy.org and click on “program archives” for Faith in Action at the bottom of the homepage.)

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