Sunday, June 11, 2017

Bishop David Choby, Pastor

I was nervous when I first met him. It was the spring of 2008, the last leg in the hiring process to become headmaster of Pope John Paul II High School in Nashville.  I was pretty sure my Iphone had given me bad GPS directions, as it landed me in a neighborhood somewhere in Hendersonville, TN, eighteen miles north of the Chancery.  I came to a cul-de-sac, and I sat there in my car, staring at a two story home, uncertain. I decided to ring the doorbell. An older man answered the door, wearing casual clothes. I remember stammering. “I am probably in the wrong place.” “Probably not,” he said with a smile. “Are you  Faustin?” “Yes, are you Bishop Choby?” “I am”, he said warmly. “Welcome to my home. Want some coffee?”

The interview was nothing like I expected. He never asked me about my philosophy of Catholic education, how I intended to run the school, the kind of teachers I might hire. Instead, he wanted to know about my wife and kids. He asked me what would make the move from Montgomery, Al difficult, and I told him that my wife’s parents, who lived there, were sick. He was very interested in them (and I remember three months later, when he first met my wife, he immediately asked her how they were doing.) I did most of the talking.  At the end of our meeting, he stood up, gave me his cell phone number and said, “If you need anything, call me. Welcome to Nashville.”

Whatever anxiety I had about leaving my previous school of 23 years and moving to Nashville vanished that morning.

Because he was so accessible, and because he moved to a house literally in front of the high school, I came to know Bishop Choby well during my seven year tenure as headmaster of the school. He was a guy’s guy--he never liked talking about his physical health which had begun to fail him--and he’d quickly dismiss any concern directed to that end. He was a true southern gentleman, raised in Nashville, which meant he spoke VERY slowly, but that belied an agile mind, and he was careful with what he said and didn’t say, cognizant that he was bishop. He saw humor in things, and with a twinkle in his eye and a modest smile, could tell an excellent story. Even so, though he was always the most important person in the room, you got the sense he didn’t think that way about himself, evidencing a true Christian humility, listening well to what others had to say, and in so doing, challenging through his example those of us who (like me) talk too much.

When my wife’s father died in 2010,  Bishop Choby called me on my cell phone and asked if he could talk to her. He told her he was sorry for her loss, and consoled her, saying he’d pray for her and her family.  I remember her family was stunned when she told them that was the Bishop of Nashville she was just on the phone with,  and that he was praying for them. He did the same thing when her mother died in 2011, and then again with me, when my father passed in 2014. Perhaps for those who have grown accustomed to his leadership as bishop, these kind of outreaches do not seem as remarkable as they truly are, but such was his “style” and the constancy of his pastoral care.

He rarely substituted his judgment for those whom he hired in Church ministry, allowing the various ministries within the diocese to run as their leadership saw fit.  He trusted Therese Williams, my boss as superintendent of Catholic schools, Bill Whelan, the CFO of the archdiocese, and perhaps most of all, his pastors at the local parishes.  He trusted me as headmaster, and my colleagues at Father Ryan, Jim McIntyre and Paul Davis. Allowing the diocese to be run as independent institutions occasionally led to messiness and some inefficiencies, but I think he made the deliberate choice to live with some of that because he honored the principle of subsidiarity and had faith in his people. I certainly felt his faith in me as leader of Pope John Paul II High School and reveled in the freedom he gave us to create a unique, interesting, and in the end, excellent Catholic school.

We are tempted today to measure leadership purely by the number of programs someone starts, or by efficiency measures, or by quantifiable results. Bishop Choby was not that kind of a leader, and though he never said so to me directly, I am pretty sure he abhorred any notion of a “business template” as a measure of Church ministry. Instead, he was first and foremost a priest and a pastor, which meant he cared about people and relationships before anything else, and gave himself to others, one person at a time.

The diocese of Nashville lost a good bishop and a really good man on June 3. But I suspect many would say, as I do, that they lost a very good friend as well. May God reward him generously for a life well lived.

Monday, May 29, 2017

"The Zeal to Spread the Sacred Fire"

Note: These are my reflections as part of our faculty prayer upon the completion of our first year as a high school.  

This is a portrait of Michael Portier, the first bishop of Mobile.  He is one of the three reasons Archbishop Rodi chose the name “Michael” in the creation of St. Michael Catholic High School. I am guessing the picture reflects Portier in his later years, as he is a bit heavier than was probable given the demands of his early life as bishop. 

He was born in 1795 in France, and came to the United States to become a priest in 1817. He was ordained at the age of 25, made “Vicar Apostolic” of Florida and Alabama at 32, and named bishop of Alabama and Florida at the age of 34. Our diocese began with him as our first bishop in 1829. To put that in perspective, Florida and Alabama are now 9 different dioceses. In the beginning he was the only priest of the entire 2 state area, and had three primary Catholic communities to care for in Mobile, Pensacola and St. Augustine. 

By the telling of Oscar H. Lipscomb, then Ph.D. candidate in history and later himself the archbishop of Mobile,  early travel back and forth between the three towns was quite difficult. The trip to St. Augustine required both sailing and hiking, a two week journey from Mobile. Mosquitos were a constant nemesis—Lipscomb recounts a letter in which Portier complains that “one could scarcely open one’s mouth without swallowing them” — and when he slept on the trail he had to wrap himself so tightly that only his nose protruded from his clothing, making it dreadfully uncomfortable with the heat and humidity, prompting Portier to write “the heat was bothersome, but of the two evils, one must choose the lesser.”  He relied heavily on the hospitality of non-Catholics during these trips, often lodging in their homes on the trail. Long before the anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothings and the KKK in the middle 1800’s, Portier was of an ecumenical mindset: "Respecting sincerity of belief wherever he found it,” Lipscomb writes,  “he did not hesitate to praise the outstanding qualities that faiths other than his own engendered in his hardy hosts.”  (The Administration of Michael Portier, Oscar H. Lipscomb, 1963)

Early during his tenure, Portier went back to France to recruit priests to help him in his work, and brought back five, the most famous of whom was Fr. Loras, whom Portier appointed as the first president of Spring Hill College in 1830 and who later became bishop of Dubuque, Iowa.  Times were tough --there was very little money.  Yellow fever epidemics were common. In fact, the site for Spring Hill College was chosen because of its elevation, in hope to avoid the mosquito driven sicknesses so common in marshy, coastal waters. Bishop Portier worked hard. When he started Spring Hill College, a newspaper reported that “the good bishop, with axe in hand, was always in the lead”. 

He was blessed with good health during most of his ministry.  When he was made bishop, 
reflecting on his unworthiness to be called “successor to the apostles,” he  quipped that his “health was his only apostolic quality.” He lived simply in a two room wooden house in Mobile, and the first “cathedral” was a small church that was 20 feet wide and 50 feet deep. But through his faith, hard work and the blessings of grace, the Church in this area slowly grew, and in 1837 he commissioned the building a new Cathedral, which was finished in 1850 and named “Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.” That basic Cathedral, with some improvements, still exists today.  Bishop Portier lived until he was 63, dying in 1859. He was bishop of Mobile for thirty years, 1829-1859.

As the first principal of the high school named in his honor, I was particularly moved by his pledge to God during his ordination. Prostrate on the floor as part of the ceremony, Portier recounts that “I made a promise to God of strict fidelity, of devotion to his glory until death, and of constant zeal to spread everywhere the sacred fire. “

The notion of our faith as a “sacred fire,” I think, is a very compelling one. In Scripture, fire has always been an indication of God’s mighty, intimate presence—the burning bush of Moses, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the Red Sea, the tongues of fire that came upon the apostles at Pentecost. And I think it’s a very good image for us, too, in understanding the work we are doing at St. Michael. We are continuing the work of Bishop Poitier, continuing the work of the apostles and our Church, spreading the sacred fire. We are making God present and active in the life of our students and our families. 

So let FIRE be our focus of this morning's prayer service—that this fire, first of all, burns deeply in us, so that we may share this fire authentically and zealously with our students. May God continue to bless St. Michael Catholic High School as we begin deliberations for our second year. And may it --may He through us--ignite a wildfire throughout all of Baldwin County!