Bishops haven’t had a good press recently, sometimes deservedly so, at other times drawn-in to controversy on a wave of popular hearsay. Either way it is a difficult task requiring a particular skill set that few of us could manage.
Some bishops are good administrators, others write well, yet others ‘know their priests’. Each bring to their particular table something of their life experience, the consequence of their journey that has led them to diocesan responsibility.
Above all, the role of a Bishop is pastoral, exercising a caring voice for the needs of those Christians gathered about them. Such men are few and far between but when they do appear their qualities are recognisable to all and sundry.
One such man was a Bishop in the far western US State of Washington, serving first as Bishop of Helena, Montana, before being appointed Archbishop of Seattle, Washington’s principal city, in 1975. There he remained until retirement in 1991. They were to be eventful years, turbulent yet always pastorally centred on the people that he made his community.
Very much a bishop formed by the experience of attending all four sessions of the Council during his time at Helena, he brought back to the States a vision of the Church that was full of hope and joy. It was a vision that in spite of later difficulties, never left him as he attempted to show to others the message of the Beatitudes that were inspirational in his own life.
It was around the strong thread of the Beatitudes that his long- time friend and pastor at the cathedral of St James, Michael Ryan, developed his homily at Hunthausen’s Requiem mass offered in the cathedral nearly four weeks ago at the beginning of August. Without pretence or fuss, this Archbishop showed how much he cared by the way he carried out his daily tasks, be it in his ministry to the LGBT community or in his outspoken protest of nuclear weapons. He had within his diocesan boundary, the naval base for the US Trident submarine force. His vocal concern over the morality of such weapons was emphasised by his refusal to pay half of his Federal taxes. He was in trouble on both counts, with the Vatican and the Government. Yet with dogged determination he stood firm by his Christian conviction and accepted the consequences.
When, on assuming the position as Archbishop of Seattle in a crowded Civic auditorium, he stepped up to the podium to address the people, he paused, asking those present to pray for him. That same image of humility was to occur again in Rome in March five years ago, when Francis stood on the balcony high above St Peter’s Square and asked for the prayers of the people. It is no small wonder, that after facing so many struggles, he was to say that “Francis is doing the things I tried to do”
He led the way in the US in confronting the issue of the abuse of children by some priests and religious and the guidelines drawn up in Seattle became a model for other diocesan authorities across the country.
His role as Archbishop was constantly that of Pastor, for he cared about people, stood alongside them in their anguish and was not judgemental in his response when their lifestyle appeared to cross accepted boundaries. His ministry to those on the margin came with a heavy price of Vatican criticism during the 80s. There is not enough space here to itemise the detail of those years, nor to make a qualified judgement on the outcome. For that, I would strongly recommend the biography of Hunthausen written by John McCoy and published in 2015 – ‘A Still and Quiet Conscience’. McCoy, a journalist in Washington State who at one time headed the Communications Department in the Archdiocese records that he considers Raymond Hunthausen “quintessential a Vatican II bishop. I think he’s a remarkable religious leader and a key person in the history of the Catholic Church in America. He was committed to the church being relevant to the world.” A worthwhile tribute indeed.
At a time when a number of those to whom the Church has given responsibility of leadership have fallen short of expectations, it is worth while pausing a moment and reflecting on the life of an outstanding man, who in spite of his being called to the Lord remains with us in example and deed. He was truly a man of the Beatitudes, who saw Christ in those about him and was himself Christ to those who were in need.
The full text and audio cast of Michael Ryan’s poignant homily for the Archbishop can be found at the diocesan website of St James Cathedral, Seattle.
A humble and holy man he was.