The Bishop Next Door

I don’t know about you, but I always look forward to mission appeals. Maybe it’s my evangelical background, but it’s also the prospect of a fascinating, even exotic sermon.

Credit: ‘Farragutful’, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Credit: ‘Farragutful’, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons (photo: Credit: ‘Farragutful’, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 1949 movie Come to the Stable tells a delightful tale of French nuns overcoming one obstacle after another in their quest to build a children’s hospital here in the States. Starring Loretta Young and Celeste Holm, the film is based on Clare Boothe Luce’s adapted history of the real Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. It’s a fun, family-friendly show.

Watching it as a young Protestant, I was fascinated by all the Catholic trappings and terminology, and especially the unmistakable faith of the sisters in pursuit of their dream. What really impressed me, however, was the bishop, played by Basil Ruysdael. Back then, I wasn’t too clear on exactly what a bishop was or did, but I knew they were V.I.P.s in the Catholic Church, and so I was surprised that the movie depicted this one as being so…well, approachable. Early on, the sisters show up at the chancery to seek permission and support for their project, and there’s a regular queue outside the bishop’s office door – almost as if everyone showed up at the BMV and took a number. There’s a single priest helping manage the flow of visitors, and the lack of bureaucratic layers made Catholicism seem so friendly-like…even chummy.

After becoming a Catholic, and after working for a while in parish and diocesan ministry, I came to know firsthand that most chanceries don’t work that way – sheer numbers preclude it. Nonetheless, there are exceptions. Here’s how I found out about one.

I have a daughter at Purdue University, and last fall my wife and I, along with our younger children, headed downstate to pay her a weekend visit. Before we left, we did a bit of web-hunting for an evening Mass near campus that would fit our travel plans and allow us all to worship together.

The one we located happened to be at the cathedral in Lafayette, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. Our church home in South Bend is also a cathedral parish (actually a co-cathedral), so we knew that it was possible that a bishop might be the celebrant, but we couldn’t bank on it.

In fact it was a priest who said the Mass we attended in Lafayette, but a bishop did indeed materialize from the sacristy when it was time for the homily. I spotted his pectoral cross as he moved toward the lectern, and then his red zucchetto as he turned his head. “That’s curious,” I thought. “I wonder why the bishop isn’t presiding?”

The priest-celebrant provided the answer when he introduced the bishop-homilist: The Most Reverend Herbert Bevard of the Diocese of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. It was mission Sunday, and the good bishop was there to share with the people of Lafayette about his flock, his ministry, and his financial need.

I don’t know about you, but I always look forward to mission appeals. Maybe it’s my evangelical background with its core missionary impulse, but it’s also the prospect of a fascinating, even exotic sermon. While I’ve been known to nod off after the Gospel (much to the chagrin of my family), mission Sundays produce the opposite effect and perk me right up – especially if the speaker has a thick, unfamiliar accent requiring close attention.

Bishop Bevard had no such accent, but he nonetheless captured my attention immediately – no napping this Sunday for sure! He launched into his homily with the story of his conversion and priestly vocation. Although he grew up in a devout Presbyterian household, Bevard early on felt the tug of Catholicism, and he not only determined to convert to the Church, but also become a priest. His father strenuously objected to these aspirations and sent him off to a military academy for 7 years.

During that time, young Herbert was cut off from the Faith that he’d only begun to get to know, yet he didn’t despair. There was no Mass at his school, and certainly no catechetical instruction for would-be Catholics. However, Bevard did have a rosary and he prayed it every day – more or less. Nobody had instructed him in how to pray the Rosary correctly, but he kept at it “as best he could.”

This perseverance paid off, and it seems that Bevard’s simple reliance on Mary was, as he put it, “good enough.” Following graduation, his father relented, and the future churchman followed through on becoming a Catholic. Later, he applied to seminary, but he didn’t think he had a chance. He told the Lafayette congregation that, upon his acceptance by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, his response was one of disbelief: “They want me?” Bevard was ordained for the Archdiocese in 1972, and he gives Mary all the credit. “Everything that passes through the Blessed Virgin Mary’s hands,” he said, “turns to gold.”

Fr. Bevard served as a parish priest in Philadelphia for 36 years – 22 as an assistant, and 14 as pastor of an inner-city parish. He was happy in his vocation, content in his parochial assignment, and the thought of climbing the ecclesiastical ladder was the farthest from his mind.

Then one day in 2008, out of the blue, he got a call from the papal nuncio. After an exchange of pleasantries – no doubt to allow time for this humble priest to recover from the shock – the nuncio got down to business: “The Holy Father would like you to consider becoming bishop of the Virgin Islands.” Fr. Bevard was no player, but he knew enough that when the Pope asks you to “consider” an assignment, it was time to start packing. Still, he’d never even been to the Caribbean, and he was just an ordinary schmoe – not even a monsignor!

Yet, it seems that Pope Benedict had decided the Philadelphia pastor was the man for the job – that he’d amply demonstrated just the right episcopal traits. And what were those traits? The Holy Father had spelled them out very clearly in a letter to the faithful in China just a year earlier. He wrote that candidates for episcopal service should be “worthy priests, respected and loved by the faithful, models of life in the faith, and…should possess a certain experience in the pastoral ministry….” Given the context of the letter, those criteria were particularly applicable to missionary bishops, so it’s not hard to imagine that they were in the forefront of Benedict XVI’s mind when he tapped Fr. Bevard for the Virgin Islands post.

I’ll grant you that our own contact with the now Bishop Bevard was extremely limited – just the homily in Lafayette, and a short meet-and-greet afterward – but even so, I witnessed all those characteristics on display. He spoke of his flock, not so much as a missionary seeking financial support, but as a father showing off family snapshots to strangers. There was an eager, giddy excitement in his remarks, an evident passion for the Faith and an enthusiasm for how the Lord is moving among his people. Plus, Bishop Bevard reported that seminary vocations are on the rise in the Virgin Islands, and I can’t think of a better barometer of how well a bishop is modeling the life of faith.

As far as pastoral experience is concerned, I have a hunch that Bp. Bevard’s approach to episcopal ministry hasn’t been all that different from how he operated as a parish priest. At one point in his homily, he noted that his diocesan staff in St. Thomas amounted to a mere 2½ fulltime workers – two and a half? That kind of accessibility is rare in American chanceries, and it must translate into an equally rare brand of episcopal proximity to the faithful.

In fact, I imagine it’s that kind of proximity, and the healthy familiarity that it engenders, is exactly what Pope Francis had in mind when he advocated pastors to mingle with their flocks. “This I ask you,” he told priests and, by extension, bishops, “be shepherds: with the ‘odor of the sheep,’ make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.”

In Bp. Bevard’s case, the imagery of fishermen might be even more appropriate than the sheep imagery. “Come visit us,” he invited the Lafayette faithful, “and I’ll take you snorkeling.”

I just might take him up on that – even if there’s a queue.


If you’d like more information on the Diocese of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and how you can support its charitable, educational, and vocational ministries, go to their website: