A Bishop’s Job Is Hardly Ordinary
At 92, Bishop René Henry Gracida — a friend of St. John Paul II — says, ‘God (still) has work for me to do.’
Retired bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, Bishop René Henry Gracida has released his autobiography, An Ordinary’s Not So Ordinary Life, available through Amazon.
In it, the 92-year-old bishop tells the story of his growing-up years during the Depression in New Orleans, surviving as a U.S. airman in 32 bombing raids over Europe during World War II, his time in the nation’s oldest Benedictine monastery and service as bishop in three American dioceses.
Despite his advanced age, he is still an active blogger (visit Abyssum.org and TheHuffingtonRiposte.blogspot.com) and speaker, especially opposing what his friend St. John Paul II termed “the culture of death.”
“At the urging of friends, I wrote my autobiography, a chapter a day,” said Bishop Gracida. “I got to 26 chapters, and my editor told me that was enough. Otherwise, I would have written 100 chapters.”
Born in 1923, the bishop was the son of a Cajun-French mother and Mexican father, whose family had fled religious persecution in Mexico.
He had an interest in the faith since childhood and particularly enjoyed reading the stories of the North-American martyrs.
In fact, when he joined the Benedictine monastery, he requested and received the religious name of René Goupil, a Jesuit lay brother martyred by Iroquois Indians in New York in 1642.
War’s Close Calls
During World War II, the bishop served as a tail gunner and flight engineer bombing German positions in Europe. During his fourth mission over the Ruhr Valley in Germany, his aircraft was hit by flak, caught fire and lost two engines. As the plane plunged to earth, the pilot advised the crew to prepare to bail out. As the plane fell from 25,000 feet to treetop level, the pilot regained control and canceled the order. The bishop recalled, “It was my first bad mission.”
A piece of shrapnel hit a foot above his head that day and could easily have killed him, instead of dropping harmlessly by his feet. He still keeps it as a memento of his experiences.
Decades later, as the first bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., Bishop Gracida met with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in Krakow, Poland, shortly before he became Pope John Paul II. Bishop Gracida recalled, “He was fascinated that I was an airman during World War II and asked me hundreds of questions. We became friends. I have a cherished place for him in my heart.”
He and Pope Benedict XVI also have a World War II connection.
One of the bishop’s bombing missions took him to Munich, where a teenage Joseph Ratzinger was serving as a Luftwaffenhelfer, manning a German 88 mm anti-aircraft gun firing on the bishop’s plane.
The bishop remarked, “So the future bishop of Corpus Christi was dropping bombs on the future Pope Benedict XVI as he was shooting back. Thank God, we both missed.”
After the war, the bishop became an architect. However, he recalled, “Something was gnawing at me. I asked myself, ‘Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?’”
While sitting in his office one day, he saw a frail, elderly woman pushing a shopping cart outside. He had the urge to help her. His duties prevented him from doing so, but he believes God used the incident to prompt him to enter religious life.
He entered St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., where he enjoyed a rich intellectual and spiritual life.
However, using his architectural background, he persuaded his community to vote against new dormitory plans supported by his archabbot. The archabbot was not pleased and told him he had no future in the community, nor would he be ordained a priest.
The bishop said, “I don’t know where I got the words, but I said, ‘Father Archabbot, there is no proportionality between your dormitory and the priesthood of Jesus Christ.’”
He left the abbey and was ordained a diocesan priest for the newly created Diocese of Miami under Bishop Coleman Carroll.
In 1963, to his surprise, Bishop Carroll took him to Rome for the coronation of Pope Paul VI, which would lead to his being named auxiliary bishop for Miami and the first bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee in 1975.
Establishing a new diocese in the Florida Panhandle was a challenge, he said, as the region had few Catholics, no money and a dearth of qualified personnel.
In fact, no one in his diocese had studied canon law, so he “borrowed” staff from a neighboring diocese to begin his diocesan tribunal.
The bishop quickly became known for his orthodoxy and courage, according to Father Christopher Phillips, a priest-friend from San Antonio: “He is one of the great hero-bishops, never afraid to stand up for the truth. He has had a tremendous effect on many people. He not only believes the Catholic faith — he lives it out in his own life.”
Matthew Moore of Corpus Christi, another friend, takes his 8-year-old daughter to Bishop Gracida regularly for confession and instruction.
He, too, admires the bishop’s courage, pointing to his 1989 boycott of Pepsi for its use of Madonna’s anti-Catholic song Like a Prayer and how, in 1990, he declared latae sententiae excommunication of abortion-industry workers who publicly identified as Catholic.
“Reading his autobiography made me realize the courage I admired in him as a bishop was something he’d possessed and developed throughout his life,” Moore said. “He’s been both a role model and inspiration for me as a Catholic.”
One skill that proved essential to Bishop Gracida in his success as a bishop was learning to fly a private plane to travel to remote regions of his dioceses.
He was nearly killed twice, upon blacking out in severe turbulence, but combined with his wartime experiences and a near-death experience in the monastery, which he relates in his autobiography, he knows God is protecting him.
He concluded, “I have no doubt that the only reason I’m alive at 92 is because God has work for me to do.”
Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.