The Greatest Joy in the World

April 8 issue In Person: Baltimore Archbishop-Designate William Lori Reflects on Prayer and Priesthood

(photo: Diocese of Bridgeport)

Archbishop-designate William Lori noted that 50% of the bishops of Bridgeport, Conn., have gone on to become archbishops of Baltimore, the nation’s premier see.

“Of course, there have only been four of us” bishops of Bridgeport, he quipped at a press conference March 21.

Archbishop-designate Lori was named to the Baltimore post March 20 — 11 years after beginning his tenure as bishop of the one-county diocese in southwestern Connecticut.

Indeed, he follows a path trod by Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, who was pulled out of Bridgeport in 1961 and went on to serve as Baltimore’s archbishop until 1974. A third bishop of Bridgeport, Edward Egan, went on to become cardinal-archbishop of New York, and chances are that Archbishop Lori also will one day don a red hat.

His profile has already risen in recent months, as he has taken on an issue that is deeply affecting the Church in the United States. Last year, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, appointed him chairman of the new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

His duties have included testifying before Congress on legislation designed to protect religious freedom and producing a formal statement on religious freedom with related catechetical materials. In a speech last year at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, he said that religious freedom is not “a carve-out” granted by the state, but an inalienable right.

In his own back yard, Archbishop-designate Lori joined with the bishops of Connecticut in successfully fighting laws that would have violated the apostolic governance of the Church and legalize physician-assisted suicide. Bishops and Catholics in the state also successfully fought for amending the state’s same-sex “marriage” law to respect the freedom of conscience of Catholic institutions.

Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1951, Archbishop-designate Lori earned a bachelor’s degree from the Seminary of Saint Pius X in Erlanger, Ky., in 1973, and a master’s degree from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., in 1977. In 1982, he received a doctorate in sacred theology (S.T.D.) from The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Washington by Cardinal William Baum in 1977, he served as a parish priest and as secretary to Cardinal James Hickey, as well as chancellor, moderator of the archdiocesan Curia and vicar general of the Washington Archdiocese. He was ordained a bishop in 1995, serving as auxiliary bishop of Washington until 2001. He has chaired the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and the Ad Hoc Committee on Universities and Colleges, as well as serving as a member of the Committees on Pro-Life Activities, Defense of Marriage and Sexual Abuse.

He also serves as supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, where he is responsible for overseeing the spiritual welfare of the order’s 1.8 million members and their families.

He spoke to Register news editor John Burger following the March 21 press conference in Bridgeport.

What kind of family did you grow up in?

My father worked for the phone company. He started out as a lineman; wound up as an engineer. We grew up in a lovely, nice neighborhood in New Albany, Ind. I have an older brother who is challenged — he’s got special needs — Francis. He’s 64 years old. And a young brother, Joe, who’s about 10 years younger than I am and lives in the Louisville area. Mom and Dad are still with us. They’re 90 and 91, living on their own and doing well.

Who takes care of Francis?

He’s in a group home, about five miles from where Mom and Dad live, and he comes over every week for lunch.

So the whole family is cradle Catholics?

Yeah, we’re pretty much all cradle Catholics. Dad had five sisters and a brother. Mom had a sister and three brothers, and the whole family was pretty much Catholic. We had a strong parish; I went to a wonderful elementary school; then I entered the seminary.

How did you discern your vocation?

I first really thought of it right after my confirmation, of all things. It just sort of struck me after confirmation that maybe the Lord wanted me to be a priest. And then I had the great fortune of having many great priest-mentors, beginning with some of our parish priests, the principal of the high-school seminary I went to.

And talk about a foundation in the priesthood — there it is. And the thought of being a priest just took hold. And the more I found out what the priesthood really was supposed to be about, the more I loved the thought of becoming a priest, and the more I prayed the Church would call me to be a priest.

And it’s still the thing that makes me happiest — being a priest.

You grew up in the 1960s. Were you affected at all by some of the craziness society was going through in those days?

I think the cultural revolution sort of passed me by. I was a seminarian, and I was lucky to have … I didn’t grow up in an ideologically strong environment. I was just lucky enough to be growing up with people who had common sense — good, eminent common sense and strong faith — such that I was kind of almost naive about the ideological things until much later in my life.

I had great friends, enjoyed sports — I’m not particularly good at it, but I enjoyed it. And good values. So, in many ways, I look back and I think, Gosh, the Lord protected me from both Scylla and Charybdis, the two shoals you don’t want to bump into.

You mentioned something in your press conference about prayer: relying, during difficulties, on placing yourself in the presence of God. Could you tell me more about your spiritual life and what kind of spiritual director you have?

I’ve always been blessed to have a wiser, older priest to guide me, and I certainly have that now, here in Fairfield County, and I’ve certainly benefited from having a good, sound spiritual director; frequent confession. That’s so foundational — foundational for everybody’s spiritual life, but most especially for a priest or bishop.

And, then, I’m blessed to have a chapel in my house, so the opportunities to pray every day are right there before me. And I find great solace and strength in prayer — mental prayer, the Office, the Rosary and, of course, daily Mass.

And I like to spend time just reflecting on the Scriptures; for example, this year reading the Gospel of Mark, as the Church is reading it. It’s a wonderful thing to do.

Would you recommend to all Catholics who are serious about their faith to get a spiritual director? I imagine a lot of people feel priests are so stretched that they don’t want to take up their time.

In many ways I think about that — and they are stretched. But, on the other hand, you never feel more like a priest than when you’re engaged in helping someone grow in the ways of holiness and in the ministry of reconciliation.

Gosh, every time I’m engaged in that myself, I just rejoice: It’s the greatest joy in the world.

John Burger is the Register’s news editor.