By Father Eugene Hemrick
“You are family to me.”
That was one of the last things I wrote to my diocesan bishop, Bishop Joseph Imesch, of Joliet, Illinois, before his death on Dec. 22. We had our family differences but also many fun-loving exchanges.
As my father once did, Bishop Imesch objected to my becoming a priest-researcher. Both believed diocesan priests were meant to be parish priests.
At a national gathering of bishops, I made a presentation on a study of the sacrament of reconciliation. Afterward, Bishop Imesch came to me and said, “Nice work.” It was the same reaction my dad once had after he realized church research was worthwhile. Amends were made and family peace restored.
Just as my dad worked more than one job to sustain our family, so did Bishop Imesch. He was on the go constantly – attending wakes, funerals and diocesan events. When my parents and close priest friends died, he was ever so comforting.
During those trying moments, I realized why he was family to me. He wasn’t a bishop fulfilling a required duty, but a family member. He was there at my family’s side and mine.
He practiced serving the poor, available to the needs of his priests and the laity, and addressed the pressing challenges of a diocese that was expanding exponentially.
After sitting through endless listening sections on the mistreatment of women, he helped draft a women’s pastoral that championed their rights. To his sadness, his brother bishops shelved it.
He had Swiss heritage and was known as one tough Swiss. He had toughness needed to be an effective bishop. He had to deal with sex abuse scandals and those who disapproved of his handling of them, priests leaving ministry and a stream of discontent that some bishops experience. It weighed on him constantly.
During one visit, we discussed the rapid growth of the diocese and the added responsibilities it creates. Later I thought, “How does he keep it all together? You can only do so much.” He always rose to the occasion, thanks in part to his Swiss toughness and prayer life.
Not all priests or laity think of a bishop as family. Some see a bishop as an administrator, a superior and a CEO behind a desk.
However, a closer look will find a man with the heart of a loving father who is more concerned about his family than the exalted position of bishop. This is the kind of person that was Bishop Joseph Imesch.
Father Eugene Hemrick is a syndicated columnist for Catholic News Service.