This column was supposed to be about the qualities we are looking for in the new pope. And then we received the news that Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Ignatius A. Catanello had died.
When the news came, it was not unexpected. Bishop Catanello had retired early in 2010 because he was stricken with a brain tumor. For a while, he tried to serve, but his ailment became an impediment and he stepped down at the age of 72.
But to say that Bishop Catanello had retired is something of a misnomer. Even through his illness, rehabs, nursing home stays and hospitalizations, he continued to bear witness to the power of Christian suffering.
A few months ago when I last visited him at Queen of Peace Residence in Queens Village, the conversation was inspirational. He described his suffering as “the greatest thing I’ve ever done.” He understood the mystery of joining in the Passion and death of Jesus, knowing that it could have redemptive power.
He described his room at Queen of Peace as being in the “vestibule of the Kingdom,” where he was surrounded by saints, referring to the Little Sisters of the Poor and the attendants who cared for him.
Throughout his stay, he also was surrounded by his friends. You couldn’t visit him without meeting other friends who had come to say hello. Some even continued to come to seek his counsel. While his body was failing him, his mind was still sharp.
This was the way he wanted it. He wanted to see his friends because Bishop Catanello was a people person. He enjoyed being around people and having people around him.
His friends were attracted to him because they realized that he was a genuine person. He was not a phony. He was not giving you the company line. His advice was the wisdom of the Church because he himself thoroughly believed it.
His words were never pious platitudes. They were real and practical because he knew what it was like to be human.
I recall him preaching a homily about empathy for others. He encouraged his listeners to be patient and non-judgmental because you never knew exactly what the other person was experiencing.
Bishop Catanello was a great bishop and priest because first he was a great human being. He lived life, with all its joys and suffering just like anyone else. He put on no airs. He played no role. With Bishop “Iggy,” what you saw was what you got.
We’ll miss his constant encouragement and affirmation, the warmth of his greeting (“Hiya Pal”) and his sincere joy of being a bishop and priest, ready to extend himself to others at a moment’s notice.
The record will show that Bishop Catanello was a scholar, a teacher, an ecumenist, a counselor, a pastor, a preacher and a Mets’ fan. But first he was a human being and a friend.
Young people came to trust him and seek him out. Former students could call on him. Married couples counted on his advice. Young priests considered him a role model. Classmates knew he was a buddy. A Major League Baseball star relied on his spiritual direction.
As I started this column, I thought I would be writing about the qualities we need in our new pope. As I finish it, I realize that I did just that.