(Photo Credit: Diocese of Madison.)

By: Russell Yount

Today was a much-anticipated day in the Diocese of Madison.  Early this morning, we received the news that the Most Reverend Donald J. Hying had been named the new Bishop of Madison.

For a number of years, I had anticipated working for the Church in a professional capacity.  Last summer, when I received an offer of employment with the Diocese of Madison, I accepted it with great joy.  There was one particular challenge: my wife, Bonnie, is a teacher and had already signed her contract for the coming school year.  This meant that I would have to rent an apartment three hours from our home and travel back and forth on weekends until she could join me in Wisconsin.  Even so, I considered myself blessed beyond measure to join the diocesan staff headed by Bishop Robert Morlino.  One of my first memories of Bishop Morlino happened during a staff gathering, when he noticed my shaved head and commented, “Russell, I love your haircut.”

Four months after I began working for the diocese, Bonnie and I traveled to her parents’ home in northern Wisconsin for Thanksgiving.  On Friday afternoon, a message came across the diocesan Facebook page requesting prayers for Bishop Morlino.  He had suffered a “cardiac event” while undergoing routine medical tests at a Madison hospital.  The tone of this message seemed not particularly ominous, so I said a quick prayer for our bishop’s health, confident that he would soon recover.

On Saturday morning, a second social media post indicated that the diocesan staff had arranged an all-night prayer vigil for Bishop Morlino to begin that evening.  Then came the third message at 6:39 p.m. on Saturday.  Our Vicar General shared that the bishop’s condition had worsened considerably.  I wasn’t ready to read his next statement: “I would ask that in addition to prayers for a miracle, you also pray that if and when the time comes, the Bishop would be given the grace of a happy death and may look soon upon the face of our God, The Vision which shall not disappoint.”  This reference to the Beatific Vision also echoed Bishop Morlino’s episcopal motto, Visus Non Mentietur, which is drawn from Habakkuk 2:3.

So I did the only thing I could: I prayed for our shepherd.  At 10:53 p.m., once again it was Facebook that delivered the news: Bishop Morlino had died earlier that night.

The four-hour drive from my in-laws’ home down to Madison was a somber one, matched by the gray November weather.  Bonnie dropped me off at the office and headed home to Iowa.  I had expected to see other staff members gathered there, but the building seemed entirely empty.  The only indication of anything amiss was that the chapel lights were on—unusual for a Sunday afternoon, especially on a holiday weekend.

Our diocesan offices are housed in a former seminary, a massive red brick structure that sits atop a hill on Madison’s far west side.  Though the area is now surrounded with suburban development, it must have seemed quite rural when Holy Name Seminary was constructed in the 1960s.  At the center of the building is a chapel whose focal point is a floor-to-ceiling mosaic of Jesus surrounded by His disciples.  During daily noon Mass and Adoration, my eyes are drawn to those of Jesus.  On that cold November Sunday, that’s where I wanted to be.  I knelt in my usual spot, prayed, and shed a few tears.  “I don’t understand, Lord.  We needed him.  I needed him.”  Looking up at the eternal gaze of Jesus, I could imagine Him saying, “I will never forsake you or abandon you.”  (Hebrews 13:5)

In reflecting on Bishop Morlino’s unexpected death, so soon after my arrival in Madison, I thought of Margaret Craven’s 1967 novel I Heard the Owl Call My Name.  It’s the story of a newly-ordained priest assigned to a remote parish in British Columbia.  Mark (addressed simply by his first name without an honorific) ministers to a First Nations tribe who initially have difficulty accepting their new clergyman, one who represents the world outside their community.  The turning point occurs when Mark conducts a funeral for a parishioner who dies in childbirth.  His bishop tells him via letter, “You suffered with them, and now you are theirs, and nothing will ever be the same again.”  The men of the village then demolish the dilapidated rectory in order to build a proper new home for their priest.  They are bonded by shared sorrow.

I experienced something similar in the days following Bishop Morlino’s death.  While I quickly embraced my new role in the diocese and felt warmly accepted here, the bond was strengthened when I joined the staff in mourning the loss of our bishop.  Shared sorrow creates solidarity.  I shared in the mourning of our shepherd, because he was my shepherd, too, albeit for only a short time.  If the furthest out tribe is drawn together in suffering, so too are we Catholics, whose suffering Shepherd (and those that serve Him as shepherds) is always before us.

Today, though, wasn’t a day for mourning.  It was one of rejoicing.  When I arrived at work, I again went to the chapel, knelt in nearly the same place, and offered up a prayer of thanksgiving for our new bishop.  In rejoicing and in suffering, may we be brought together.

Russell Yount

April 25, 2019

Madison, Wisconsin

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