Forty Years a Bishop: An Interview With Bishop Emeritus F. Joseph Gossman

On September 5, the Diocese of Raleigh honored Bishop Emeritus F. Joseph Gossman on the 40th anniversary of his Episcopal Ordination. NCC asked Bishop Gossman about his years as a Bishop in Baltimore and Raleigh.

Bishop Gossman, you were ordained an Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Baltimore at the age of 38, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. And you served in Baltimore for almost seven years before coming to Raleigh. What do you remember about those early years as an Auxiliary Bishop?

I was ordained to the episcopacy for the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1968, a year that has been called one of the "most turbulent, divisive and pivotal twelve month periods in American history."

Baltimore was in the middle of the turmoil. It was a long, hot summer. In 1968 Lawrence Cardinal Shehan was Cardinal Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He was known as a strong supporter of ecumenism and religious liberty. He was also concerned about racism in America and in his Archdiocese. In 1963 he participated in the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and issued a strong pastoral letter on racial justice stating that "discrimination has no place in the Church." He made a study of racism in the Archdiocese and formally requested diocesan institutions to approve and support a rule of nondiscrimination.

In 1970, deeply concerned about what he saw as the slow death of the inner city of Baltimore, he created the Urban Vicariate with forty-eight parishes of the inner city. He appointed me as the first Urban Vicar. I was charged to work with the already established Urban Commission and a Priests Council comprised of the priests, diocesan and religious, who staffed the inner city parishes. With a Task Force comprised of individuals with many different backgrounds and competencies, we were to set up Area Councils and devise a plan for the inner city parishes that would preserve our limited resources, be financially responsible and distribute cost equitably. We were to be sensitive and responsive to those in greatest need, preserve and strengthen our schools and religious education programs, ensure jobs and the best placement of personnel, avoid crisis decision-making, transcend the cultural, racial and ethnic differences that were there, and obtain the consent and support of the people in the parishes.

The whole of my life as a priest had been spent in academia or administration. My experience in a parish was limited to two years as interim rector of the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen. There were pastors and parishioners who thought, understandably, that I was too young and too inexperienced to be a Bishop, let alone the Urban Vicar. But with the help of God, the full support of the Cardinal and Archdiocesan and school administration, the good will and expertise of the consecrated religious and men and women in the parishes, and the tireless effort of my brother priests, we devised a plan for the parishes and schools in the inner city that, though not perfect, worked.

Forty years later I now know that whatever I may have learned about working collegially, building consensus, being financially responsible, withstanding criticism, avoiding micro-management, supporting and getting out of the way of those I charged with tasks, recognizing my own limitations and drawing on the strengths and the expertise of my collaborators, acknowledging that there was only one presbyterate comprised of religious and diocesan priests, believing that differences and diversity were gifts of God, praying non-stop and relying on the grace of God and the inspiration of the Spirit, was learned in my four years as Urban Vicar of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. I will be forever grateful to Cardinal Shehan.

When you were appointed Bishop of Raleigh in 1975, what did you expect? Was the reality different from your expectations?

I confess I had no expectations. I had visited North Carolina only three times in my life. Twice on a holiday at the Outer Banks and once to attend a Cursillo. I remarked at the time that I was going from the inner city to outer space. I remember when I looked in the Official Catholic Directory to see what was written there about the Diocese of Raleigh I thought to myself, “Maybe it's not too big. Maybe I can get my arms around it."

You served as Bishop of Raleigh for more than 30 years until retirement. What were the most significant challenges for you and for the Diocese during those years?

In the early months the most significant challenge was just finding my way around. I went from visiting places I had known all my life, on streets and roads I had traveled for years, seeingf people most of whom I knew, to looking for places I had never seen, driving down roads I had never traveled, to meet people, who though friendly and smiling, I didn't recognize. The immediate challenge was to get to know the priests, religious and people of the Diocese. I needed to learn their names, their backgrounds, their hopes and fears, their needs and competencies and expectations. And I needed to be able to find my way around and not get lost.

In 1975, Catholics in the diocese numbered less than 2% of the total population, fewer than in any other of the 50 states. They were scattered over 32,000, square miles, some in parishes numbering hundreds of parishioners and some in parishes with fewer than 50 parishioners. It was a challenge just to show those in the small parishes that they were as important and significant as those living in the Triangle or the large cities.

We were a vast minority in a very religious and Protestant state and the challenge was to take a leadership role to foster and promote ecumenism. We needed to reflect, in word and work, the vision of what it means to be Church, as written in the documents of Vatican II, at the same time avoiding the inappropriate practices that were beginning to appear.

There was the challenge to secure the financial base of the Diocese by long-range planning for growth and budgeting our resources, since I was not in favor of deficit budgeting. We had to dispose of deteriorating buildings; to improve the priests' retirement fund, to encourage and support more participation from competent religious and laity, and to assume the full responsibility for publishing a Diocesan newspaper, rather than doing so together with the Diocese of Charlotte as we had been doing.

Promoting social justice was a challenge and priority then even as it is now. We were challenged to use our moral authority to obtain a living wage and fair housing for workers and protect all life from conception to natural death, protesting against both abortion and capital punishment. We needed to incorporate the growing Hispanic population into our faith communities at the same time we preserved their cultural strengths and ethnic traditions. We also had to strengthen our outreach and ministry to individuals of African American ancestry and to those emigrating from Asia. We were challenged to expand services for the poor, the needy, the elderly, and the most disenfranchised in the Diocese. Then, as now, those who would benefit most from the services of Catholic Social Ministries were not always Catholic. In order to reach more people we had to regionalize these services. We had to expand and reorganize the staff of the Catholic Center to provide more assistance and expertise to the parishes as well as reflect a style of management with which I was comfortable. This expansion of administration (the bureaucracy) did not always meet with approval.

As the years passed there was the ever present challenge of unprecedented and unorganized growth. Our Catholic population has grown to almost 5% of the total population. New parishes and schools had to be built; our religious education, catechetical, and lay ministry and campus ministry programs required parallel growth to accommodate the growing number of Catholics who moved into the state. The demand for the services of Catholic Social Ministries, now Catholic Charities, grew exponentially. We needed to be able to provide financial support for parishes through programs such as the Diocesan Loan Deposit Program and the School Tuition program; to broaden the participation of all the people through establishment of Parish Councils in every parish, and groups such as the Finance Council and the Building and Real Estate Commission. To assure that there was proper attention paid to the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, the Office of Liturgy was established.

We are fortunate that the challenge of growth and the need for more services for more people has been met by the extraordinary dedication of our priests and religious and exceptional generosity of our Catholic people evidenced by their response to the Bishops Annual Appeal, the Capital Campaign, the Campaign for Human Development and the building of our new high school.

Our greatest challenge and the saddest and most painful period of my fifty years as a priest came from the revelation of the sexual abuse of minors by a few members of the clergy and the crisis it precipitated. Within a very short period of time we had to become fully familiar with Church law and the law of North Carolina, determine what the facts were in the Diocese of Raleigh and in a spirit of openness and transparency to inform our people. We had to develop policies and procedures that would restore the communities' confidence in our priests, the vast majority of whom were faithful and deeply dedicated, and in the honesty of their Bishop. We needed to reach out and try to heal the wounds of the victims and provide just compensation for them when appropriate. In order to do all we could to ensure the safety of our children, it was imperative that we provide Diocesan-wide education and training programs to parents, teachers and volunteers, everyone who had regular contact with minors, so that they would recognize the signs of child abuse and respond appropriately. We took steps to work with law enforcement officials and agencies such as Prevent Child Abuse, North Carolina, to establish the Office for Child and Youth Protection, appoint a competent and impartial Diocesan Review Board, to advise the Bishop and oversee and monitor the effects of our efforts' and ultimately to be accountable for full and on­going compliance with the Bishop's Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

You’ve traveled the highways and back roads of eastern North Carolina visiting parishes with as few as a handful of families. Did you ever imagine you would see the growth that is now taking place not only in our larger cities, but in our small rural communities? What are your thoughts about the increase of Catholics in NC?

I'm sure that when I came here in 1975 I never imagined the growth now taking place. The increase in our Catholic population is indeed of gift of God but a gift that will make ever increasing demands on our dedication, resources, creativity and generosity.

Was there one highlight of your years as Bishop of Raleigh, something that stands out?

I cannot say there was one highlight that stands out above all others. There were so many. But here are some, not necessarily in the order of their importance: The signing of the Covenant between the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church in the Dioceses of Charlotte and Raleigh, 17 years ago. The agreement between FLOC, the Growers Association and the union. The reception of the Pastoral Letter, Of One Heart and One Mind. Parish visitations, confirmations and church dedications. The success of our first audit of compliance with the Bishop's Charter. The Chrism Masses and the annual priests' retreat. The acceptance of Pastoral Administrators in the Diocese and the ordination of the first class of permanent deacons. The first BAA. ( It went over the goal and I didn't expect it to.) The celebrations of our anniversaries, mine and the Diocese, in 1980, 1993, 1999. My installation in 1975 and the installation of Bishop Burbidge in 2006. The farewell deanery dinners with the priests and people and the many tributes I received on my retirement. The endorsement of the Finance Council for the forgiveness of $200,000 in parish debt. Every priestly ordination. Being received into the Franciscan community. And the Noah's Ark I received from the Catholic Center staff as a Christmas present. The list could go on and on. I have been singularly blessed by God.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for our Diocese in the next ten years?

There will be many challenges facing the Church in the Diocese in the future. Some of them will be new, others will be familiar. But there is one of paramount importance, one that must be addressed over all the rest, and that is the challenge of increasing vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Bishop Burbidge has made vocations a priority of his episcopacy and we must support him with our constant prayers that the Lord will see fit "to send laborers into the harvest." In addition to praying we must also do our part to encourage young people, at a reasonably early age, to seriously consider becoming priests and consecrated religious. Parents, grandparents, teachers, priests and religious should not hesitate to engage young people in conversations about listening for God's call to His service. And we who are priests must let our young men see that the priesthood is at least as exciting and important as being a neurosurgeon or astronaut or brilliant attorney, and every bit as necessary, in fact, more.

Father Robert Barron has written that if the priesthood did not exist, people would have invented it. "For simply put, the priest must be, in the richest sense possible, spiritual director, mystical guide, doctor of souls... for it is precisely the parish priest who has the most contact with, and influence upon, the people of God." As Cardinal Bernardin said, "We are not dispensable ‘functionaries in the Church; we are bridges to the very mystery of God and healers of souls... dependent on the Lord Jesus (who is the mystery of God and the healer of the soul) to whom we are irrevocably united through ordination and whom we make present in a tangible and inviting way each day to the countless people we serve."

Demanding? Yes. Exhausting? Sometimes. Frightening? On occasion. Dull and boring? Never. I was in the seventh grade when I told my parents that I wanted to be a priest. I have never wanted to be anything else. In a life that has been crowded with blessings, God’s call to be His priest remains today, as it has always been, the greatest gift of all.