By Fr. George Welzbacher
September 30, 2007
This week I would like to share with you two delightful stories that were featured this past week, complete with photographs in color, as front-page news in two of Minnesota's major newspapers. The first (from the Duluth News Tribune for Monday, September twenty-fourth) is a report on the installation of Bishop Peter Christensen, former rector of St. John Vianney Seminary on the campus of the University of St. Thomas and in more recent years pastor of St. Paul's Nativity Parish, as the tenth bishop of the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, a very large diocese extending from the state's northwestern counties along the southern shores of Lake Superior all the way east to Rhinelander, and to the southeast to Hayward and beyond, and straight south as far as Hudson, to use three of its principal towns as points of reference. The diocese comprises sixteen of Wisconsin's counties, in their aggregate amounting to more than 15,000 square miles, with 115 parishes and close to 90,000 parishioners. Bishop Christensen has been entrusted with an enormous responsibility. No wonder, then, that when the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, called to inform him that Pope Benedict had chosen him to become the next bishop of Superior, succeeding Bishop Raphael Fliss, Father Christensen reacted with so prolonged a silence that the nuncio felt constrained to ask: "Is this Nativity Parish?" Let's keep Bishop Christensen in our prayers!
The second story I would like to share with you is from the Star Tribune for September twenty-fifth. It's a heart-warming account of Pope Benedict's charitable outreach to Mary Jo Copeland's Caring and Sharing Hands here in the Twin Cities. But first the report on Bishop Christensen.
* * * * *'I'm On the Journey With You'
By Maria Lockwood
With song, ceremony and spirit, members of the Catholic Diocese of Superior welcomed their 10th bishop, Peter F. Christensen, on Sunday afternoon.
"It's an honor," said Virginia Zyla from St. Isaac Jogues and Companions Church in Mercer, Wis., who attended the installation ceremony. "I cried."
Christensen, 54, takes the mantle from retiring Bishop Raphael M. Fliss, who has been with the Superior Diocese for 28 years. The new bishop's first words to the gathered parishioners, "It's good to be here," were met with thunderous applause.
"I think he's awesome," said Kathy Kaderlik, secretary for St. Isaac Jogues. She said she was very touched by his uplifting, hopeful message.
Christensen told the audience his working mission statement is: "Show particular affection to all priests and deacons," and to all the faithful.
"I will stand with you to build strong families in faith," he said.
The installation marks a new beginning.
"For almost two years, we have waited, hoped, prayed in earnest and speculated with abandon as to my successor," Fliss told the gathered crowd.
In his final act as bishop, Fliss entrusted the diocese to Christensen. "I trust you will be as inspired by their lives and enriched by their commitment as I have been," Fliss said.
Christensen comes to Superior with 22 years of pastoral experience, most recently as pastor of Nativity of Our Lord Parish in St. Paul. Three months ago he got a call from Rome asking him to become a bishop. He recalled he was struck speechless, and the pope's spokesperson had to ask if it was the right church.
"It's been a tremendous experience for the whole family," said Christensen's nephew, David Johnson. He said he remembers watching his uncle's ordination 22 years ago.
Johnson said the move to bishop has "been shocking, but very humbling" for his uncle. But, he said, Christensen is "very, very solid in his faith."
Gene McGillis has seen four bishops installed in Superior.
"Every one was different," said the former Superior resident who now splits his time between Lake Nebagamon and Florida. He said with Christensen's background as a pastor, he should be a very down-to-earth, pastoral leader.
"He seemed very kind, easy to talk to," said Tim Kuehn, deacon for St. Anthony's in Superior, who met Christensen once. "A servant-leader, that was my impression."
Johnson said his uncle is also very diplomatic: "He deals with conflict well."
One thing the new bishop showed Sunday is a sense of humor .... At the end of the event he forgot to reach for the crosier.
"This is all new to me," he said with a smile....
The installation included pomp and ceremony-from a colorful Knights of Columbus honor guard and American Indian Dancers to the Mass itself, with dozens of priests and bishops attending....
"I'm on the journey with you," Christensen said. "I look forward to years ahead."
* * * * *And now the account of a surprise gift from Pope Benedict.
* * * * *Blessings on Their Soles
By Kevin Duchschere
The visitors from Rome wanted a copy of her life story for Pope Benedict, so Mary Jo Copeland inscribed it with a promise of her prayers and sent it along with them. She figured it would wind up on a shelf somewhere.
"The pope is so busy," she said.
But several weeks later, two crate-sized boxes marked maneggiare con cura- Italian for "handle with care "-arrived at Copeland's Sharing & Caring Hands mission for the poor and homeless on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.
Inside were dozens of leather Italian-made children's shoes in all sizes and styles-pink, blue, tan and black.
The pope, who knows something about having to fill big shoes, sent about 100 pairs of smaller foot-wear for the kids who come through Copeland's door every day.
"I didn't believe it! God bless the pope!" she said Monday before heading over to Mary's Place, a transitional housing apartment building for women and children, to distribute a batch of the shoes.
"If you don't have the right kind of shoes, you won't get very far," she said. "It helps you to continue on your joumey."
Copeland, 64, and her numerous volunteers serve thousands of people each month at the Sharing & Caring Hands complex. In her 22 years working with the poor she has always paid particular attention to caring for their feet, after the example set by Jesus at the Last Supper- soaking them, washing them and providing them with comfortable and adequate shoes.
Several months ago, Copeland was visited by three associates of the Rev. Joseph Johnson, her longtime friend and the rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul. The visitors, two nuns and a priest who work at the Vatican, were impressed with Sharing & Caring Hands and asked Copeland for a copy of her 2004 pictorial biography, "Saving Body & Soul," for the pope.
Johnson said the book apparently landed on the pope's desk shortly after he visited northern Italy in April. In Vigevano, known as Italy's shoe capital, a consortium of shoemakers gave the pope 15,000 pairs of shoes for the needy and a pair of red kangaroo-hide loafers for himself.
"My friends told me that he had indeed received the book and looked at it, and commented on how providential it seemed that he learned of the need right after getting the shoes," Johnson said.
Many of the shoes that the kids received Monday bore the brand of Naturino Falc, which sells on the market for anywhere from $60 to more than $100.
"They're so well-made, these kids will outgrow them before they outwear them," Copeland said.
As a dozen kids in stocking feet took their places on a bench, Copeland got down on her knees, spread several boxes of shoes around her and got to work matching sizes. "Can he get one size bigger that this, Chris?" she said. "Charlotte, that looks like it might work."
D'Sean Milligan, 11, slipped off his Nikes and pronounced himself satisfied with his new black dress shoes. "They feel real good," he said, "He needed some for church," said his mother, Ushawnda Milligan.
April Dehn, who arrived at Mary's Place last week with her children, said she was grateful for new shoes for 7-year-old Ashley, 3-year-old Abbey and 2-year-old Aaron. "I think it's great," she said.
Copeland wrote a thank you letter to the pope, whom she has never met, and heard back from the Vatican a couple of weeks ago. "The Holy Father was pleased to receive your letter, and he has asked me to thank you," wrote an official.
"People are kind of wearing blessed shoes," she said. "It's a special kind of gift from a very holy man!"