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Single Talent Well Employed

On the retirement of Bishop Paul J. Bradley of Kalamazoo.

In that wonderfully jolly rescue scene near the end of The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, Beatrix Potter tells us that Old Mr. Bunny “had no opinion whatever of cats.” For some years my wife has been fond of adapting this line in reference to my attitude toward bishops.

She is not wrong to do so. For as long as I can recall I have inclined toward the view of Dean Swift, who reserved his fondest contempt for members of the episcopate. He once compared bishops in the span of a single short poem to monkeys, goats, dragons, witches, Judas, and—naturally—Satan, whom he imagined “Surrounded with jewels of sulphur and nitre.” Rather than compose his own memoirs, the author of A Tale of a Tub spent the last years of his sanity obsessively annotating those of Gilbert Burnet, a long-deceased bishop of Salisbury (“Jackanapes. . . a Puppy,” an illiterate fraud with “the style of a gamester”).

There are two principal reasons for my, I hope, rather mild and tolerant anti-clericalism or, more properly, anti-episcopalianism. The first is simply that in my lifetime the overwhelming majority of bishops in this country have been at best lax venal time servers and at worst heretics whose only friends seemed to be pederasts. I say “in my lifetime” but even a passing acquaintance with ecclesiastical history suggests that the likes of Cardinal Mahony (at whom the saintly Mother Angelica was right to bite her thumb) and Mr. Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick would have been recognizable five hundred years ago; the most dutiful late-medieval French bishops were those who believed that for the sake of custom (though not of course sacramental validity) it was best to dismount their horses before confirming peasant girls. I cannot now recall the second reason.

All of which is to say that it is with sadness and a sense of gratitude that I can scarcely express that I write in admiration of Bishop Paul J. Bradley of Kalamazoo, whose resignation was recently accepted by the pope nearly three years after he reached the mandatory retirement age.

I know very little of Bradley’s ecclesiastical career prior to his coming to our shabby neglected corner of southwest Michigan, which is not, for those who are unaware, a very Catholic part of the country. During the first three or so years of my residence in this diocese I paid him no attention and indeed probably did not know his name. I confess that if asked what I thought of my local ordinary I would likely, from sheer prejudice, have unburdened myself of the opinion that Bishop Bradley was a bishop like any other. From me those would have been fighting words.

How wrong I was. Here I must apologize for indulging once more in my autobiography. On February 22, 2020, my thirtieth birthday, our daughter Winifred was stillborn while our pastor was away on a Septuagesima retreat; a few days later, she was buried on Ash Wednesday. Not long afterward (or so it seemed) public Masses were suspended; in the midst of this gloom—which I think of as “the long Lent”—we were informed that our beloved pastor had been reassigned.

At the time my own grief obscured my understanding of the events unfolding around me. It was not until long afterward that I realized that I was the last of all my friends and acquaintances to attend Mass; long after virtually all of them had found themselves unable to assist at the Holy Sacrifice or to receive absolution for their sins, Masses continued (with a dispensation, of course) in this diocese. Indeed, if I am not mistaken, the sung Mass for the Feast of Saint Joseph at Saint Mary’s in Kalamazoo was for some time the last publicly celebrated Mass at a diocesan church in the United States, if not the world.

Even after Bishop Bradley reluctantly agreed to the suspension of Masses, he accepted as a matter of course that provision would have to be made for the hearing of confessions, which did not cease for so much as a day. Before Pentecost we were back in the pews again, with very little of the fuss that would become typical of ordered Christian worship in many other places for the next two or so years. (Not long after that we would welcome our new pastor with a parish picnic.) When I later discovered that acquaintances in other dioceses for whom public Mass had not returned had also gone months without confession—or that some of them had been subject to canonically illicit sign-up sheets—I remember thinking to myself that I was very lucky to be one of his spiritual sons.

I now feel this more strongly than ever. But lest I give readers a false impression of his character I ought to make it clear that Bishop Bradley is not a rabble rouser in the mold of My Lord of Tyler, Texas, or a liturgical traditionalist after the manner of Cardinal Burke or Archbishop Sample. It was not politics, ecclesiastical or otherwise, that motivated Bradley to insist during the lockdowns upon the primacy of the sacraments, but a simple unambiguous love of the Gospel and concern for the spiritual health of the faithful.

There is so much more that I could say about Bishop Bradley, his fatherly tenderness and pastoral solicitude, his lack of mean aspiration or spite for his flock, his implicit understanding of the salvation of souls as the highest law of the Church, and his almost unimaginable humility. Here I am reminded of those lines of Johnson on the life of his friend Dr. Levett:

His virtues walked their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure the Eternal Master found
The single talent well employed.