I remember meeting Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk a half-dozen years ago, during the waning days of his episcopate. I was seated on a plane headed for Atlanta, and noticed His Excellency walking down the aisle to take his seat a few rows behind me. He stopped and furrowed his brow as if to say, “How do I know you?” We had met a few times at Catholic functions around town when I was active with local Catholic media, and I frequented Mass at St. Louis where he often was a celebrant. I reintroduced myself and he took his seat, and we picked up our conversation when we deplaned. He was off to a liturgy conference in Florida and seemed happy to be on the road and away from the demands of the chancery. When we boarded the tram that takes passengers across the airport, I noticed he wasn’t holding onto a hand-strap or pole. “Your Excellency, you’ll want to grab onto something — we’re about to get moving.” At the last second he grabbed a strap above his head and proceeded to sway back and forth like a kid on a tire-swing.
In those days, Archbishop Pilarczyk was in the midst of making a series of tough calls that put him at the center of controversy when he surely would have preferred to be elsewhere. He took a stand against the exploitative “Bodies” exhibit, barring Catholic schools from taking student there for field trips; he expressed his distaste for the University of Cincinnati’s “Sexapalooza” festival (the name should give you some indication of its theme); and he revoked the archdiocesan teaching faculties of would-be priestess Louise Akers, S.C., only to have her initiate a war against him in the press. I often wondered what made him act so boldly in the twilight of his time as the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s ordinary. After all, this is the same man who only a few years earlier elevated vocal dissenters as pastors over our larger parishes, e.g., Harry Meyer at St. Susannah, mused aloud that the priest shortage might be the work of the Holy Spirit, likened the bishop conference’s risible guidelines on church architecture to Humanae Vitae, warned of the new translation blowing in a “liturgical winter,” and generally seemed indifferent to the living hell the Bernardin apparatchiks in his chancery and presbyterate were making for serious-minded Catholics.
So what explains it? The interview marking Archbishop Pilarczyk’s 80th birthday in the new issue of the Catholic Telegraph gives us a potential answer:
“It is much more demanding to be a Catholic Christian today than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago,” he said. “It just is.”
Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” I think he simply thought the age was pushing sufficiently hard enough against his flock that he had to defend it — us — by … pushing back. He thought we needed help and so he gave it. And, knowing that his days as bishop were numbered, he probably figured that any heat he would take could only last so long. Good for him. No, his late-round rally doesn’t erase every misjudgment, but a strong finish is good for the soul, his and ours.