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Bishop Law described as being a 'splendid human being'

By Anne Wyman, Globe Staff, 1/24/1984

ishop Bernard Francis Law, 52, has served for the last 11 years as pastor of an agricultural parishcovering the southern third of Missouri.

His first major assignment as a priest was in Mississippi during the civil rights battles of the 1960s.

A graduate in medieval history from Harvard, Bishop Law wrote in his 25th anniversary class report that the period in Mississippi, along with his ecumenical efforts as a representative of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the early 1970s and his pastoral role as bishop of the Springfield- Cape Girardeau Diocese of Missouri, reflected the "three parts" of his life "until now."

"Mississippi in the 60s was all that one might imagine and more," he wrote in the 1978 recollection. "To have been a part of that significant moment in our history is in itself a grace."

As an editor of the diocesan newspaper in contact with leaders in the civil rights movement in the South, he wrote, he worked to achieve "a better order, a better life, for all Mississippians."

"The more active involvement in social concerns of the '60s has now been placed in a broader context of pastoral ministry."

Bishop Law noted that his career had led him "to a vantage point of great hope for the future. The hope is in terms of my perspective as a man of faith, and not necessarily in terms of more worldly parameters."

Describing her boss as "the personification of a shepherd," Bishop Law's assistant, Marilyn Vydra, emphasized his daily concern with the needs of his priests and his people. Today, his interest in civil rights has broadened to a general interest in human rights, Vydra said.

From his brown wood and stone house in downtown Springfield, it is some 300 miles, or five and a half hours by car, to the state university town of Cape Girardeau at the other end of the diocese. Bishop Law's gray sedan averages 500 to 1500 miles a week as he attends the spiritual needs of poor farmers in Missouri's Boot heel country and of the street people of Springfield or Joplin, the staffer said.

Nevertheless, Bishop Law, who wrote that he had expected to spend all of his ministry in Mississippi, has traveled far in the service of the ecumenical movement.

From 1971 to 1973, he served on the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and was also part of the Vatican delegation at the Uppsala Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Sweden.

He is the only American now serving on the Vatican Secretariat of Christian Unity and is an ecclesiastical delegate of the Holy See to coordinate provisions in this country for Episcopal priests coming into the Catholic church as Catholic priests.

Prof. William Wolf, of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, remembered him from meetings in Rome as "a splendid human being with a broad view of the ecumenical opportunities and responsibilites of the church."

The only child of an Air Force colonel and his wife, Bishop Law was born in Torreon, Mexico, and attended schools in New York, Florida, Georgia and Columbia, South America. He was graduated from high school in the Virgin Islands and listed Panama as his home at the time of his graduation from Harvard in 1953. As a result of his travels, Bishop Law speaks fluent Spanish.

While at Harvard he was vice president of the Catholic Club and a member of the Democratic Club. He listed other interests as swimming, writing, government, piano and social welfare.

Msgr. Edward J. O'Donnell, vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, described Bishop Law in a telephone interview as "the picture of the modern bishop. He is orthodox in his faith but progressive in the application of the gospel to social problems and the needs of today."

Msgr. O'Donnell cited Bishop Law's activism in civil rights during the 1960s and said he was well-liked in Springfield, where Catholics praise him for his receptivity to renewal movements that have been popular in the Catholic church during the last 10 years.

A spokesman for the Conference of Bishops in Washington noted that Bishop Law would not be unusually young for the position. Joseph L. Cardinal Bernadin was 54 in July 1982, when he was named to head the archdiocesse of Chicago, largest in the nation.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 1/24/1984.
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