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In a chapel, news of a call

By Richard Higgins, Globe Staff, 1/25/1984

PRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Bishop Bernard Law rose before dawn yesterday to pray with his Tuesday morning prayer group. Shortly before joining the 6:30 a.m. gathering in the small, walnut-paneled chapel of his brick and stone home, he was notified officially of what he first learned 15 days ago while on retreat in Louisiana. He would become the next archbishop of Boston.

Inside the simple chapel, which he had remodeled so that the wood altar faced toward, rather than away from, the handful of kneelers and chairs, were a farmer, a physician, two teachers, a carpenter, a student and other members of the prayer group.

Most of them knew the rumors, but no one spoke of them. Bishop Law waited until a professor had spoken on the importance of seeing that peace and justice go hand-in-hand before rising to tell the group that the "Lord was calling" him East.

"Most of us began to cry," said Rosina San Paolo, a long-time member of the informal prayer group. "It wasn't a cry of sadness. There was a joy inside it, a feeling of pride, too, knowing that our bishop had been recognized by Rome . . . What we felt, I think, was blessed to have had our time with him."

That he chose to keep a commitment to pray with the small group of regulars on the morning that the Vatican appointed him to one of the most prominent sees in the American Catholic Church speaks volumes about Boston's new archbishop. For at the root of his oft-expressed and sometimes controversial commitment to social justice issues, from the needs of the hungry to nuclear arms, lies what he calls his first priority: "personal and spiritual renewal."

"I feel passionately that we have to link all the life issues together," Bishop Law said yesterday morning at his desk in the chancery as congratulations flooded in from around his sprawling 39-county diocese in southern Missouri and beyond. "We have to make people more aware of the intimate relationship between them, whether it be concern about the arms race or abortion. It is like one seamless garment. We have to seize that and hold it carefully, or no matter how much we work, it will all unravel."

Bishop Law, who is credited with sparking a renewal of parish life in his 10 years as head of the 47,000 Catholics in the diocese of Springfield-Ca pe Girardeau, said he hoped to achieve a similar renewal in Boston.

"The church has got to be a community, the flesh and blood of our lives," he said. "I want to explore ways in which the parish can express that mission, be a sort of extended family that has a pastoral orientation . . . and at the same time is challenged by the gospel to look outward to the wider community."

The 52-year-old bishop spent his first day as archbishop-designate in meetings -- some tearful, some serious, some playful -- with staff, well- wishers, long-time friends and community leaders.

After a mid-morning meeting with his staff, he wept briefly alone in his office.

"This is a very closely knit diocese," he said dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. "We're so small that you stay here 10 years and you can't help but deeply touch the lives of a lot of people . . . Being bishop is somewhat like the role of being a father."

Bishop Law was notified by the apostolic delegate to the United States of his appointment in a phone call shortly after 6 a.m. at his residence on Walnut avenue in Springfield, a Bible Belt city of approximately 130,000 people. After meeting with his prayer group, he concelebrated Mass in his chapel with Father Robert Parker, who in 1981 became the first married former Episcopal priest to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the United States. For the past few years, Bishop Law has been in charge of a special program to receive into the Catholic Church married, former Episcopal priests.

Shortly after 9:30 a.m., Bishop Law got behind the wheel of his 1982 Oldsmobile and drove himself to work, passing a half- dozen Baptist churches before reaching the chancery office in downtown Springfield.

After parking the car and saying hello to a storekeeper in the basement of the chancery building, he walked in to the bishop's offices, where a group of 25 diocesan officials and employees broke into applause in a spirited welcome. On a wall they had hung a 20-foot scroll inscribed with more than two dozen messages of congratulations.

"Well," said the bishop, not losing a step, "at least you won't have me to kick around anymore." There was more laughter and embraces during which the bishop, obviously touched, turned to the group and said, "You have made me what I am."

He is a prayerful, reflective man, this new archbishop of Boston, a graduate of Harvard (class of 1953) who rose in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, an intellectual as much at home popping spontaneously into a local hospital to visit with the elderly as he is at home playing Beethoven sonatas on his Knobi baby grand piano, a family heirloom.

In several meetings yesterday, Bishop Law frequently compared the Boston archdiocese, with 2 million Catholics, to his own diocese, whose 47,000 Catholics comprise a fraction of the total population of 990,000 people.

Bishop Law said he was conscious his new duties would make him a more visible and perhaps influential voice. "Obviously what the archbishop of Boston has to say will be heard by more people than have heard me here . . . but I think the fundamental mission of being a bishop remains the same," he said.

That mission, he continued, was "first and foremost to foster personal and spiritual renewal, to bring people closer to the Lord in a life of love." That spiritual depth, he said, has to be the foundation of all the other works of the church.

He also cited as priorities the strengthening of Catholic education and the religious formation of adults, and a broadening of the church's ministry to those outside conventional family structures. "Everyone is called to be holy," he said, "the single, the divorced, the widowed, all."

Bishop Law said his accomplishments during his 10 years as bishop here included "broadening our outreach to the poor and hungry" and "opening our hearts to the Southeast Asian refugees." He said he had ordained 20 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees as priests of the diocese during his tenure.

Bishop Law said he hopes he can bring to Boston a special sensitivity toward the issue of race, one that he developed while working for the Mississippi Human Rights Commission from 1963 to 1968. He declined to speculate on how that involvement might shape his attitude toward Boston's racial climate, but he said, "I do believe it will have a positive effect. I think every experience prepares you for future challenges and I expect that to be the case as far as my work on behalf of civil rights in Mississippi."

At the Green County court house, Circuit Court Judge George Donegan, a former legislator and leader in local Democratic Party politics, described Bishop Law as "uniquely gifted."

"You got yourselves an excellent bishop," said Donegan, "a man whose positions on issues are going to be very well thought out and constructive."

Donegan, who said he is the first and only Roman Catholic ever elected to the Missouri Legislature, said that Bishop Law "has gotten along tremendously" with the overwhelmingly Protestant majority in the region.

For many who have known Bishop Law here, it was a day in which ordinary routines took on a nostalgic quality, an emotional texture heightened by knowledge that in two months he'll be gone. During a morning prayer meeting in the chancery, various people read from the Scriptures.

When it was his turn, the bishop read a fragment from a Psalm.

"Law," he read from the text, "finds its fulfillment in love."

There was an awkward silence, in which people seemed to ponder the words. Then laughter, first tentatively, then more fully, rippled across the room.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 1/25/1984.
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