Thursday, January 21, 2010

In Corpus, an Appreciation

It's a tough truth, but let's face it: the last decade hasn't always been the kindest to the American bishops when it comes to press coverage.

Of course, how much of that reflects bias vs. fair critique is a matter for vigorous debate. Still, though, it's a reality of these days that the widespread disappearance or downgrading of the religion beat in local media (part of the wider hemorrhage of personnel and resources taken by outlets nationwide) mixed with the innate appetite for controversy has largely made for a scenario where, in the public square, no news is good news... even if there's a lot of good news to be had -- if only the mastheads had enough folks to cover it.

All that said, as he heads into retirement following Monday's appointment of his successor, the editorial board of Corpus Christi's paper of record took the time to pay warm tribute to Bishop Edmond Carmody, who's led the South Texas diocese of 400,000 since 2000... and along the way, became so beloved that the local minor-league baseball team had 2,500 Carmody bobbleheads made as a game-day promotion.

Born in Ireland, the 76 year-old prelate was ordained a priest for the archdiocese of San Antonio in 1957 and an auxiliary there in 1988. Before heading south, Carmody laid the foundations for one of American Catholicism's more heart-warming success stories in vocations and diocesan life, leading East Texas' Tyler church from 1992-2000.

Here, snips from today's editorial in the Caller-Times:
The retirement of Edmond Carmody as the bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi is a loss for the city and region. And that loss is not just because he is stepping down as spiritual leader of the Catholic community of South Texas.

During his 10 years as bishop, Carmody made himself a unifying point in the community. With a disarming smile, a kind word, the ready humor of his native Ireland and a demeanor worthy of the image of the biblical shepherd, Carmody has become one of the few people in a sometimes fractured community who are above everyday division and who ask that we act upon our better natures on behalf of our fellow citizens. Maybe that’s why he so often has been called to participate in community efforts, even when those activities might be considered outside the scope of his duties as bishop.

Imagine the surprised faces of some city families when they found Bishop Carmody on their doorsteps asking why their child had dropped out of school and what could be done to persuade the missing student to go back. Carmody was among the scores of volunteers who in 2008 walked the neighborhoods in an effort by the Corpus Christi Independent School District to call on families in hopes of retrieving dropouts. Many city, school and county leaders also participated, but there was only one Catholic bishop going onto porches, ringing doorbells and knocking on doors.

That dropout effort underscored one of Carmody’s three main community priorities: education, diabetes awareness and homelessness. His focus on education is why he lent so much of his personal attention, his name and his time to the establishment of John Paul II High School. Carmody was the prime force behind the creation of the school, which opened in 2004 in what had been a vacant diocesan building on Saratoga Boulevard.

But it ought not be forgotten, especially by non-Catholics, that more than a dozen parochial elementary schools, three middle schools and another high school lie within the diocese, most of them directly under Carmody’s supervision. All of which underscores the fact that Carmody has been the CEO of a large organization with many moving and far-flung parts. The diocese includes 68 parishes and 32 missions in 12 South Texas counties. Running such a large outfit takes more than a sweet disposition.

Some of those steelier qualities were on display when, to raise money for diabetes awareness, Carmody, 76, would regularly deliver a good-natured thrashing on the racquetball court to a much younger challenger. Getting beat in racquetball by the bishop has become something of a badge of honor. But for all the lightheartedness of the game, it was played for a serious cause. Some 40,000 residents of Nueces County alone suffer from diabetes.

Good shepherd that he is, Carmody never let Corpus Christi forget the unfortunate, especially the homeless. During his tenure, the Mother Teresa Day Shelter opened in 2003, providing a place for thousands of the homeless in Corpus Christi. He also devoted much energy to Catholic Social Services, whose programs have doubled here.

Caring for the homeless, providing for the sick and inspiring the young might all be considered the job description of a spiritual leader. But Carmody, who plans to stay in Corpus Christi after his retirement in March, has carried out his job on a high-profile stage. Through his presence at so many venues and activities and by identifying himself with key community issues like diabetes and education, Carmody sent the clear message that he cared, and by extension, that the Catholic Church cared.

His successor, Bishop-elect W. Michael Mulvey, has the proverbial big shoes to fill. Yet he will start with a big advantage: the good will and good name for the office of bishop sown by Carmody over his 10 years on the job.
Sure, that doesn't sound like a conciliar text... but when it comes to capturing an example of the modern episcopate at its most effective and exemplary, you'd be hard pressed to find a better read.