A Memorial Tribute to a Good Shepherd

Have you seen “Spotlight” yet? The critically acclaimed film recounting the Boston Globe’s investigation of clerical sex abuse?

I recently attended a screening, and the critics are right: It’s an excellent film, although incredibly painful to watch. And for a devout Catholic, viewing “Spotlight” requires a great deal of endurance and humility—the victims’ stories are so horrible, and the brazen ecclesial maneuvering so inexcusable, it’s hard to believe it’s a true story. Nonetheless, and despite numerous artistic liberties for dramatic effect, the movie relates the basic facts, although not even a sliver of credit is granted to all the priests who faithfully live their vocations.

Still, there’s at least one redeeming moment for Catholics in this relentlessly bleak film, and it comes toward the end. Reporter Mike Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo) references a 1984 letter to Cardinal Law that Globe reporters had uncovered in the Archdiocesan archives—and it’s not a dramatic invention or plot device. That letter, signed by Auxiliary Bishop John Michael D’Arcy, explicitly decried the transfer of a notoriously abusive priest and implicitly pressed Law to address the issue head on. Instead of fomenting an expulsion of predatory priests, however, it was D’Arcy who found himself transferred, from New England to the heart of the Midwest.

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As I sat alone in that theater, weighed down by the cinematic unfolding of the Church’s culpability, I sat up at the mention of D’Arcy’s name. All was not subterfuge and sin, it appeared, for at least this auxiliary bishop was willing to stand up for the truth and for the victimized families involved. What’s more, D’Arcy had been my bishop, and even my employer at one point. Although ashamed by the “Spotlight” story in general, I was proud of D’Arcy’s courage and fidelity, and grateful for my association with him throughout the years.

Yesterday marked three years since Bishop D’Arcy’s death, and my and others’ affection for him continues to grow. Although he no doubt regretted leaving behind his beloved Boston, John D’Arcy came to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend intent on living out his episcopal vocation to the utmost. Understandably, after what he left behind in Boston, that included a rigorous review of everything connected with priestly preparation and accountability, but it also included tightening up catechetical and liturgical matters, and invigorating the Church’s collection and allocation of resources.

What’s more, he adroitly navigated the complicated topography associated with hosting the University of Notre Dame within his diocese’s boundaries. Defying the most conservative voices that called for direct confrontation and discipline, D’Arcy adopted a conciliatory tone. His episcopal oversight was marked by a focus on positives and persuasion which allowed for a subtle implementation of Pope St. John Paul II’s vision for authentic Catholic higher education as articulated in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

And when disagreements arose (as they inevitably did), D’Arcy acted with integrity while avoiding any permanent rupture of the relationship he had built up between shepherd and university. Case in point: In 2009, the year of his retirement, Bishop D’Arcy famously chose to boycott Notre Dame’s commencement because the University not only invited, but also chose to singularly honor the aggressively pro-abortion President Obama. D’Arcy’s unexpected appearance at an “alternative graduation” event that year is one of my favorite memories: His slow, deliberate walk around the edge of the quad to the dais, his humble nods of recognition as the crowd cheered, his stirring, simple address expressing his solidarity with the assembled multitude. It was a regrettable episode, to be sure, yet throughout and afterward, D’Arcy sustained his overall respect for and rapport with the Notre Dame community, and he lost none of his affection for it.

A second favorite memory of Bishop D’Arcy involves a different Notre Dame encounter, but one considerably less dramatic. It took place a couple months after I’d begun my work as Associate Diocesan Director of Religious Education in South Bend, and my wife, Nancy, and I attended a Bishop’s Appeal dinner at Notre Dame’s Joyce Center. Since Bishop D’Arcy had personally interviewed me for my job and evidently approved my appointment, and since we were temporarily housed in an old convent at his invitation, I suppose I anticipated some minimal recognition that evening.

And so, there we were, waiting in line, eager to greet our new shepherd and my new boss—not to mention our benefactor—and when it was finally our turn, he stretched out his hand to me and cheerfully asked, “And you are?”

*Ouch*—but, of course, who could blame him? He was a bishop, after all, who met and greeted hordes of people on a regular basis—even daily I suppose. Plus, my duties revolved around the South Bend side of the diocese whereas Bishop D’Arcy’s center of gravity was definitely Fort Wayne. In fact, it’s likely that he hadn’t seen me more than once or twice since my pre-employment interview.

Besides, he’d already honored me plenty—with employment, for example, and lodging for my wife and first-born. What’s more, his greeting was warm and welcoming, despite the lack of recognition, which indicated to me that it truly welled up from his shepherd’s heart: As far as he knew, I was just another member of the diocesan family, and he was glad to see me.

“Justify your episcopal dignity by your unceasing concern for the spiritual and temporal welfare of your flock,” Ignatius of Antioch advised Bishop Polycarp. “Give yourself to prayer continually, ask for wisdom greater than you now have, keep alert with an unflagging spirit.” Who’d want that job? Few, if any, and yet thank God for men like John Michael D’Arcy who step up and take it on. Besides, as Ignatius further admonished Polycarp, “The greater the toil, the richer the reward.”

Rest in peace, Shepherd John Michael. God willing, we’ll meet again. And if you stretch out your hand to me then with a cheery, “And you are?” I’ll happily respond: “Good shepherd, I was a member of your flock that you tended so well. Thank you for your toil on our behalf.”


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