By Dave Jolivet, Editor
FALL RIVER, Mass. — The weather outside St. Mary’s Cathedral was spectacular on Tuesday afternoon, and the emotions inside were as warm, if not warmer, as hundreds of clergy, diocesan employees, politicians and invited guests filled the diocesan mother church to its capacity to congratulate Bishop George W. Coleman on 50 years as a priest and to say thank you and farewell as he embarks on a new chapter in his life — that of retirement.
Bishop Coleman, currently the diocesan apostolic administrator, will become officially retired on September 24 when Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., will be installed as the eighth Bishop of Fall River at the very same cathedral. Bishop Coleman has served the diocese as bishop for the past 11 years.
Joining Bishop Coleman at the Mass were former Fall River bishops, retired Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley from the Archdiocese of Boston, who at the conclusion of the Mass told Bishop Coleman that he would soon have the privilege of joining the exclusive club of former Bishops of Fall River.
In his heartfelt homily, Bishop Coleman expressed what an honor and a privilege it was to have served his brother priests, deacons, religious and countless lay people as shepherd of the diocese for the past 11 years. “I will continue to pray for you and I ask that you pray for me as well,” he said.
He made a point of extending a warm welcome to the many invited guests of other faiths who were in attendance.
Bishop Coleman spoke of his grandfather who emigrated to this country in the 1800s and maintained his Catholic faith while gaining a great respect for America.
He relayed the story of how his father was born on George Washington’s birthday and his grandad asked the parish priest to Christen young George as George Washington Coleman. The pastor changed it to George William, prompting Bishop Coleman to say, “Otherwise Bishop George Washington might now be standing before you.”
He often mentioned youth in his homily. He said when he first became bishop he received many letters from children wishing him well. One third-grader, he said, wrote, “I hope you have fun.”
The bishop continued, “There has been fun over the past 11 years, but it has been surpassed by an ever-deepening joy resulting from Christ’s invitation to serve the Church, particularly this local Church of Fall River, as priest and bishop. My heart if filled with gratitude and thanksgiving for God’s goodness to me and to our Church in Fall River.”
He also mentioned letters he’s received from young people preparing to receive their Confirmation. “Those letters were a great source of encouragement for me,” he said.
He added that the Church needs faithful young people and the greatest starting point for that faith is the family. “It’s home and parents that are important for today’s youth,” he said.
Bishop Coleman told several other anecdotes displaying the great faith of the people of the Fall River Diocese, including visiting a veteran of World War II who told him that he knew Christ was with him on the battlefield, with him through the priest chaplain who celebrated Mass in the field with the hood of a jeep as the altar, and throughout his life.
He spoke of a woman whom he visited at a nursing home on Christmas Eve who called for the anointing of the sick. The woman, whose birthday was the following day on Christmas, told Bishop Coleman, “I have had 85 very happy birthdays and I know that my 86th will be happiest of all.” Bishop Coleman called the nursing home the following day and was told she had passed away that morning. “I learned that indeed she was celebrating the happiest birthday of all,” he said.
At the conclusion of his homily the congregation broke into lengthy applause for the man who led them as shepherd for the last 11 years.
After the Liturgy, the throngs of supporters boarded buses and cars for a reception in Bishop Coleman’s honor at White’s of Westport.
A video of the Thanksgiving Mass, including Bishop Coleman’s homily, can be viewed below or by clicking on the “Celebrating 50 Years” image above.
Bishop Coleman’s Mass of Thanksgiving homily — Aug. 26, 2014
My dear friends: I am pleased to welcome you to our Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption and am deeply grateful for your presence at this Mass of Thanksgiving. Cardinal Seán, 22 years ago this month you were installed as the sixth bishop of Fall River. The people of this diocese treasure fond memories of the 10 years you spent with us. I am honored by your presence today. Archbishop Cronin, you were installed as the fifth bishop of Fall River in December 1970 and led our diocese for over 21 years. I know that the Diocese of Fall River has a special place in your heart and am grateful for your presence.
Bishop Edyvean has served as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston for the past 13 years. We were seminary classmates and ordained to the priesthood together in Rome almost 50 years ago. Thank you for being with us today, Bishop Edyvean. Bishop Manuel da Silva Linda is Bishop of the Military Ordinariate of Portugal, which offers pastoral care to Catholics serving in the Portuguese Armed Forces and their families. He has been in the Diocese of Fall River for the past several days as guest of honor of the Great Feast of the Holy Spirit of New England. Dom Manuel, estou muito grato por sua presença nesta Missa.
I am deeply grateful to you, my brother priests and deacons. It has been a privilege and great joy for me to serve with you as priest and bishop. I thank the religious and consecrated men and women whose communities have played important roles in building up the Church in our diocese. And dedicated lay men and women, you have been essential in carrying out the mission of the Church. I thank our diocesan seminarians for serving the Mass today. Please remember them in your prayers as they discern their vocation to the priesthood. I welcome all of you and thank you for participating in this Mass of Thanksgiving. I take special note of members of the ecumenical and interfaith communities. Your presence today is greatly appreciated.
Eleven years ago, when announcement was made of my being named Bishop of Fall River, I began to receive many congratulatory notes. I appreciated receiving all the cards and letters, but particularly those of children, which were often accompanied by beautiful, creative artwork. One that I remember was from a third-grader at one of our Catholic schools. After offering his congratulations, he wrote, “I hope you have lots of fun” and signed his name “Thomas.”
There has been “fun” over the past 11 years, but it has been surpassed by an ever-deepening joy resulting from Christ’s invitation to serve the Church, particularly this local Church of Fall River, as priest and bishop. My heart is filled with gratitude and thanksgiving for God’s goodness to me and to our Church of Fall River.
We heard in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that whether we live or die we are the Lord’s. We place our faith in Him and bear witness to that faith in our lives. I would like to share with you a few vignettes of the living faith which undergirds the strength and beauty of this Church of Fall River.
I would begin with a story about my grandfather John Coleman. Like millions of immigrants to our country over the centuries, he arrived in Somerset in the 1800s. He brought with him his Catholic faith and developed an appreciation for what our country had offered him. So great was his gratitude that when my father was born on Washington’s birthday in 1894, John requested Father Masterson, the first pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, to name his son George Washington Coleman. Father Masterson, in his wisdom, judged it prudent to Baptize him “George William.” Otherwise, Bishop George Washington might now be standing before you!
The Diocese of Fall River was founded in 1904, in the midst of those years when tens of thousands of immigrants were arriving, primarily from Canada and Europe. They brought with them many qualities, among which, as mentioned earlier, were their Catholic faith and appreciation for the opportunities they found in their newly-adopted country. Often living near each other in the neighborhoods of the cities of our diocese, they sacrificed to build churches, enabling their communities to worship together, offering thanks and praise to God for his goodness. This process continues as brothers and sisters arrive in our diocese, now primarily from Central and South America.
In the years after my ordination as bishop, a number of those parishes celebrated their centennial anniversaries. It was a wonderful experience for me to celebrate Mass for today’s community of faith, mindful of the sacrifices and accomplishments made by their forbears. They left us a precious Spiritual inheritance, which they passed on to their children and grandchildren and which continues to enrich the hearts of people today.
In celebrating the anniversary Masses of parishes, I often quoted from one of the documents of the council: “The celebration of the Eucharist is the true center of the whole Christian life. For in the most Blessed Eucharist is contained the whole Spiritual good of the Church, namely, Christ Himself.” It is this Eucharistic faith which gives life and strength to our local Church and to each parish in it.
In one of my parish assignments, I recall bringing the Eucharist to a home-bound veteran of World War II. Before receiving the Eucharist, he spoke of his faith and love of Christ in the Eucharist, made stronger by his battlefield experience. He spoke of the priest chaplain celebrating Mass on the hood of a Jeep, which, on that day became the altar. He knew Christ was with him on the battlefield and by his side each day of his life.
One year, on the day before Christmas, the rectory telephone rang. It was the local nursing home. One of the residents had requested that she receive the Anointing of the Sick. When I arrived, she explained that her birthday was the following day, Christmas. “God has been so good to me,” she said. “I have had 85 very happy birthdays and I know that my 86th will be the happiest of all.” I anointed her and offered her the Eucharist as Viaticum. On Christmas morning I called the nursing home and learned that indeed she was celebrating the happiest birthday of all.
Over the years it has been my privilege to assist at Spiritual retreats for men and women, for families, and for young people. Often in the course of two or three days, with God’s grace, the retreatant begins to grasp more deeply the meaning of Christ’s love for him or her. The Lord reaches out to us during retreats or while in His presence before the Blessed Sacrament. These occasions have helped deepen the lived witness of members of our Church.
One of the great joys in my life as priest and bishop has been meeting with the young people of our diocese in our high schools, at retreat days, or in Washington for the March for Life. In preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, some young people have written me letters, expressing their desire to receive the Sacrament and commenting on the relevance of the Sacrament in their lives. Reading these letters has been for me a source of great encouragement.
Last spring some students wrote me about the importance of receiving the gift of courage, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. One student wrote, “I will use the gift of courage my whole life to praise God even when it isn’t considered the ‘cool’ thing to do.” Another said, “Having courage helps to do the right thing no matter the consequence.”
One student mentioned a Tweet she had received from Pope Francis. By the way, did you know that Pope Francis sends a daily Tweet to more than 15 million followers in nine languages? “Confirmation is important for Christians; it strengthens us to defend the faith and to spread the Gospel courageously.”
A few months ago, a graduate of one of our Catholic high schools shared with me the good news of having been accepted at the college of his choice. In the course of our conversation, I said, “You realize that on campus your religious faith will be challenged.” He sat back, smiled, and responded, “Bishop, there is nothing I enjoy more than a good challenge!”
In today’s Gospel we heard how Jesus appointed disciples and sent them to every place He intended to visit. Likewise, we must prepare our young people to bear witness to their faith in every aspect of their lives. There is no place as effective as the home and no one as effective as parents in conveying this message of faith and hope. Please keep our young people and their families in your prayers.
In Pope Francis we have a spokesperson for the poor and needy of the world. The message has resounded throughout our world. He teaches us: “To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person the Face of the Lord to be served, to serve Him concretely.”
In response to the Lord’s call to assist the poor, many parishes formed St. Vincent de Paul Societies and participate in food pantries or soup kitchens. On a diocesan level, our Catholic Social Services administers a number of residences and shelters for the homeless. A few months ago, in a visit to the shelters, I met a woman who had been a professional secretary. She told me that what had happened to her could happen to anyone. She added, “Of all the shelters I have lived in, this one is the best.” She mentioned the caring, respectful staff and the hope they offered her for a permanent residence and employment. At the close of my visit, we prayed together for the people of the diocese in thanksgiving for their prayers and support.
Over the years, individuals have asked me about my decision to enter seminary to discern a vocation for the priesthood. “If you were to do it again, would you make the same decision?” My response has always been, “Yes, a thousand times yes!”
During my seminary years, one of the priests who served as a Spiritual director recommended that we pray for those whom we would serve in the future as priests. I began that practice, envisioning the parishes to which I might be assigned. I could not have imagined the tens of thousands of people who have been entrusted to my care as pastor of our beloved Church of Fall River. I will continue to pray for you and ask that you pray for me and for the people of the Church of Fall River.