Bishop Coleman reflects on 50 years of diocesan ministry

By Dave Jolivet, Anchor Editor

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FALL RIVER, Mass. — “I have too many unread books,” Bishop George W. Coleman told The Anchor during his final interview with the publication before his retirement begins on September 24. “In retirement I want to continue my pastoral work ... but with the absence of administrative duties.”

Bishop Coleman will become officially retired when Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha is installed as the Diocese of Fall River’s eighth bishop on September 24 at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Bishop Coleman has served as bishop of the diocese for the past 11 years, and this year he celebrates 50 years as a priest.

A Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated by Bishop Coleman at a filled cathedral on August 26, joined by hundreds of priests, deacons, religious and invited guests. The Mass was followed by a very well-attended reception at White’s of  Westport, at which he remained to greet well-wishers until 8 p.m., more than five hours after he arrived at the cathedral for the Mass.

“What was wonderful about that day was that I saw people from every phase of my life as priest and bishop,” he said. “It brought back such good memories. I even met up with a friend with whom I was an altar server at St. Patrick’s Parish in Somerset.

“The day helped me to recognize the joy that is mine because of all the wonderful gifts God has given me through the years.”

Throughout the interview, Bishop Coleman referenced and stressed the importance of his family and his parish life as prime influences on the priest and bishop he became. “The parish was the center of our family life and that of our neighbors,” the bishop said. “I was a third-grader when I became an altar server, and I very much enjoyed it, and being with other friends who also served.

“I can recall accompanying my mother to daily Mass during the season of Lent, and attending the Stations of the Cross on First Fridays was always very special to me. And at the end of a long work week my father would come home, get washed up, and we would attend a Holy Hour at the church as a family on First Fridays. That was very significant for me.”

He continued, saying Sundays were reserved for Mass first of all, then spending time as a family. “Some still do that,” he said, “but we need more to do that. It’s the primary way the faith is transmitted.”

As a seminarian in Rome, young George Coleman was greatly influenced by St. (then pope) John XXIII. “I was in seminary during the beginning of the Second Vatican Council,” he recalled. “I saw Pope John XXIII often at general audiences and he was a joy-filled person.”

Bishop Coleman recalled the opening procession for the Second Vatican Council that had thousands of bishops and cardinals filing into St. Peter’s Basilica. “I saw Bishop Connolly and he was looking up at the amazing site and I’m sure he was engraving everything he was witnessing in his memory,” he said. “I saw Cardinal Spelling and Cardinal Cushing, and when Pope John XXIII was coming by you could see he was deep in prayer.”

The bishop also recalled Pope John XXIII’s famous “Moonlight Address” he made from the balcony of the Apostolic Palace on the evening of the opening of the session. “People were in St. Peter’s Square with candles,” said the bishop. “It was beautiful. It was a full moon, and the pope said, ‘But what resounds here is the voice of the whole world; here all the world is represented. One might even say that the moon rushed here this evening. Look at her high up there, to behold this spectacle.’ Later he told parents to go home and ‘give them a hug from the pope.’ It was a blessing for me to be able to have been there.”

Bishop Coleman said that in seminary, a Spiritual director told the seminarians to pray for the people for whom they would serve in parishes when they became priests. “I did think about what parish life would be like. I didn’t know much about the parishes in the diocese, but I knew my St. Patrick’s and felt that if I could imitate the priests I knew as a boy, I would be happy and fulfilled as a priest.

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“Parishes have various differences, different localities and such, but on the other hand, all parishes are the same, all people are the same. They have the same desires, needs, Spiritual needs. They don’t differ greatly. I always felt that whatever parish the bishop wanted me to go to, I would find there the Eucharist, and faith-filled people.”

Even as vicar general, then-Msgr. Coleman was involved in parish life. “I lived with Father Paul McCarrick at St. Joseph’s Parish in Fall River,” he said. “He welcomed me as did the parishioners. Even when I became bishop, I would often see the parishioners from St. Joseph’s.”

His life as a bishop was “a responsibility to be sure,” he said. “But with good priests and faithful laity, deacons and religious, all that added to the joy that I experienced as my years as Bishop of Fall River. This is the Church: at prayer, at work, living together, and praying together.” He added that the diocese is a microcosm of the Church, as is the parish.

When asked if it was meaningful that the person who appointed him bishop is now a saint, Bishop Coleman said, “It is, and I have a great memory of meeting him.”

That happened at Bishop Coleman’s first ad limina visit as bishop in August of 2004, less than a year before St. (then pope) John Paul II died. “He was in failing health when we went there,” said Bishop Coleman, “but he made a point of meeting with each of the bishops. The time was limited to 10 minutes, but those were 10 very precious minutes. At the end of the discussion, when we talked about the Church of the Diocese of Fall River, he stressed that we stress the importance of family life. Something that is still so important today, maybe even more now than ever.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is the second of three popes for whom Bishop Coleman served.

“Pope Benedict XVI, before he became pope was a professor and a teacher,” said Bishop Coleman. “The great treasure he has left to the Church is his teaching. No doubt that many for generations to come will be inspired by his writings. His works will help others come to a better understanding of Catholic theology. Their understanding will become more profound through his works.

“I know that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is praying for the Church. I hope he still continues to write as well.”

Bishop Coleman told The Anchor that today many people can see Pope John  XXIII in Pope Francis. “Pope Francis reminds people of him because it’s that element of helping people understand that Christ’s love is, in a sense, incarnated in the love of parents for children and people for each other,” he said. “It makes real what for many can remain an abstract. It makes real Christ’s love which is not abstract. It is a reality.”

With the installation of his successor just weeks away, Bishop Coleman said, “I know Bishop da Cunha is very much looking forward to beginning his episcopal ministry in the Diocese of Fall River. He is a man of many talents evidenced by his work in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. for many years.

“I know he’ll have the good of the people of this wonderful Diocese of Fall River in his heart in all he does and in all he says. And I ask the people of the Diocese of Fall River to pray for him.

“Every bishop and priest depends on the prayers of the people to help us carry out our ministries.”

Looking back on his years as bishop, Bishop Coleman said, “Going around to the different parishes I was always deeply touched by people who came up to me after Masses to assure me that they are praying every day, every day for me.”

He relayed a story of a woman who told him of her house-bound mother who would offer one decade of the many Rosaries she would pray daily, for Bishop Coleman. 

“That humbles me to know that and it also helps me to understand that without those prayers and God’s grace I could do absolutely nothing.”

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts