ALLOUEZ — “Blessed be God forever.”
At every Mass, we say these words as the gifts are prepared for consecration.
They are also words people in the Diocese of Green Bay heard in a new way 25 years ago this month. “Blessed be God forever” is the episcopal motto of Bishop Emeritus Robert Banks, whose assignment as the 10th bishop of the diocese was announced on Oct. 16, 1990.
The motto — which he first took when he was consecrated as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Boston on Sept. 19, 1985 — was never intended to be something unique to his ministry, Bishop Banks said, reflecting on his anniversary.
“‘Blessed be God forever’ is something that any Catholic could have as a motto,” he said. “It doesn’t go with authority; it’s goes with being a follower.”
It was a typical autumn day when Bishop Banks first touched down at Austin Straubel Airport for a whirlwind day of introductions to his new diocese.
“When I got here, it really was a warm welcome,” he recalled. “I still remember how Bishop (Aloysius) Wycislo, Bishop (Robert) Morneau, Msgr. (John) Schuh and Msgr. (Paul) Koszarek, all met me that first day. And I knew (instantly) that these are good people.” He also held a press conference and met with the priests of the diocese who were gathered for the annual Priests’ Congress in Mishicot.
Then he headed back to Boston to wrap up his work there as vicar general for the Boston Archdiocese. By the time he returned for his Dec. 5 installation in Green Bay, autumn had ended abruptly with a two-day snowstorm that left more than a foot of snow in northeast Wisconsin.
Since he has always loved outdoor sports, including Alpine skiing in his younger days, Bishop Banks took it in stride: “The Lord was trying to indicate to me that I should come, they needed my help,” he now jokes.
The 1990 installation was memorable for Catholics in northeast Wisconsin for many reasons, and not just the snow. There was the Mass itself, held at St. Agnes Church in Green Bay instead of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral because, at the time, the cathedral could only seat 1,000 at most while St. Agnes could seat 1,500. (Both have since been remodeled; St. Agnes has less seating capacity and the cathedral has more with the Bishop Wycislo Center addition.)
The day after the installation, Bishop Banks met with 350 religious men and women of the diocese for a vesper service. Twenty-five years later, during this Year of Consecrated Life, he reflected on that meeting and said he felt today what he felt then: “(Religious men and women) are a source of tremendous strength in any diocese.”
That was the only meeting the new bishop had with any of his flock for two months — even though all types of “get acquainted” meetings had been scheduled. Instead, on Dec. 7, he returned to Boston for heart bypass surgery. It was a problem that had been discovered in a routine physical just before coming to Green Bay.
“I felt fine,” Bishop Banks recalled, but that didn’t stop a Boston doctor from being present at the installation events in Green Bay. The surgery required a longer recovery than anyone had expected.
“Usually when you have a heart operation, two weeks later you’re back,” Bishop Banks said. “But I wasn’t. I was not strong, for a full month.”
But once he did return, he was fully recovered and things proceeded as normal. Diocesan employees were so happy to have their new bishop back that they, using their own funds, rented a sign board for the Chancery’s front lawn to welcome him: “Back by popular demand.”
On Oct. 3, 2003, at the canon-law required age of 75, Bishop Banks retired. He continued to serve, as diocesan administrator, until Bishop David Zubik’s installation in December. Then Bishop Banks went to Kewaunee to live at the Holy Rosary Parish rectory. While the retired bishop had no official responsibility there, he celebrated Masses and helped with other liturgical services, since the parish did not have a resident pastor. He helped out there, and at St. Mary Parish in Algoma, for nearly three years.
“That was a wonderful experience, being there and helping out in Algoma. It was perfect,” he said in 2008. “I became a part of the community. The people were wonderful. I think I would have died if I just did nothing (right after retirement). So it was good for me.”
When asked how being the ordinary of the diocese differs from being “bishop emeritus,” he gave a customary tongue-in-cheek response: “I don’t have a job. I don’t have to get up every morning and put on my overalls and go into work. Well, OK, put on the collar.”
He chose to stay in the Green Bay Diocese after retirement, later saying that one of the things he is most proud about is that, “I became a Midwesterner. And it was very easy, but I came to love northeast Wisconsin and to love this church of Green Bay.”
He still golfs every week in the summer. Two years ago, he went to Rome and attended a general audience so he could meet the newly elected Pope Francis. Bishop Banks said he was most impressed, not to be one of 15 to 20 bishops to shake the pope’s hand that day, but to be able to witness how Pope Francis left the bishops so that he could greet 20 to 30 newly married couples in the audience, “to hug and spend time with them.”
Until this year, Bishop Banks travelled to parishes around the diocese each weekend to celebrate Masses. He still goes to parishes for Masses, confirmations, anniversaries and other liturgical services when asked. He also visits with retired priests, occasionally celebrates Mass at the diocesan chapel and, as he said, basically does “what priests do all the time.”
One thing has become a special concern for him lately: to pray for Middle-East Christians, and raise awareness of their plight, always mentioning them as a prayer intention at each Mass he celebrates.
His concern started a year ago, Bishop Banks explained, “when the news came out that the Christians in Iraq, something like 600,000 were forced out of their homes and living in refugee camps. Some were able to find other lodging. Basically, 600,000, people forced out of their homes, just because they were Christians. … It would be terrible if we Christians over here in the United States don’t pray for our fellow Christians who are suffering (just) because they are Christians.”
In his view, the 25th anniversary of his coming to Green Bay is not a big event. He appreciated that diocesan priests honored him with a roast at their annual clergy congress earlier this month — 25 years after their first meeting in 1990. He will be honored at the invitation-only Crozier Mass and lunch on Nov. 1.
During these anniversary months, he admitted that he might celebrate with a bit of chocolate from his favorite local chocolatier. But generally, he said he would be happy just to have it said: “He was here and he’s enjoying retirement, doing the little things he can do.” Then he laughed and added, “I’m lazy is what it comes down to.”
Not many who know him would agree.