Bishop Morneau at crossroads in his ministry

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | September 25, 2013

Green Bay’s auxiliary bishop, at 75, required by canon law to submit resignation to Vatican

ALLOUEZ — This year is one of milestones for Bishop Robert Morneau. On Sept. 10, he celebrated his 75th birthday. On Dec. 19, he will mark the 35-year anniversary of his appointment as auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Green Bay.

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Morneau, who serves as pastor of Resurrection Parish, delivers his homily during the parish’s anniversary Mass Sept. 8. (Scott Eastman | For The Compass)
Auxiliary Bishop Robert Morneau, who serves as pastor of Resurrection Parish, delivers his homily during the parish’s anniversary Mass Sept. 8. In keeping with canon law, he submitted his resignation to the Vatican when he turned 75. (Scott Eastman | For The Compass)

Turning 75 required that his resignation be submitted to the Vatican. The Holy See will decide when to accept it. Bishop Morneau also submitted his resignation to Bishop David Ricken. They agreed that he will remain as pastor of Resurrection Parish in Allouez.

“My ‘retirement’ is a few miles down the road,” said Bishop Morneau in an interview with The Compass. “My tires are worn, but I do have some tread left.”

When his resignation is accepted, he will no longer be vicar general for the diocese and ex officio member of the board of directors. He also plans to step down from other committees.

“We have 1,450 families in the parish and 138 in the school, so there’s a lot going on here,” he said.

His resignation serves as a good time for reflection. He recalls the day in 1978 when Bishop Aloysius Wycislo stopped at Silver Lake College in Manitowoc to inform then-Fr. Morneau that he was being asked to accept the position of auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Green Bay.

“I was ordained only 13 years and was 40 years old. Needless to say, I was stunned and wondered whether or not our new pope (Pope John Paul II, elected in 1978) had been given the gift of discernment,” said Bishop Morneau. “I had 24 hours to respond and I could only talk to my confessor.”

Bishop Morneau was consecrated auxiliary bishop on Feb. 22, 1979, at St. Agnes Church in Green Bay. A snowstorm prevented the apostolic nuncio from attending. Cardinal John Cody, archbishop of Chicago, read the appointment.

“Feb. 22 is the Chair of St. Peter. I was aspiring to the papacy, but I didn’t make it,” said Bishop Morneau with a laugh.

TRUTH IN LOVE

The motto he chose for his coat of arms — “Living through Love in His Presence” — has served as his “faith map” for the past 35 years.

“To live involves loving attention toward God, people and creation; to live means trying to have discipline in the areas of our life; to live calls us to generous service by being good stewards,” he explained. “‘Through Love’ refers to the person of Jesus who is the manifestation of God’s Love. … In his presence refers to the God who created us, called us to a love relationship and invites us into community.”

Bishop Morneau, a Bear Creek native, has served in several roles while auxiliary bishop including preacher, teacher, writer, administrator and pastor. Ministry in his home diocese has suited him well, he said.

“I’m kind of a homebody, so I appreciate very much being able to be here,” he said. “I’ve been able to do a lot of national work, speaking in the area of stewardship, so I’ve been able to move around.

“I’ve served under five bishops now. My goal was seven, but Bishop Ricken is staying around,” he added with a smile.

During the past 35 years, Bishop Morneau has witnessed significant change in the diocese, especially increased participation by the laity. He also points to a greater appreciation of the Eucharist and deeper sense of social justice as positive progressions. Negative changes include greater secularity and a decline in church attendance, he said.

“My hope for the future is a greater response to our baptismal call to maturity, holiness, community, service and generosity,” said Bishop Morneau. “I hope that we can engage our youth; that family life might be strengthened; for an increase in vocations to the priesthood, religious life, lay ministry. The constant hope is that the ministries of church might grow and flourish: worship, education, community, social justice, leadership and evangelization.”

PROCLAIMING THE GOOD NEWS

Reflecting on his various roles, he said preaching is “tough and demands much energy and work.” The key to being a good preacher is reading, he added. Bishop Morneau’s approach to preaching has remained constant over the years.

“It’s essential to begin with the end in mind,” he said. “Given that, my approach is to attempt to tap into people’s personal experience — their joys and sorrows, their ups and downs. Examples are crucial, so good stories and images must engage the imagination of the congregation. Abstraction and theological jargon are deadly; so too are lengthy homilies. Most people tune out after seven to 10 minutes.”

Bishop Robert Morneau, pictured at the Bishop’s Charities Game last month, recently celebrated his 75th birthday. In keeping with canon law, he submitted his resignation to the Vatican. (Joan Hogan | For The Compass)
Bishop Robert Morneau, pictured at the Bishop’s Charities Game last month, recently celebrated his 75th birthday. In keeping with canon law, he submitted his resignation to the Vatican. (Jill Hogan | For The Compass)

Preaching at an unfamiliar church should not be problematic for a priest, he added.

“There is a universal human experience, so wherever you go, you have a struggling pilgrim,” explained Bishop Morneau. “We are all struggling pilgrims, so to touch into their universal joys and sorrows; you are talking about your life.”

He also focuses on an audience of one.

“In preaching, I try to image a tired housewife or a stressed out father who sits in the back pew,” he said. “What will help them to grow in faith and make it through the next week?”

Bishop Morneau is known nationally as an accomplished writer. His works have ranged from spiritual reflection, to poetry, to children’s books. Two stand out from the many.

FAVORITE BOOKS

“‘Spiritual Direction: Principles and Practices’ (1992) was a series of essays on prayer, asceticism and discernment. I kind of liked it,” he said with laugh. “It sold out and they didn’t reprint it. I think it may have had one reprinting.”

His other personal favorite is “The Gift” (1995), a children’s story about being blessed and giving those blessings away.

“It’s a stewardship book even though I didn’t know it at the time,” he said.

The story is about a pumpkin named Angela who realizes that everything she had was from the vine. She realizes her blessings and wants to give back.

“My brother had died around that time,” said Bishop Morneau. “It’s kind of processing my own grief. It’s a story about the paschal mystery.”

READING AND WRITING

Bishop Morneau’s writing process is similar in a way to his approach to preaching.

“I never write for an audience, but usually with one person in mind,” he said. “In doing this, the writing becomes more conversational.”

His writing process is based on his reading practice and is a part of each day.

“Every book I read — not library books — are underlined and marked up,” he explained. “After reading a book … I extract the passages and phrases that have struck me and enter them into two journals. One journal is a collection of themes; the second is a summary of the work itself.”

Last week, Bishop Morneau noticed a sidebar in the local newspaper. Two young men in Russia engaged in a physical confrontation when discussing “Critique of Pure Reason” by philosopher Immanuel Kant.

“I wrote a poem to Immanuel Kant about how his works are causing trouble in the world,” said Bishop Morneau. “I find an experience and reflect on it.”

Current writing projects for Bishop Morneau include the preface for a book on St. John of the Cross, Lenten reflections for Liturgical Press and four essays, 12 to 15 pages each, on William James, Flannery O’Connor, George Herbert and Jessica Powers.”

STEWARDSHIP WAY OF LIFE

Bishop Morneau’s commitment to teaching the Gospel message of stewardship has also brought national prominence. Each year, the National Catholic Development Conference hands out the Bishop Robert F. Morneau Award for Distinguished Service. Bishop Morneau was the first recipient in 2004.

“What stands out for me is the joy that people experience when they buy into stewardship and get into a pattern of gratitude and generosity,” he said. “Big changes happen. That’s a major shift and is not culturally acceptable. This is mine, my money in the bank, my car, my house or is it all a gift? I have been impressed at what happens when people change their identity from being an owner to being a trustee, caretaker, steward of God’s gift.”

The belief that stewardship is about money remains a challenge, he added.

“Money is but one dimension of our stewardship,” he said. “We must not allow finances to kidnap the stewardship concept.”

Bishop Morneau will give a presentation on stewardship in Philadelphia on Oct. 2. He has cut back his travel for speaking engagements to two a year. In the past, he often traveled each month. In August of 2014, he will give four talks in Australia.

PASTORATE

When being considered for auxiliary bishop 35 years ago, his limited pastoral experience was cause for reservation, according to Bishop Wycislo. Bishop Morneau was assigned by Bishop Stanislaus Bona to teach ethics/philosophy at Holy Family College (now Silver Lake) after being ordained in 1966. Bishop Morneau first became a pastor eight years ago when appointed to Resurrection.

“When I was ordained 47 years ago, I expected that I would be assigned to a parish,” he said. “I found the first two years of that ministry (teaching) to be most difficult. I was not trained to be a classroom teacher so I had to learn on the fly. I did have a master’s in philosophy to help in the methodology of teaching. Looking back, I am grateful for the fact that teaching became for me an education, demanding as it was. I do regret not being in a parish, though every weekend I helped out and I also did regular nursing home ministry and some Newman (campus) ministry.”

When the day comes for Bishop Morneau to retire from pastor to senior priest, he looks forward to helping out at parishes on weekends. He has much more on his to-do list including: “plant a larger garden, hit a few more golf balls, sky dive, make some homemade sauerkraut, learn to draw, study Spanish, try out for the Packers, read all of Shakespeare and reread my favorite classics, look at the stars every night and plant and trim Christmas trees.”

His various ministries have and will continue to tie together, he said.

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