By Peter Geniesse
Special to The Compass
He's been called the layman's bishop, and he has no problem with that tag.
Ever since he sat in at the Second Vatican Council, he's been sold on the expanded role of lay people in the church.
"It was a threat to many priests," Bp. Aloysius Wycislo said. "Even to this day it is with some clergy. But, personally, I welcomed it."
Bp. Wycislo grew up in the hierarchical church in a Polish section of Chicago where the layman had little to say and even less to do.
But when he returned from Rome in late 1965 to his large parish on Chicago's north side, he set out to involve the laity in the church. "I knew there were people out there in my congregation who were smarter than I in finance, building, construction and insurance."
He also believed in giving them a say in other matters. He was among the first pastors in the Chicago Archdiocese to establish a parish council. "It was a big change," he said. "I had to sell the idea to our priests."
He then carried that idea to Green Bay when he was installed as the diocese's eighth bishop on April 16, 1968. His principal task, as he saw it, was to implement the changes that flowed from Vatican II.
He established a permanent diaconate in the diocese, one of the first such programs in the country. By the time he retired in 1983, there were 63 ordained permanent deacons working in parishes.
He also established a wide variety of lay ministries in the church, fostered by Vatican II, and provided education and training programs. Scores of men and women signed up.
The Holy Spirit truly was at work during Vatican II when the council fathers discussed and adopted documents more fully integrating the laity into the church, he said. "I'm positive of that."
No one could foresee the departure of so many priests in the late 1960s, he said, and the coming need for more lay involvement.
The document on the laity was inspired by the Holy Spirit, he said."It was providential that Vatican II set up the foundation for the role of the laity. What we see now is the fruition of all that.
"There has been a tremendous growth in lay ministry," he added. "We are bringing forth the intelligence and talents of a tremendous number of laity who were educated in our Catholic schools.
"They're doing exactly what we wanted them to do at Vatican II," he continued, "and that's to participate in the mission of the church."
Bp. Wycislo also implemented changes in diocesan structure in accord with Vatican II. The Priests' Council became the Priests' Senate. The bishop and the priests collaborated on diocesan goals and together honed clergy salary, benefit and retirement plans. A Diocesan Pastoral Council was founded and the diocese was divided into vicariates.
"There was a big difference in the relationship of the bishop to his priests and to his people," he said.
Bp. Wycislo was determined to see through implementation of Vatican II in the Green Bay Diocese. But he was shocked and saddened by the sudden departure of priests from their ministries in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"I never imagined it," he said.
In his 15 years as bishop of Green Bay, the number of priests declined by more than 100. In 1983, there were 213 active priests and 17 others working outside of the diocese. The number of Catholics in the diocese, however, increased by 8% to 344,306.
When Bp. Wycislo attended St. Mary of the Lake Seminary at Mundelein, Ill., the enrollment was more than 400, and almost all were from the Chicago Archdiocese. There were 52 priests in his ordination class of 1934. Not one of them left the priesthood, he said.
But in the years after Vatican II, everything seemed to change. In the early 1960s, there were 8-10 new priests in a diocesan ordination class. That number soon dropped to one or two, and some years, none.
"There were tremendous changes in society," he said. "The church itself, and in particular its personnel, were affected by the culture of the times. It's a materialistic culture."
He added, "Parents don't want to see their sons to become priests. They want them to become doctors and lawyers, and they want grandchildren."
Families are smaller today, he said, and less likely to produce religious vocations.
He was the eldest of seven children and thought about becoming a priest when he was in grade school. "I was influenced by the sisters and priests of the parish," he said. "They nurtured my vocation."
His parents were very religious but didn't overtly encourage or discourage him from studying for the priesthood.
His mother took him aside as they returned home on the day of his first Mass. "I've been praying that you would be a priest ever since your baptism," he recalled her saying.
Bp. Wycislo noted that the church in some countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America isn't facing diminishing numbers of priests.
"There are more vocations in the Third World countries," he said. "Sometimes we kid around and say that what we need here is a depression."
Bp. Wycislo is concerned with the decline in the number of parochial schools. "We had that tremendous influence of the nuns, and very good Catholic backgrounds," he said. "That's missing today."
Yet, he remains optimistic about the future of the church. "I don't see the dark picture that so many do see. I just think that Vatican II is going to take another 50 years to implement."
© Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
1825 Riverside Drive | P.O. Box 23825 | Green Bay, WI 54305-3825
Phone: 920-437-7531 | Fax: 920-437-0694 | E-Mail: [email protected]