September 30, 2011

Archbishop Buechlein leaves archdiocese with humility and a promise of prayer

Retiring shepherd most proud of achievements in education

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein acknowledges the standing ovation that he received from priests, friends, archdiocesan employees and members of the media at the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis on Sept. 21 after it was announced that he is retiring as shepherd of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein acknowledges the standing ovation that he received from priests, friends, archdiocesan employees and members of the media at the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis on Sept. 21 after it was announced that he is retiring as shepherd of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

By John Shaughnessy

On an emotional day when his early retirement was announced, Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein shared the unexpected words of wisdom that have guided him through the past three years of serious health problems—advice that he drew upon again as he reflected on the end of his 19 years as the spiritual leader of the archdiocese.

During a press conference on Sept. 21, the 73-year-old archbishop recalled a homemade card that he had received from a then 12-year-old boy in 2008 when the child learned that the archbishop had been diagnosed with cancer.

“He wrote, ‘Stay glad because God loves you,’ ” recalled the archbishop, who also suffered a stroke in March of 2011. “Coming from a young kid, that advice has always lifted me up. He really gave me inspiration.”

That tone of graciousness, acceptance and humility flowed through the archbishop’s comments, which were also laced with several touches of ad-lib humor that led to smiles and laughs from an audience filled with priests, friends, archdiocesan employees and members of the media at the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis.

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Then there was the one moment when the emotion of the day’s significance overwhelmed the archbishop. He first made a reference to the Diocese of Memphis, where Pope John Paul II appointed him as bishop in 1987. Then he referred to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, where he has led more than 225,000 Catholics in 151 parishes in central and southern Indiana since 1992.

“I leave with fond memories,” he said, fighting back tears.

While shifting emotions marked the day, so did news of the passing of leadership for the archdiocese.

In granting Archbishop Buechlein retirement two years before the usual resignation age of 75, Pope Benedict XVI also appointed the archdiocese’s auxiliary bishop, Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese. Bishop Coyne will lead the archdiocese until a new archbishop is named, but he does not have the authority to make major changes.

No timetable for naming a new archbishop has been set, according to Archbishop Buechlein. He jokingly mentioned that he “got in trouble” when he was appointed archbishop of Indianapolis and stated that the Memphis diocese would have a new bishop within eight months. Still, he added that “the process of consultation has begun” to select his successor for the archdiocese.

Bishop Coyne praised the archbishop during his opening remarks at the press conference.

“Last week, I was over in Rome for a study week that is offered to new bishops,” said Bishop Coyne, who was ordained on March 2. “I was able to tell Church officials that they need not be concerned about the direction the Archdiocese of Indianapolis is going because, under Archbishop Daniel’s leadership, this archdiocese has excelled and is still continuing to do so.”

Bishop Coyne then listed several of the most notable accomplishments that the archdiocese has achieved under Archbishop Buechlein’s leadership.

  • The services of Catholic Charities and other social outreach ministries were expanded, which helped about 180,000 people in need in 2010.
  • Twenty-six Catholic schools in the archdiocese received recognition as Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence from the U.S. Department of Education, more than any other diocese in the country.
  • He ordained 40 of the priests who are in active ministry in the archdiocese, and opened Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis in 2004 to prepare college seminarians for major seminary.
  • Capital campaigns and annual appeals resulted in $300 million for building projects and ministry needs in the archdiocese, including the building of the Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis, a 30,000-square-foot shelter for homeless families.
  • The archdiocesan ministry to young adult Catholics was expanded, and new campus ministry programs were added for college students.

“Those are just a few of the many significant accomplishments of the archbishop’s tenure here,” Bishop Coyne said. “While we are sad to see his ministry here in Indianapolis come to an end, we are so grateful for Archbishop Daniel’s long and successful service to the people of central and southern Indiana.”

The archbishop said that his most important accomplishment during his 19-year tenure was in the area of education.

“I think it was tough. I said that in my first talk 19 years ago that it was going to be a hard thing, but we were going to keep our schools going,” said the archbishop, who was using a wheelchair because of his health problems. “We’ve had to be creative in how we do that, and I wish it would have been less difficult. But it’s working. God is blessing us.”

The archbishop’s legacy of support for Catholic education is remarkable, according to Annette “Mickey” Lentz, chancellor of the archdiocese and former executive director of Catholic education and faith formation for the archdiocese. She praised him for his commitment to keeping Catholic schools open and even building two new schools in urban areas in Indianapolis—a rarity among Catholic dioceses across the country in the past two decades.

“He right away saw them as anchors for the neighborhoods and the community,” Lentz said. “He went to businesses and benefactors, and found a way to continue those schools.”

The archbishop’s commitment to people who are in need and disadvantaged reflects his appreciation for the works of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Lentz said.

“He saw what she did for the people, for the poor, and I know he wanted to do the same in his own humble way,” said Lentz, a longtime friend of the archbishop.

Besides his influence on broad efforts of the archdiocese, Archbishop Buechlein also showed his commitment to people and Church concerns in personal ways.

He visited jails and celebrated the sacrament of confirmation for two men on Death Row at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute.

He often joined young people in the archdiocese for the March for Life in Washington to protest abortion.

He also faithfully wrote a column in The Criterion that appeared in both English and Spanish, and wrote hand-written responses to the mail he received.

“When we’ve had a challenge [in our family], we’ve written to him, and he personally answered our questions. That was invaluable to us,” said Kay Dodds, a member of St. Michael Parish in Greenfield.

The archbishop’s retirement is the end of an era, according to Msgr. Joseph Schaedel, who served as vicar general—the second position of authority in the archdiocese—for 17 of the 19 years that Archbishop Buechlein led the archdiocese.

“I say that it’s the end of an era because the archbishop in his tenure with us has done so much,” said Msgr. Schaedel, the pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “I hope that he will have some much needed time for solitude and prayer. That was his original vocation.”

For his retirement, Archbishop Buechlein will return to Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana, where he spent the first 23 years after his ordination as a priest in 1964—a year after he professed solemn vows as a Benedictine monk.

“It’s like going home,” said the archbishop, who first went to Saint Meinrad at age 14 to discern his interest in becoming a priest.

During summer vacations from the seminary, his father insisted that he work so he would understand how people made a living. So he glazed doughnuts in a bakery and stacked lumber for a cabinet company.

The archbishop plans to stay true to that work ethic in retirement.

“I’m not quitting,” said the archbishop, whose cancer is in remission. “I will continue to serve the Church, the archdiocese and God in the way I can. I will continue to write. I’ve been encouraged, even by my doctors, to write my memoirs.”

In parting, Archbishop Buechlein made one request and one promise to the members of the archdiocese he has served for 19 years:

“I ask that you continue to pray for me, and know that you will always be in my prayers.”

(Senior reporter Mary Ann Garber and reporter Sean Gallagher contributed to this story.)

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