March 29, 2019

Archbishop’s visit to Ritter House brings history to life

When Archbishop Charles C. Thompson came to the childhood home of Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter in New Albany on March 14, he received a personal tour from David Hock, chairman of the Cardinal Ritter Birthplace Foundation. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

When Archbishop Charles C. Thompson came to the childhood home of Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter in New Albany on March 14, he received a personal tour from David Hock, chairman of the Cardinal Ritter Birthplace Foundation. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

NEW ALBANY—As he toured the childhood home of Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter in New Albany, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson focused intently on the major accomplishments of a man who helped shape the archdiocese, the United States and the universal Church.

Archbishop Thompson read the museum display that noted how Cardinal Ritter desegregated Catholic schools in Indianapolis over the opposition of the Ku Klux Klan and even some of his priests—17 years before Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision which held that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

The archbishop also absorbed the reference to Cardinal Ritter’s influence during the Second Vatican Council that reshaped the Church in the 1960s, and how Pope Paul VI invited Cardinal Ritter to celebrate the first public Mass in English in the United States—a 1964 Mass that drew more than 12,000 people in St. Louis where Cardinal Ritter served as archbishop following his time as the spiritual leader of the Church in central and southern Indiana.

After heading upstairs in the house, Archbishop Thompson displayed a look of appreciation as David Hock—the board chairman of the Cardinal Ritter Birthplace Foundation—showed the archbishop the small, second-floor room where Cardinal Ritter had been born above his family’s bakery.

And the archbishop shared a smile and an expression of surprise and delight when Hock noted that Ritter family members brewed beer in the basement of the house during the years of Prohibition in the United States.

All those elements came together in the archbishop’s mind later during his remarks to a standing-room-only audience at the annual “Lecture and Irish Coffee” event on March 14 at the Cardinal Ritter House.

Asked about the impact that the museum and the tour had on him, Archbishop Thompson said, “I know there are some who would like to see him get canonized. But what I think this does for people is that we always want to think of saints—or people who do great things—as a particular breed [that’s different] from us. And hopefully the people who come here find a person and a human being who is just like us. He was a Hoosier from New Albany, close to the Ohio River, who went on to do great things.

“That’s the potential that all of us have. The last document Pope Francis gave us was on holiness. He talked about the call to holiness, that it’s not just for a few, it’s for all of us. That’s our baptismal call. We’re all called to holiness. We’re all called to become saints. This man born in a room upstairs over a bakery, above where beer was being made, can go on to do the great things he did in Indianapolis and St. Louis and the Second Vatican Council. It reminds all of us that that potential is in all of us.

“God doesn’t call us to anything that God doesn’t give us the grace to do. So what stands out is that this ordinary person, like us, went on to do great things. And he did it not because he was in a privileged position, but he was a man of faith who allowed the Spirit to guide him, who took seriously his baptismal call to serve, to love, to proclaim the Good News, to live the faith. And that’s an example for all of us.”

During his talk, Archbishop Thompson also noted that the challenges of racism that Cardinal Ritter faced because of his desegregation efforts are still with the United States and the Church today.

The archbishop mentioned that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) adopted and published a pastoral letter on racism in November of 2018. He also referred to his own personal experience of being in high school in Louisville during the first year of busing there—a time that he has previously described as being marked by “a lot of violence.”

“To come to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis where Cardinal Ritter desegregated the schools, that’s kind of a neat connection for me,” Archbishop Thompson told the audience.

He then referred to a “listening session” on racism that the USCCB hosted at the University of Dayton in Ohio on March 8.

“With this pastoral letter on racism, different dioceses are hosting these listening sessions, and we’re hoping to do one in Indianapolis. We have to listen. Dayton, Ohio, just had one. A lot of people were getting up and sharing their story of how they experienced racial treatment not only in the city, but in our Church. So, it’s important that we listen.”

The importance of listening is an approach that Pope Francis has stressed during his time of leading the Church, the archbishop noted.

“People on both sides tend to misunderstand Pope Francis. He’s never changed one issue of content of our Church. He’s pushing for tone—that we can listen and dialogue, and encounter and come together in those painful, difficult moments.

“Pope Francis also talks a lot about accompaniment. That word accompaniment implies movement. He said to meet people where they are, listen to their hurts and then start teaching them. We have to lead them to Christ.”

In that regard, the archbishop shared how the archdiocese is currently in the midst of developing a strategic plan to keep and bring young people into a deeper relationship with God and the Church.

“One of the things we’re looking at is evangelization,” Archbishop Thompson said. “That focuses on all ages, but especially youths and young adults. They say today that the average Catholic is leaving the Church by age 13. That says family. You don’t leave at 13 unless your family has left. That is a group we have to focus on.”

Still, the archbishop said that he has reminded the strategic steering committee that “we cannot focus on [young people] to the detriment of not being attentive to children, to senior citizens, to all people.”

“As Pope Francis pointed out, it’s a two-way street,” he said. “It can’t just be, ‘You got to be heard.’ You’ve also got to be able to listen. It’s not just how do we draw from your gifts, wisdom and strengths, but how are you listening to the Church that’s been around for 2,000 years and the people who have gone before you with their blood, sweat and tears.”

Archbishop Thompson received a warm reception from the audience, many of whom braved a fierce storm to come to the event, a storm that knocked out the electricity on that evening in the Cardinal Ritter House.

Despite that challenge, Hock and the other volunteers at the event seemed to channel—mostly—Cardinal Ritter’s motto of “Work hard, pray hard, don’t worry.”

“I was worried a little,” Hock admitted with a smile, referring to the weather and the lack of electricity.

Still, he kept his focus on the archdiocese’s latest archbishop coming to the birthplace of its first archbishop.

“For the most part, Cardinal Ritter was always an Indiana boy and an Indiana man,” Hock said. “He really was a humble person. He always said he just wanted to be a priest.

“It’s really nice that Archbishop Thompson is here. He was the bishop of Evansville, and he grew up in Kentucky. He’s from this area. We’re really glad that he’s here to hear Cardinal Ritter’s story.” †

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