February 12, 2013

Wichita bishop’s appointment driven by pope

The retiring pope played a direct role in the life of Catholics here eight years ago.

The retiring pope played a direct role in the life of Catholics here eight years ago.

It is a simple story: A priest got appointed to become Bishop of the Wichita diocese.

But when told by a gifted mimic, the story can take on a quality not usually seen at diocesan news conferences.

Michael Jackels, the bishop (and the mimic), stepped before the local media on Monday at the Wichita Diocese Chancery to issue a statement on the pope’s retirement. He explained that Catholics here are grateful to Pope Benedict XVI for his years of service.

Then someone asked whether Jackels knew Pope Benedict. The bishop grinned.

In 2005, Jackels said, he was a priest who had labored for eight years in Rome, writing reports and serving in various roles for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The supervising prelate in charge was Joseph Ratzinger, a short, kindly, scholarly German cardinal who drove himself relentlessly at work, “and gave all of us a lot of work to do also.”

One day, when Jackels was taking a coffee break, Ratzinger’s German secretary appeared at his side and bluntly summoned him to Ratzinger’s Vatican office. Jackels waited outside Ratzinger’s door, wondering what was up.

The door opened, and the German secretary appeared again. At this point, in telling the story Monday, Jackels told the story in English but in a thick German accent .

“You may go in now.”

Jackels sat down beside Ratzinger’s desk. Ratzinger, speaking English with a thick accent, held up a paper and said, “I see zey need a beeshop in Veecheetah, Kansas.”

Jackels, profoundly surprised, sat in silence.

“Are you surprised by this?” the German cardinal asked.

“Yes, I told him. I was very much surprised.”

Jackels didn’t know whether he wanted to do that job, whose appointment had to be approved by John Paul II. He knew the area, sort of, having spent much of his young life in Nebraska.

“I have a red Nebraska ‘N’ tattooed over my heart,” he said.

But become a bishop? In Wichita?

He did not want to displease Ratzinger. He had spent eight years watching Ratzinger drink Fanta orange sodas and work hard. He had realized long before that Ratzinger was, as Jackels said on Monday, a brilliant scholar, a man deeply hurt by other peoples’ suffering.

One of Ratzinger’s jobs was to help supervise the Vatican’s investigation of the priest sex abuse scandal; a job that Jackels said was brutal in its effect on Ratzinger.

“He had to read all these long reports of what had happened, and how this had affected the victims,” Jackels said. “You could watch how this pained him.”

Jackels did not want to disappoint him. But he did not know how to say yes to what he thought was Ratzinger’s “request.”

“So I said, ‘Well, I’d like to think about it, if you don’t mind.’ ”

“OK,” Ratzinger said.

“I reached the door,” Jackels said, “And he said. ‘You can haff 24 hours. But of courseYOU MUST SAY YES!’ ”

And that is how Jackels became bishop of Wichita, where he oversees nearly 115,000 Catholics in 25 counties.

A few months later, in September 2005, Jackels went back to Rome, to clean out his Vatican desk and attend classes on how to be a bishop. At the end of the visit, Jackels and other new bishops got to shake hands and chat with Ratzinger.

But this was no meeting between a simply dressed priest shaking hands with a simply dressed cardinal burrowing into paperwork on his desk. This time, Jackels said, he himself was dressed in the hat and fine vestments of a bishop and Ratzinger was resplendent in all the rich and flowing finery of his new job.

Pope Benedict, as he was now called, grinned happily when he saw Jackels approaching. The two men shared a gleeful joke – in Italian – about their new finery.

“Ma guarda! (Look at you!)” The pope exclaimed.

“Ma guarda a lei, Santita! (But look at you, your holiness!)” Jackels replied.

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