Pope Francis greets Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Matthew Ustrzycki of Hamilton during the Ontario bishops’ ad limina visit to the Vatican April 25. CNS photo / L’Osservatore Romano

Opinion: Unexpected papal meeting brings out best in bishop

  • May 4, 2017

As the Ontario bishops completed their ad limina visit to Rome last week, I couldn’t help but recall one of my favourite stories about one of Ontario’s favourite bishops.

Every bishop is required to make a periodic visit to Rome — ad limina apostolorum (to the threshold of the apostles) — to report on his diocese, to meet the Holy Father and officials of the Roman Curia, and to build up the bonds of communion between the local Church and the universal Church. Usually these visits are every five years, but as the Church has grown, and the number of bishops has swelled, while there is still only one Holy Father, the intervals between visits are growing. The bishops of Canada last went in 2006 and before that in 1999.

During that 1999 ad limina, the practice of St. John Paul II was to meet each head of a diocese for a private conversation, usually lasting about a quarter hour. But in 1999, a death in the family meant that Hamilton’s Bishop Anthony Tonnos was not able to remain in Rome for the meeting with the Holy Father. Consequently, St. John Paul II met with the auxiliary bishop of Hamilton, Matthew Ustrzycki. It was unusual for an auxiliary bishop to have that private conversation and while Bishop Ustrzycki would have preferred that Hamilton be properly present in Bishop Tonnos, he was also excited to sit down with the Holy Father himself.

The day came and Bishop Ustrzycki made a bold decision. Being a Polish-Canadian, he decided to address the Holy Father in Polish. He expected that they would exchange some greetings and then maybe the conversation would move to English. He was not confident that he could keep up with the Holy Father in Polish, who after all would have been expecting to conduct the meeting in English.

The conversation was entirely in Polish. After about 15 minutes the ushers of the papal household arrived to conclude the meeting with the customary gifts and photographs. St. John Paul II waved them off. Another quarter hour passed and the ushers returned, indicating by their presence that other cardinals and bishops were waiting.

The Holy Father knew that, but was evidently enjoying himself, so dismissed them again, indicating that he would summon when he was ready. After about three-quarters of an hour, the Holy Father concluded the conversation with an elated Bishop Ustrzycki. As he took his leave of the papal library, he saw quizzical glances from those waiting. What was going on in Hamilton that so occupied the supreme pontiff?

The Holy Father had enjoyed speaking his mother tongue, and wanted to know, in addition to Hamilton, about the Polish community in Canada. Were they keeping the faith? Were they strengthening the Church in Canada with their witness?

At the end of their extended meeting, Bishop Ustrzycki thanked the Holy Father for his time and his indulgence in putting up with rusty Polish. St. John Paul II replied that Bishop Ustrzycki’s Polish was “very good.”

Hamilton’s auxiliary bishop walked out of the apostolic palace, but he could have floated right out the window. For the rest of the ad limina visit Bishop Ustrzycki told everyone who asked — and many who didn’t — about his extended audience with the Holy Father and the pontifical judgment that his Polish was just fine. He was 67 years old at the time, but a boy on Christmas morning could not have been more excited about the gift he had received!

Bishop Ustrzycki celebrated his 85th birthday on March 25 — an Annunciation baby — and on June 1 marks 10 years since his retirement. Those are suitable milestones to give public praise to God for one of the great priests of his generation. Even before being consecrated a bishop in 1985, Fr. Ustrzycki had held various senior posts in the Hamilton diocese and was a devoted pastor.

We priests have a bad (sometimes sinful) habit of speaking negatively about priests who exercise authority, and it applies all the moreso for bishops. Bishop Ustrzycki is that rare priest, and even more rare bishop, about which never is heard a discouraging word. His fidelity to the truth of the Gospel, his love for the priesthood and his limitless kindness have made him beloved by all. As a seminarian and young priest, though not of his diocese, I experienced all of that, and was inspired by it. I am do, and still am.

Always quick with a laugh, Bishop Ustrzycki once joked to me that he had the worst of both worlds. Because he was a bishop whatever he said would be repeated. But because he was an auxiliary, no one paid any attention!

There may have been some truth in that, but not much. Countless souls have paid attention to the wisdom and kind words of Bishop Ustrzycki. As he turns 85, at more than 30 years a bishop, his admirers and friends pray God that we have his wisdom for many more years — in whatever language. Ad multos annos!

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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