With enthusiasm yet acknowledging challenges, Joliet’s new bishop is installed

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The night before his Sept. 29 installation, Bishop Ronald A. Hicks, named July 17 to head the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, recalled a particularly painful incident as a pastor but one that made him change his approach toward the group he was serving.

While working in El Salvador with a mission project called “Our little brothers and sisters,” which serves abandoned children, a group of kids showed up to his office and told him they needed to talk to him.

He told them to wait for five minutes, but emails and other office work prolonged the wait to about 30. When he was finished with the paperwork, he went over to talk to them.

“I said, OK. How can I help you? What would you like? And one of the children, with all sincerity and with no guile, before they started their conversation, just looked at me and he said (in Spanish) ‘Padre, usted es más como un abogado que un sacerdote.’ What he said to me was, ‘Father, you are more like a lawyer than a priest.’ His words broke my heart.”

He said that even though he was surprised and pained at what the child had said, and he had been working hard to raise money so they could eat, have a roof over their head, to fight a court system to keep the children protected, he realized his primary job was as their pastor.

“I changed my life with them on that day,” he said to those gathered at St. James the Apostle Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, for a vespers service livestreamed Sept. 28 from the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus in Joliet. “I said I will not let one day go by without making sure that I spend real time with them, playing with them, eating with them, listening to them, just being there as their spiritual father.”

Similarly, his new post as the diocese’s sixth bishop will entail a lot of administrative work, he said, and he asked for the help of women and men religious, deacons, priests, the laity and people of goodwill, but he said his primary role is as their pastor.

“I need God, I need to rely and lean in to God, to Christ, every single day, every single moment of my life, and I also need you, I need all of you,” he said.

He takes over a diocese that, like others, is reeling from the hurt, trauma and financial strain of the clergy sex abuse scandal, which resulted in more than $4 million paid in settlements in 2015 to 14 men who accused some Joliet priests of abusing them as children, in addition to the economic effects of COVID-19.

He alluded to both situations in his homily at his Sept. 29 installation Mass at the cathedral, a service, that like vespers, was sprinkled with English and Spanish.

“We are called to be healers in this time of pandemic and job loss, violence, racism, injustice and disunity, and also we are called to never turn a blind eye to the sick, the suffering the unborn, the orphaned, the abandoned, victim survivors,” Bishop Hicks said.

He spoke of a trip to Mexico a year ago with Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, and other priests, and eating homemade tortillas and fish tacos in the town of Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles (Our Lady of Angels), where they took part in the Masses for the fiestas patronales, the religious celebrations of the town’s patron saint.

The mayor told them Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles needed a town slogan and Bishop Flores suggested “el lugar donde la tierra y el cielo se encuentran,” or “where earth and heaven meet.”

“That’s the church: It is the incarnation of Jesus Christ with its humanity and divinity,” Bishop Hicks said in Spanish during his homily. “The church is where earth meets heaven, where Mary, the Mother of God and the archangels with their proclamation provide protection and healing.”

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, as well as Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, attended the Mass, along with a small group of Bishop Hicks’ friends and family spread throughout the pews. Bishop Hicks was appointed in 2015 vicar general of the Chicago Archdiocese, and in 2018 he was ordained an auxiliary bishop at Holy Name Cathedral. His ties to the area go back to his childhood. His parents live in a neighboring diocese.

But it’s his experience in Latin America, as a missionary, that seems clearly stamped in his identity and now in his coat of arms, with symbols of missionary work and a sprig of rosemary, called “romero” in Spanish, a reference to El Salvador’s martyred St. Oscar Romero. But clearly, Pope Francis is a big influence.

In the installation homily, on the feast of the Archangels Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Bishop Hicks said that just as Michael battled evil, Christians, too,  are called “to defend and protect human life, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the environment and even our faith itself,” he said.

The night before, he had referenced Pope Francis’ famous saying about what he wants in his pastors, prelates who have the “smell of the sheep.”

“The church is better off when bishops spend time with and among the people of God,” he said. “I want to spend time with and among you, to be a good bishop.”

He said that when the announcement naming him as the new bishop of Joliet was made July 17, internet searches began, phone calls and emails, text messages started, and everyone was asking the same thing: Who is he? And what is he like? Is he humble or arrogant? Is he a conservative or liberal? Is he an introvert or an extrovert? “Is he a Cubs fan or a Sox fan?”

“Truth be told, I am a Cubs fan,” he said, jokingly. “You want to get to know me and I want to get to know you.”

He said this time is about getting to know one another and there will be good and not so good things they will see about him, just as the child in El Salvador pointed out to him. Sometimes he will have to deal with the “temporal realities in the administration of this diocese,” but he said he wants to focus on being close to his flock.

“I look forward to getting to know all of you and as you get to know me, I hope that one day you will be able to not only say, ‘Hey, that’s Bishop Hicks, our shepherd,’ but also I hope that one day you will be able to say, ‘Hey, that’s Bishop Hicks, our good shepherd, who has the smell of the sheep.’”

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