ROME — When Pope Francis personally greeted new bishops from Florida and Texas September 14, he “looked concerned” and asked how the dioceses and their people were after major hurricanes and rainstorms struck, one of the bishops said.
Bishop William A. Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, said that when he and Bishop Robert M. Coerver of Lubbock, Texas, went up to shake the pope’s hand, as soon as he heard where they were from, the pope asked about the storms and the people.
The two bishops, along with 19 others from the United States, and about 100 other bishops from around the world were in Rome for an intense course the Vatican runs each September for bishops ordained during the previous 12 months.
This year’s course began September 6 as Hurricane Irma was gaining strength in the Caribbean, but before its course toward Florida was clear.
“I almost canceled, even on my way to the airport,” Wack said. He did not want to leave his new diocese if there was a chance the people would need him. “But the chancellor and others said, ‘Go,'” and, in the end, “our diocese was almost completely spared.”
The new bishops’ course includes presentations on canon law and introductions to the work of various Vatican offices. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and Marie Collins, a former commission member and survivor of abuse, also gave presentations.
Wack said Collins’s presentation was “gut-wrenching, of course, very sobering — both of their talks were — but very, very important.”
O’Malley told the bishops, “even if there’s nothing the state finds against someone or it’s not a matter of a crime, you are the shepherds of the diocese. You need to shepherd the people. Do what you need to do to keep people safe,” Wack said.
The new bishop, who was ordained August 22, said connecting with other new bishops from around the world was the highlight of his time in Rome.
“It’s amazing that all of us — and even if we didn’t speak the same language, you can almost read it in each other’s faces — almost every single one of us is extremely surprised that we are here,” he said. “Just to say, ‘How did this happen?’ ‘I was just a parish priest.’ ‘This doesn’t happen to people like me.'”
“I love my life,” the bishop said. “I love being a priest,” so he is focused on “still being a priest, but just with a larger church.
“I have no illusions of riding into a diocese and trying to just really be in charge. I mean, I’m joining a church that’s already alive and active,” Wack said. “I can’t wait to be back.”