BALTIMORE, Maryland — Just days before leaving to join bishops from around the United States, Bishop William Wack Skyped with his father, who at age 90 was suffering from heart disease and in his final days. Rather than flying home to Indiana, Wack’s father encouraged him to head to Baltimore to attend his first ever meeting as a U.S. bishop.
On the final day of the bishops’ meeting, Wack’s father passed away — and despite not being at his bedside, Wack knew he was exactly where his father wanted him to be.
In May, Pope Francis named Wack the sixth bishop of the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. While less than five percent of the population of his diocese is Catholic, Wack’s missionary zeal makes him eager to change those statistics. Meanwhile, at age 50, he’s the nation’s youngest bishop and quite happy to have been tasked with heading a manageable-sized diocese as his first episcopal assignment.
An Unlikely Vocation
Wack grew up in South Bend, Indiana, “in the shadow of the dome of Notre Dame,” as he described it in an interview with Crux. Raised in a devout Catholic family by his physician father and nurse mother, he is the second youngest of ten children — eight of whom are boys.
While the family was actively engaged in parish life and he was an altar server as a child, the priesthood always seemed like an unlikely vocation.
“I was terrified of doing anything with my voice,” Wack recalled. While his great uncle was Holy Cross priest, he initially balked at the idea of the priesthood.
“I was willing to clean, set-up, or do anything, as long as I didn’t have to speak,” said Wack. Despite such fears, he eventually enrolled in the college seminary with the Congregation of Holy Cross at age eighteen.
“There, I found my voice,” said Wack. “I found my vocation really.”
After ordination, Wack’s first assignment was as a parish priest in Colorado Springs. It was there Wack learned to “have the smell of the sheep” as Francis has often challenged priests to do. Following three years in Colorado, Wack returned to South Bend where he worked as a campus minister and assistant vocations director.
By his own account, Wack had fully embraced the priesthood – so much so that his joy and his example inspired his brother to enroll in the seminary.
“He saw how happy I was and said that’s what I want,” said Wack. Today, he’s pleased to report his brother is also a Holy Cross priest.
After five years back in South Bend, Wack was eager to embrace a more “raw, dirty, and very hands-on ministry.”
From 2002-2008, Wack served as director of the André House of Hospitality in Phoenix, Arizona. There he fed, clothed, and sheltered the homeless and led a ministry defined by poverty.
He recalled that it was often his responsibility to take out the soup kitchen’s trash and in an effort to ensure that the André House wasn’t wasting any room in the dumpsters, he’d often get in trash bins and jump on top of the garbage to make sure they were maximizing space for more garbage so as to not waste the ministry’s limited financial resources.
It’s this sort of no-ego, hands-on approach to ministry, defined by a love of those on the peripheries, that likely led to him ending up on the short list to be named bishop.
An Unexpected Phone Call
After his assignment in Phoenix, Wack was eager to return to parish life when his provincial called him with his next assignment. He said he’d found a parish for him that’s “diverse, growing like crazy, in a city that’s fun, and has great music, the culture is a little weird, but you’re going to love it. The only thing is that it’s cloudy a lot.”
Wack was told he’d be headed to Portland, Oregon until his provincial rang him back a month later and said there was a change of plans.
“All those things are still true,” said the provincial, “but your new home is sunny.” And so he was sent to Austin, Texas, to serve as pastor of Saint Ignatius Martyr parish.
“Texas is where I learned how to be a pastor,” Wack told Crux.
Wack fondly described how after six months, members of his Hispanic community approached him after Mass and said while they loved his homilies, they wanted to encourage him not to be so scripted. “Just talk to us,” they pleaded.
Soon thereafter, he ditched his prepared remarks and spoke off the cuff — not unlike a certain Argentinian pope that has become infamous for doing the same thing.
In early May, after presiding over an eighth grade graduation, Wack was outside working on the Church’s air conditioning system (a pastor does, in fact, wear many hats!) when his phone rang with an unidentified number from Washington, D.C.
When he answered the call and heard the sound of a Frenchman on the other line, he became nervous.
“What I am about to tell you will change your life, but do not be afraid,” Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, told Wack. “The Holy Spirit will take care of everything.”
When the nuncio informed Wack that he was being named a bishop, he was first convinced that Pierre had the wrong Wack. “Are you sure you’re not looking for my brother?” he asked.
After a state of mild panic and breathing heavily, the nuncio asked him if he was okay.
“Give me a minute, do you remember when you got this call?” he responded to the nuncio. Eventually, after some reassurances and even a bit of laughter, he accepted.
After finishing the phone call, Wack rushed to the chapel where he spent some time in prayer and then found the nearest Kennedy Directory. For someone who had never even been to Florida, he had no idea what to expect.
As he hurriedly flipped through its pages to find the statistics on the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, he kept praying “please be small. Please be small.”
A Priest Turned Bishop Inspired by Three Popes
Located in the heart of the “Bible belt,” the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee is home to 49 parishes and a few mission churches, offering a mix of immigrant families, cradle Catholics, snowbirds who winter in Florida, and everything in between.
Given its location on the panhandle, Wack said much of his time is spent driving back and forth between the narrow piece of land that connects Florida to the deep south. While he’s only been in the job for less than half a year, he told Crux he’s been overwhelmed by the generosity and welcoming hospitality of his new flock.
It’s a challenging enough task learning the ropes of a new diocese, much less trying to keep up with the larger happenings of the U.S. bishops as a whole. But for starters, one thing Wack is keenly aware that he wants to do is focus on evangelization and Church unity.
He told Crux, he’s been inspired by the way Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles has effectively used social media to spread the Gospel and he hopes to do the same. Since joining Twitter and Instagram, he’s been attacked by a handful of online trolls, but he says that won’t stop him from being authentic.
As for Church unity, he refuses to be caught up in the polarization within the Church.
“People ask me, ‘are you a John Paul II priest? Benedict? Or Francis? Yeah, I’m all three.’”
For Wack, Saint Pope John Paul II possessed a joy that conveyed “the accessibility of the Gospel.” He fondly remembers his 1993 visit to Denver for World Youth Day shortly after he had been ordained a deacon and how much it encouraged him in his vocation.
After the election of Pope Benedict XVI, Wack admits that initially he didn’t know what to expect. “At first I thought, oh boy, an intellectual. I could never understand it all. But, I could not have been more surprised and pleased by the encyclicals he wrote.”
Wack recalled writing to Benedict to thank him for the gift of his encyclicals and the way he’s been able to use them in his preaching and being pleasantly surprised when he received a personal response from him.
Now, Francis, he says, “wants us to be with the people. It’s how I was brought up, both with Holy Cross and my family. It’s not enough just to say that you’re concerned or even to say ‘I love you.’ There have to be real ways to show each other the Gospel,” said Wack.
For Wack, Francis’s “willingness to adapt” is a great pastoral necessity for today’s Church.
“I love the fact that our Church teaches that certain things are always wrong or always right,” said Wack. “But life is not like that, so I love that our Church says “X” is always wrong, but when someone has done “X” we say ‘how can we resolve this? How can we reconcile them?’
“That’s really how I see what he’s doing…if anything he’s called us back to our original charism and I love that,” Wack added.
Meanwhile, as Wack reflects on his first experience of attending a meeting with his brother bishops, he’s been impressed at the united front the bishops are offering the Church in challenging times.
“I’ve been thrilled at the amount of collegiality,” Wack told Crux. “Not just at the meetings, but at the meals and afterwards and in between.
“I fully imagined we would be hung up on procedures, and votes, and interventions. It hasn’t been that. It’s been a lot of good discussion and conversation and I’m really pleased,” he continued.
“Here, it’s people getting up to speak their mind and it’s pretty united. We’re all in this together.”