BALTIMORE — Redemptorist Father Bruce A. Lewandowski was headed to the cemetery June 1 for a graveside service when he got a call from a number he didn’t recognize.
Normally, he lets such calls go unanswered, but because a lot of his parishioners are suffering with COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, he picked up the call.
The caller was Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican nuncio to the United States, saying that Pope Francis had selected the pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood as the Baltimore Archdiocese’s new auxiliary bishop.
He realized they were conversing in Spanish and remembered the nuncio had served in Mexico.
“It really caught me by surprise because that was not the kind of call I was ever expecting to get,” Lewandowski told the Catholic Review, the archdiocese’s online media outlet, June 8, two days before the appointment became public. “I think I said, ‘Are you sure you have the right phone number?'”
The nuncio assured him it was correct.
“As a Redemptorist, I’m very much aware that St. Alphonsus (Liguori, founder of the order) had advised us never to accept these kinds of ministries. This is not the ministry for a Redemptorist. And if we do accept this, it’s only through obedience,” Lewandowski said.
He reminded the nuncio of St. Alphonsus’ admonition, to which the nuncio replied that the pope is the highest authority. Ten minutes later, Lewandowski said, he accepted.
His vocation started at age 8 or 9 when an aunt who lived with the Lewandowski family often said to young Bruce, “When you’re a priest pray for me,” as though it was a fact or an expectation. In third grade at his parish school, he wrote about wanting to be a priest for a class assignment.
The parish, St. Gerard in Lima, Ohio, was run by Redemptorists, and Bruce thought that was the only kind of priest there was. He was further inspired by a book he received from his grandmother about a frontier priest who ministered to the people of upstate New York and Ohio on foot and on horseback: St. John Neumann, a Redemptorist.
Having grown up on a farm with horses and other animals, he was fascinated.
“I would think, wow, this guy lived in Ohio and he was on horseback and trekking through the woods and in log cabins and reaching out to people who were Catholic, bringing the sacraments,” he recalled.
After a visit during eighth grade to the order’s high school seminary in Pennsylvania, five hours from Lima, Lewandowski said he couldn’t think of doing anything else. Still, he said he is surprised even to this day that his parents let him attend a school so far away.
“They said, if you ever want to come home and you find out this isn’t for you, that’s no problem,” he said. “It’s your life, it’s your decision. Go with the Holy Spirit.”
Though he studied Spanish in high school, he didn’t dive into the language until college. As a candidate for the priesthood, he and other students from St. Alphonsus College in Suffield, Connecticut, traveled to the Dominican Republic, visiting other Redemptorists. He witnessed the real-life ministry that he had read about in the book about St. John Neumann.
“We went from village to village, celebrating the Mass and other sacraments with people,” Lewandowski said. “In the daytime, we would work with people harvesting beans — ‘habichuelas’ — and at night we would have the Mass.”
On a 62-mile trip on foot to a mountainous region along the border with Haiti, he had a chance to practice his Spanish with a local woman. He was complimenting the priest he was with, Redemptorist Father Brian Kennedy, who used solar energy to purify water and cook, dug wells, built a house, rode a motorcycle and knew basic medicine.
“And she looked at me, very seriously and said, ‘You think that’s great. You know, it’s even better than that. He brings us the Eucharist.’ And right at that moment, I said this is what I want to do with my life,” Lewandowski said.
Lewandowski’s first assignment as a priest was to Spanish Harlem in New York City. He since has served in parishes with significant Latino populations in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Maryland.
“I have had the blessing, the grace, the privilege, the honor — what I think is one of the greatest experiences of my life — of being able to accompany and live with, work with, pray with, serve with, celebrate with our Latino brothers and sisters,” he said.
The newly appointed bishop has gotten involved in social justice causes, such as helping promote a “parish ID” as a valid form of identification for immigrants. Such work, he said, is vital to the life of the church.
As Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori’s delegate for Hispanic ministry, Lewandowski said he has seen that often people live in silos and don’t have a chance to encounter one another.
“One of the beauties of the Catholic Church is that we can encounter each other through our common faith in Jesus Christ. We might pray differently, worship differently. But it’s the same belief, it’s the same Lord that we love, that we serve, that we give our lives to,” he said.
Inspired by Pope Francis, he tries to “bring people together to meet each other face to face, to listen and be listened to, to be able to see the face of God in the other.”
Gunty is associate publisher/editor of Catholic Review Media, the media arm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.