WILMINGTON, Delaware — Bishop-designate William E. Koenig of Wilmington was in his home diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, in late April when his cellphone rang. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the United States, was on the other end informing him that that he had been chosen to become the 10th bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington.
“My first thought was, he must have the wrong number,” Koenig joked at his introductory news conference April 30 at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington.
He had just been appointed vicar of diocesan personnel on Long Island and was looking forward to that ministry. But his focus soon shifted 120 miles south.
The bishop-designate is a people person. He still gathers once a year with his seminary classmates in Rockville Centre and the neighboring Diocese of Brooklyn.
When he found out he was going to be ordained a bishop and installed in Wilmington on July 13, his thoughts turned to the many people in his life — his late parents, Al and Mary, other family members, friends, the School Sisters of Notre Dame who taught him, priests who served in his parish, St. Raphael’s in East Meadow, New York, and priests who were instrumental in his formation in seminary.
He expressed his gratitude to a former priest of the Diocese of Wilmington, Bishop John O. Barres, who leads the Diocese of Rockville Centre, and to his fellow priests and all of the faithful of the country’s eighth-largest diocese.
Those people, he explained, made him the priest he is today and the bishop he will be tomorrow.
“They are years that will be cherished forever,” he said.
When he was assigned to his first parish, St. Edward the Confessor in Syosset, New York, following his ordination in 1983, his goal was to meet two groups of people: The priests with whom he would be living and serving, and the parishioners. He has the same goal in his new diocese, except the priests and parishioners cover all of Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
“I cannot wait to meet the faithful of the diocese,” he said. “The essence of the local church of Wilmington is the people of God. I look forward to meeting you, praying with you, working with you.”
He expects to gather with students, both in Catholic schools and religious-education programs; with staff and volunteers at various diocesan agencies; members of the many ethnic communities; and with employees of the diocese.
“Above all, I look forward to the ways that we … will in word and deed be a sign of hope and an instrument of peace,” he said.
One of his thoughts after receiving that phone call from Archbishop Pierre was about his favorite baseball team.
“In the spirit of full disclosure, I was also pleased that the New York Mets might finally have a team to compete with the Phillies and the Nats. I think God must have gotten a pretty good chuckle last week,” he said.
The bishop-designate mentioned that he played baseball and soccer in high school and college, but his sports pursuits now, at age 64, are limited to the occasional round of golf.
Wilmington Bishop W. Francis Malooly, who submitted his resignation more than two years ago when he turned 75, as required by church law, was clearly relieved to finally hear of a successor from the Vatican.
“I have been waiting for this event for two years, three months and 12 days. And it has been well worth the wait as you will discover when you meet my successor,” he said.
Malooly said Koenig has been a priest for nearly 38 years — the anniversary of his ordination is May 14 — and he has a lot of pastoral and administrative experience. He expects Catholics in the Diocese of Wilmington will take to their new bishop favorably.
“He has the heart and soul of a shepherd who will guide and protect his flock,” Malooly said.
Koenig said he has no concrete plans for the diocese yet. He described the past week as “a whirlwind,” and his main thought was about meeting the people of the diocese first.
He said he has no real connection to the Diocese of Wilmington beyond Barres, although he has been to Delaware and the Eastern Shore before.
“At times, driving south, I’ve stopped at a rest area,” he joked.
He was asked about President Joe Biden, the Delaware resident who worships at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Church. The president has been criticized for his support of legal abortion and still being allowed to receive Communion.
“I’ve never met President Biden. I will certainly be open to having a conversation with him in the future,” he said. “But as a bishop, I’m called to teach the fullness and the beauty of the Catholic faith.”
Lang is a reporter at The Dialog, newspaper of the Diocese of Wilmington.