Bennett to be ordained as city auxiliary bishop Priest bids bittersweet goodbye to Jesuit life

March 03, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Gordon D. Bennett will be ordained today as an auxiliary bishop to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, in what promises to be a moving ritual.

But it also marks the end of his days with the Jesuits, the community of Roman Catholic priests he has lived with since he was age 17, making it an occasion that will be a bit bittersweet.

Bennett, 51, who will be one of three auxiliary bishops reporting to Cardinal William H. Keeler, will leave his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived most of his life. He must also leave the Jesuits, because as a bishop he cannot follow his vows of poverty, obedience to his Jesuit superiors and total dependence on the order.

"I have to tell you it's very difficult, very difficult," he said in an interview at his new home at St. Anthony of Padua/Most Precious Blood parish on Frankford Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. "Unlike most men who are made bishop [who are ordained in the diocese in which they live], I was being asked to move 3,000 miles away and to give up everything that I basically knew about my life: My family, all my friends, my Jesuit brothers, my Jesuit life, my Jesuit community."

Because it is taking him so far away, Bennett says, there's no mistaking the position as a perk. "It is an honor, obviously, but also it comes at a tremendous price."

Still, Bennett isn't wearing a frown these days. He often flashes an impish grin that betrays a sly sense of humor.

"I'm sensitive to irony in life, and I don't take myself too seriously," he said. "Which I think may disarm people at times, because I tend to be informal and people might expect the bishop to be more formal."

A smile quickly comes to his face as he recounts the day in December he learned he would be a bishop.

He had heard in August from his Jesuit superior that his name was on a list of potential bishops and that the Vatican was making inquiries. Bennett immediately wrote to the Jesuit superior general in Rome, worried because all Jesuits take a vow not to seek or accept ecclesiastical honors.

"My question to him had been, 'How do I reconcile this in the event that this happens?' " Bennett said. "And his response was, 'Our vow not to seek ecclesiastical honors does not exempt us from obeying the mission of the Holy Father if he presents it.'

"So basically, in terms of my own reflection and prayer, I had concluded that if the Holy Father asked me to do it, it was my duty basically to say yes.

"But I naturally assumed that it would be for Los Angeles, because Los Angeles had a vacancy at the time," Bennett said. But, in November, that vacancy was filled -- and it wasn't Bennett. "So I figured that my life would go back to normal," he said.

"When the call came in December, I was absolutely, totally shocked," Bennett said.

He recounts the official telephone call with relish. His secretary at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, where he was serving as president, told him he had a call from a priest from Washington.

"I went in my office, and I said, 'This is Father Bennett.' And he said, 'Would you please hold for the Apostolic Delegate [the pope's representative in the United States]?' When he said that, I knew what it was.

"And so, Archbishop [Agostino] Cacciavillan came on the line and said, 'Are you Father Bennett?'" Bennett recalled, imitating the Italian's accent.

"And I said, 'Yes. '

"And he said, 'Where were you born?'

"And I said, 'Denver, Colo.'

"And he said, 'On what day?'

"And I said, 'Oct. 21, 1946.'

"And he said, 'Then you are the right person. I have news for you. The Holy Father has appointed you auxiliary bishop of Baltimore. Do you accept?' Just like that.

"After about 10 seconds, I said, 'I accept.' "

Bennett succeeds Bishop John H. Ricard, who left Baltimore last March to lead the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in Florida. Like Ricard, Bennett will lead the Urban Vicariate, which includes more than 50 city parishes, 40 schools and 85,000 Roman Catholics.

Bennett was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church when his parents converted in 1951. The family moved to Los Angeles when Bennett was age 8.

His family remembers him as a quiet child who studied hard. "The thing I remember most about him was that he was very studious," said his mother, Thelma Payne Bennett. "He read everything."

He grew up the fourth of six children, and the only boy in a family with five girls.

"He was pampered a lot," said his sister Emma Bennett Smith. "We were very protective of our brother."

His sister remembers that they would often play at celebrating Mass. "Gordon would always be the priest," she said. "I remember one time he gave Barbara [another sister] the last rites. She was playing like she was ill. Then she started laughing, and he got so upset at that."

Gordon Bennett attended Loyola High School in Los Angeles, where he said he was inspired to become a priest. "I was looking at the people who inspired me by what they were doing," he said. "And over and over again, it was the Jesuits I had at Loyola who were my inspiration."

He entered the Jesuit seminary in 1964 with his best friend from high school. They were the first two African-American seminarians to enter that Jesuit province. The friend left during novitiate, but Bennett stayed.

When he graduated from high school, "He said he wanted to do that. It was quite all right with me because I always raised my kids to do what they wanted to do," his mother said.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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