With pomp and humor, city gets new vicar Bennett is ordained auxiliary bishop, head of 80,000 Catholics

March 04, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As a procession of cardinals and bishops placed their hands upon his head yesterday in an ancient ritual of consecration, the Rev. Gordon D. Bennett was ordained an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

In a ceremony filled with solemnity and humor, Bennett, 51, became one of three assistants to Cardinal William H. Keeler. As urban vicar, Bennett will lead Baltimore's 57 parishes that are home to more than 80,000 Roman Catholics.

"This beautiful celebration is a profoundly humbling experience," Bennett told a packed congregation at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore.

Among those attending were four cardinals, including Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, where Bennett was serving as president of a Jesuit high school when he received his Baltimore appointment. They were joined by more than 30 bishops from across the country.

Bennett replaces the charismatic John H. Ricard, Baltimore's first African-American bishop, who left last March to lead the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in Florida. Ricard returned to Baltimore for Bennett's ordination.

Typically, bishops are drawn from the ranks of diocesan clergy, but there was considerable sentiment in the African-American Catholic community that Ricard's successor also be black, and there are few black diocesan priests. So Pope John Paul II, who appoints bishops, turned to Bennett, a member of the Jesuit order who has been an educator during his priesthood.

Toward the conclusion of yesterday's ceremony, Bennett said he anticipated there will be "great joy" in his ministry as a bishop.

"I know, too, given both the times and culture in which we live, that there will be particular sorrows as well. How could there not be?" he said. "All of these, the joys and the sorrows, I accept with the gratitude of simply having been asked."

The ordination ceremony was filled with the beauty and awe of Roman Catholic ritual. The Gregorian chant of "Veni Creator Spiritus" ("Come Creator Spirit") echoed off the hard walls of the cathedral as Bennett stepped forward to be ordained by Keeler.

Dressed in white vestments and the red skullcap worn by bishops, Bennett prostrated himself on the floor of the sanctuary in front of the altar as the congregation chanted the Litany of Saints, prayers asking for the intercession of the heroes of the church on his behalf.

Then, in an act invoking the power of the Holy Spirit upon the new bishop, Keeler put his hands on Bennett's head while praying silently. Each bishop then followed in the ritual of laying on of hands.

After the ordination ritual, Bennett walked down the sanctuary steps toward his mother, Thelma Payne Bennett, who was sitting in the front pew with Bennett's five sisters. He kissed his mother and gave her his first bishop's blessing as his sisters wept.

It did not take long for Bennett's well-known sense of humor to emerge. As he approached the microphone to address the congregation at the conclusion of the 2 1/2 -hour ceremony, he exhaled loudly, drawing surprised laughter.

Then he paused before uttering his first public words as a bishop: "Anybody need a potty break?"

He recounted how Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, the Vatican's representative to the United States, called him in December to tell him he had been selected by Pope John Paul to be a bishop.

"Now Archbishop Cacciavillan told me that I had to keep this secret to myself," Bennett said. "And I was wondering if he meant the Jesuit definition of 'secret' -- which means you tell one person at a time.

"But I had the feeling he meant the Roman definition of 'secret.' "

So, for 10 days he could tell no one. When he received the go-ahead that he could share the news, he sat down with his Jesuit superior and told him that he had been appointed a bishop.

"He looked at me straight in the eye and he told me two words that I will never forget," Bennett said.

"He said: 'You're lying,' " keeping a straight face as he delivered his punch line.

On a more serious note, Bennett noted that both he, Baltimore's newest bishop, and John Carroll, Baltimore's first bishop, were Jesuits.

"It is a particular privilege for me that along with John Carroll, I would be able at the beginning of my ministry as a bishop to pray in the words of [St.] Ignatius, [the founder of the Jesuit order]: " 'Take, Lord and receive all my memory, my understanding and my whole will. Give me only your love and your grace. With these I am rich enough and desire nothing more.' "

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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