Edmund Cardinal Szoka: Forty Years of Episcopal Leadership

Today Cardinal Edmund Szoka, archbishop-emeritus of the Archdiocese of Detroit and president-emeritus of the Vatican City State, celebrates the 40th anniversary of his episcopal ordination; and all of us here in the Detroit archdiocese join in honoring him for his long, outstanding service to the Church.

He is a man to be reckoned with, a man whose influence has extended beyond the Detroit archdiocese to the world. 

  • As a young priest, he studied canon law at the Pontifical Urban University inRome.  Upon returning to the United States, he served in several Michigan parishes before becoming chancellor of the diocese of Marquette.  He accompanied Bishop Noa of Marquette to the first session of the Vatican II Ecumenical Council.
  • Named bishop of Gaylord in 1971, he was elected president of the 4th pastoral region of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now USCCB).
  • As Archbishop of Detroit, he strengthened Detroit’s seminaries and welcomed Pope John Paul II for a visit.  He strove to affirm the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception; to strengthen Eucharistic devotion; to renew priestly formation; and to promote social justice and an end to racism.
  • During his years in Detroit, he also served as president of the board of directors of the Episcopal Conference of Michigan, and in several key positions at The Catholic University of America.  One of the challenges he faced during his tenure in Detroit was the problem of declining enrollment in some of the city’s older parishes.  In spite of public criticism and media scrutiny, he forged ahead to make decisions which were necessary but sometimes unpopular—ultimately closing 33 parishes during his nine years as archbishop.
  • As president of the Prefecture for Economic Affairs of the Holy See, he demonstrated his keen financial expertise—successfully reversing the Vatican’s operating deficit after more than two decades of red ink.
  • As president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City-State, and as president of the Governatorate of Vatican City-State, he assumed a leadership role on the world stage. 

The prelate’s political savvy comes in addition to (or, more likely, because of) his deeply spiritual roots.  Cardinal Szoka has always been a person of prayer. 

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On a personal level, it has been my pleasure to work with Cardinal Szoka on a number of occasions.  A stalwart defender of the faith, he is nonetheless a quiet, humble man. 

During my years planning conferences and pilgrimages for Legatus, Cardinal Szoka graciously welcomed us to his palace at the Governatorato—the legislative hub of the Vatican City-State.  He celebrated Mass in the chapel there for our group of 100 pilgrims; or, one year, he offered a Mass in one of the crypt chapels at St. Peter’s Basilica.  I had arranged for one of our youngest travelers, a second-grader, to receive his First Holy Communion from the Cardinal there in St. Peter’s; and Cardinal Szoka helped to direct the paperwork required (a faxed letter from the boy’s home parish in America) to the appropriate office within the Vatican. 

On another occasion, he counseled a pilgrim in our group who had been confined to a wheelchair by serious illness to change his prayer from one of acceptance, and to pray instead that God would heal him.  (That has, in fact, happened—and the inspiring story may be told at a future time.)

Now, in my role at Guest House, I have again seen the Cardinal’s wit and good will.  Cardinal Szoka has been strongly supportive of Guest House. 

In 2006, I traveled with members of Guest House’s staff and board to Rome in celebration of Guest House’s 50th Anniversary.  Cardinal Szoka was by that time retired as president of Vatican City-State; but he had not yet moved back  to theUnited States.  He welcomed us to his sparsely decorated apartment at the Governatorato—where all the furniture had already been moved, except for a few pieces of art and his private chapel.  The Cardinal celebrated Mass for our group and for the two religious sisters who assisted him, and posed afterward for a photo.

Several years ago, Cardinal Szoka spoke at the annual Detroit Bishop’s Dinner and he was brought to tears, recollecting his close friend and personal secretary Bishop Kevin Britt.  Last year, at our dinner held at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, he stepped up to draw from the fishbowl for the raffle prize.  That’s me, holding the fishbowl!

He continues to be a friend to our organization, collaborating with Guest House president Denise Bertin-Epp on a regular basis.

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Cardinal Szoka, I join with the thousands of fans and admirers who wish you health and continued blessings in retirement.  Ad Multos Annos!


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