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He lived an embattled dream


As I read the angry, accusatory letter from a subscriber, I decided newspaper editors should have as their motto: “We aim to please … but never succeed.” The writer was blasting the newspaper for not providing promised coverage of an event. She was also convinced the editorial staff (led by me, the editor) had embarked on a crusade to silence and ignore this particular constituency by refusing them space in “their” newspaper.

To make sure her message was received, the writer had sent a similar letter to the publisher. But more disconcerting to me than the writer’s letter was a reply I was holding. Our publisher had written a soothing, conciliatory letter to the writer, apologizing for the newspaper’s failure to cover this newsworthy event, and promising that we would do better in the future.

I was seeing red. Not only had we sent a reporter/photographer to cover the event, we had given it full-page treatment, plus a half-page photo! I was angry that our publisher had replied without first checking with the newsroom to see what had actually happened, and told him so in a memo that included a copy of the article. His stepping in to “fix” the situation, I suggested, made us both look foolish, since we were apologizing for not covering something that had been given significant play in the paper. Furthermore, it made it clear that that the publisher had not read his own paper.

The following day, the publisher was in my office -- seven miles distant from his own. “I wanted to talk to you here, not in my office,” he said, closing the door. As he sat down and reached into his breast pocket, I wondered if a pink slip would emerge. Although my memo was respectful, it had been strong. He pulled out the writer’s letter and my memo.

“I owe you an apology, and I’m here to give it,” said my publisher, Bishop James Hoffman, with his characteristic directness. “You’re right. I should have talked to you first and let you handle this. In my wish to smooth some ruffled feathers here, I micromanaged ...”

I muttered something about no apology being necessary, but he continued. “No, I promised myself I would never do that, and I’m sorry. In the future, I will make sure I contact you when something regards the paper. That’s your job, not mine. And you’re right; I made us both look foolish. I’ll do better from now on.”

He smiled, extended his hand to shake mine, and was gone as unceremoniously as he had arrived. After the bishop’s departure, I was speechless. The number of bishops who would react with such genuine humility and graciousness to a criticism from a lay staffer was, in my guess, rather small.

I had just experienced the best of Jim Hoffman. That is just one story that sheds some light on the life of a man who determined to exercise the ministry of bishop as servant, not lord. In the days since his death Feb. 8, stories like that have been multiplied like gospel loaves.

When I learned of Bishop Hoffman’s death to cancer that Saturday afternoon, I felt a tremendous sadness. Not just that he was gone, and so quickly -- less than three months since the diagnosis -- but sadness at the great impoverishment of the church of Toledo, Ohio, and the whole U.S. church.

Every bishop, by definition, leads his own diocese, but many also put a distinctive mark (for better or for worse), on the life of the wider church. Jim Hoffman’s passing in some ways marks the end of an era, a loss of a unique kind of servant leadership that is, sadly, not much in evidence in the contemporary ecclesiastical scene.

Named a bishop in the heady days after the Second Vatican Council, the shoe salesman’s son from Fremont, Ohio, had caught the council’s flame. He envisioned a church that could break free of its bureaucratic, barnacled heaviness; a church enriched by the gifts of lay women and men, not because the hierarchy “permitted” lay involvement but because the gospel insists that all God’s people work together to build the kingdom.

It was not Utopia. Like all mortals, James Hoffman discovered that the reality didn’t always match up to the vision and ideals he laid out for himself and the church he led. Gifted with brilliance and precision of thought, Jim Hoffman might have been happiest in an academic setting, studying and teaching scripture and theology. Instead, like most bishops, he found himself fielding building plans, sitting in seemingly endless meetings, mediating conflicts. Despite his own pastoral approach, a major downsizing he approved for Toledo’s diocesan offices left an open wound of bad feelings that still persists. Most recently the gut-wrenching reality of sexual abuse in his own presbyterate took their toll on the man and the priest. He also discovered, in a way that touched him personally and painfully, that not everyone takes kindly to empowerment and collegiality. A small but vicious ultra-conservative element in the diocese never missed an opportunity to complain to Rome about him or his policies; even a few priests, viewing themselves the defenders of orthodoxy, criticized his every decision, or lack thereof, even in the final days of his illness.

The dream to model and mold a different kind of church can sometimes feel worn down before the day-to-day tugs of war and walls of resistance, the construction and defense of self-aggrandizing structures that lesser souls can believe are important. Jim Hoffman learned, early on perhaps, that he had to renegotiate his dream. It was embattled, but it never died.

For his 20th anniversary as diocesan bishop in 2000, Bishop Hoffman’s staff organized a celebration at the diocesan center. Amid balloons and crepe paper festoons and letters from school children (one wishing, “I hope you get to be pope”) was a photo display. There were family and seminary shots. Pictures of the bishop in his Elmer Fudd-like hat, ice fishing on Lake Erie. And pictures, lots of them, of him as a young priest and bishop, surrounded by “just folk.” Soft drink in hand, wearing his familiar plaid sweater vest over a not-new clergy shirt, the bishop walked around, enjoying the photos of an earlier era. He gazed for a long time at a candid shot of himself taken shortly after his episcopal ordination. He shook his head a bit and smiled. “I was much freer then,” he said, to no one in particular.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. She was editor/general manager of the Toledo diocesan paper for seven years.

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003