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Published: Sunday, 2/9/2003

Area Catholics mourn loss of their bishop

BY JUDY TARJANYI
BLADE SENIOR WRITER
Bishop Hoffman: He was diagnosed with cancer in November. Bishop Hoffman: He was diagnosed with cancer in November.
BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Bishop James Hoffman, 70, spiritual leader of northwest Ohio's 315,000 Roman Catholics since 1981, died yesterday in the Ursuline Center, where he had been staying since he was diagnosed with cancer in November.

The sixth bishop of the Toledo Diocese served longer than any of his predecessors, surpassing the previous record set by Archbishop Karl Alter, who was bishop from 1931 to 1950.

Until a successor is named by Pope John Paul II, the Rev. Michael Billian, chancellor of the diocese, is expected to handle day-to-day operations.

Born in Fremont, Bishop Hoffman was the son of the late Berneta and Walter Hoffman, a shoe-store operator, and was reared in St. Ann's parish there. Bishop Hoffman had been chancellor of the diocese for nine years when he was tapped by Pope Paul VI to become an auxiliary bishop in 1978.

When he ascended to the leadership of the Toledo Diocese in 1981, he said that he would not govern in an authoritarian way, but would emphasize the shared responsibility of all believers for the church.

He became known for a collaborative leadership style that emphasized consensus-building and delegating responsibility. Although his critics wanted him to lead with more clear-cut authority, his supporters valued his consultative style.

“He delegated and supported and listened,” said Sister Janet Doyle, diocesan school superintendent. “He very much gave you the room you needed without question.”

The bishop's handling of parish staffing in the midst of the current priest shortage was emblematic of his management style. Rather than closing churches, he invited parishionersto propose ways to function with fewer priests. In some cases, parishes merged or forged alliances with neighboring parishes to share resources.

“His motto was `All things to all people' and he really tried to live it,” said the Rev. Robert Wilhelm, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish, who called the bishop “a great friend and a great bishop” and “my mentor, my model, my example.”

In a 2000 interview with The Blade, Bishop Hoffman said that he was not about trying to please or make everyone happy. Rather, he saw his responsibility as overseeing the unity of the local church.

In recent years, Bishop Hoffman led a diocese that often divided along liberal-conservative lines as Catholics reacted to the reforms of the last 40 years following the Second Vatican Council.

But his greatest challenge as bishop no doubt was the last year, during which the church locally and nationally was rocked by a clergy sexual-abuse scandal, the repercussions of which are still being felt.

During an Oct. 31, 2002, interview with The Blade, Bishop Hoffman acknowledged that the crisis was the most serious he had seen since taking over leadership of the diocese. Because he regarded his fellow priests as brothers and was considered a compassionate shepherd by many, the scandal clearly caused him deep pain.

The sexual-abuse scandal also forced him into the media spotlight, which he eschewed when possible, preferring instead the pastoral duties that brought him into contact with ordinary Catholics.

An advocate of lay involvement in the church, Bishop Hoffman's leadership put the Toledo Diocese on the American Catholic map as a place where lay ministry flourished. He appointed lay people to the top levels of diocesan administration and worked on the national level for lay involvement as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on the laity.

In 1989, he convened the first diocesan synod since 1941, inviting all the members of the diocese to shape a vision for the church.

“He did a tremendous job of empowering lay people,” said the Rev. James Bacik, a theologian and pastor of Corpus Christi University parish. “He was instrumental in helping lay people all over the country to realize their responsibility for the church.”

Bishops John Donovan and James HOffman served the Toledo Diocese more than 35 years. Bishops John Donovan and James HOffman served the Toledo Diocese more than 35 years.
BLADE/DON STRAYER Enlarge

Bishop Hoffman was seen, too, as advancing the cause of women in a church that does not ordain female priests by naming women to such posts as chancellor and superintendent of schools.

“He respected women's role in the church and tried to find ways to raise up women. He consciously tried to make that happen,” said Sister Janet, who also was a member of the bishop's cabinet.

Although as leader of the diocese, Bishop Hoffman held title to millions of dollars of church property, his lifestyle was a model of simplicity. In keeping with his belief that all Christians were invited by the Gospels to live simply, he drove modest automobiles and downsized the living space designated for the bishop.

Four years after becoming head of the diocese, he sold the bishop's Old West End mansion, which boasted a third-floor ballroom, and moved to another building that had originally housed diocesan offices and the bishop's quarters.

Bishop Hoffman also had an interest in social issues such as capital punishment, which he opposed, and traveled to Mansfield to visit prisoners on Ohio's death row.

Outside the church, he forged strong ecumenical and interfaith ties, particularly with mainline Protestant and Jewish clergy.

He once told an audience in a local Lutheran church that as a boy growing up in Fremont he could never have imagined setting foot inside a Protestant church, let alone be preaching in one. But he said he experienced an ecumenical awakening in 1966, when he began meeting with a group of Lutheran and Catholic pastors to discuss doctrinal issues.

“His death is a real loss for the whole Christian community in the northwest Ohio area,” said Bishop Marcus Lohrmann, head of the Northwestern Ohio Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “He has been a very strong partner in terms of setting a positive ecumenical relationship in this territory.”

Bishop Hoffman also enjoyed a close relationship with Rabbi Alan Sokobin, rabbi emeritus of The Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim in Sylvania. In 1992, the two men were honored by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith for improving understanding between their faiths after collaborating on a project marking the quincentennial of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Rabbi Sokobin said Bishop Hoffman was instrumental in seeing that study of the Holocaust was incorporated into the diocesan school curriculum.

“He was a quietly active idealist. He was not a thunderer. He was God's businessman, and he did it very well.”

Ordained a priest in 1957, Bishop Hoffman's parish assignments included St. Peter in Mansfield, St. Joseph in Marblehead, Blessed Sacrament and Rosary Cathedral in Toledo, and St. Joseph in Sylvania. He also was a secretary to his predecessor, Bishop John Donovan, and a chaplain to the Ursuline Sisters.

He served as chairman of the U.S. Bishops' pastoral practices committee and was a member of the committee on stewardship as well as the Catholic college and university presidents' committee. Bishop Hoffman also was a member of the board of trustees of Mount St. Mary Seminary, Cincinnati, where he received a master's degree.

A graduate of St. Meinrad, Ind., College, the bishop held degrees in canon law from the Catholic University of America, Washington.

At noon today, churches throughout the diocese will toll their bells 22 times in honor of Bishop Hoffman - one for each year of service.

Surviving are his sisters, Paula Militello and Mary Welsh.

Services will be at 4 p.m. Friday in Rosary Cathedral, where a prayer vigil will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday and where visitation will be from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, noon to 9 p.m. Thursday, and noon to 3:30 p.m. Friday. Burial will be private.

The family requests tributes to the diocese's “One Faith, Many Blessings” campaign or the Mission of Accompaniment.



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