In a simple and solemn funeral reflecting his own wishes, Bishop James R. Hoffman was honored yesterday as a “good friend and a good shepherd” by church leaders and colleagues, dignitaries and everyday Catholics.
The ceremony, conducted on a bitter cold Valentine's Day afternoon, was filled with warm memories and spiritual challenges for the 1,400 faithful who packed the pews of stately Rosary Cathedral.
In attendance at the televised service were Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit, 24 bishops from throughout the Midwest, and more than 150 Toledo diocesan priests. Civic leaders at the funeral included U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), Mayor Jack Ford, State Rep. Peter Ujvagi, and City Council President Louis Escobar, who is a former Catholic priest.
Bishop Hoffman, a native of Fremont who was installed as bishop on Feb. 17, 1981, died Saturday at the age of 70. The longest-reigning bishop in the history of the 19-county diocese, he had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in November.
The Rev. Ray Sheperd, retired vicar and the bishop's close friend since seminary, said in his homily that Bishop Hoffman was privileged to have had three months “to ponder the eternal verities” and “to make his preferences known” for this week's services. The bishop's main concern, Father Sheperd said, was “that they be simple.”
As a choir and organ music filled the cathedral with song, the funeral began with a procession under the ornately decorated, 96-foot-high ceiling, led by a banner bearing Bishop Hoffman's motto: “Omnia Omnibus” - “All things to all people.”
The 150 priests, robed in white, walked reverently down the marble aisle, some choking back tears as they approached the open casket of their longtime leader. They were followed by 12 plumed-and-caped Knights of Columbus; leaders of several local Protestant faiths; the bishops in their white mitres, and Cardinal Maida.
The bishop's plain cherrywood casket, donated by the monks of St. Meinrad Abbey, Ind., one of the seminaries he attended, was closed and then covered with a white pall, or burial cloth, by the bishop's sisters, Paula Militello of Fremont, and Mary Welsh of Eagle, Idaho. The Rev. Bernard Boff, another longtime friend of the bishop, draped an olive-green stole, symbol of the priesthood, over the coffin.
Bishop Hoffman chose two 19th century hymns for the service, “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus,” and “How Great Thou Art.”
Father Sheperd said the bishop's selection of John 12: 23-26 for the homily, a verse in which Jesus says a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die in order to bear fruit, reflects “the totality of the Paschal mystery, allowing for its rhythm of dying and rising to play out during the whole of one's life.”
Father Sheperd took a moment to describe a humorous incident in which he was supposed to pick up Bishop Hoffman in a boat on Lake Erie, but found that the area where they were to meet was fenced off. “I looked up and saw his excellency, the bishop, climbing the security fence,” Father Sheperd said to great laughter. “We got away with it.”
He closed the homily on an emotional note: “I pass on to you his parting words to me on my last visit to him,” Father Sheperd said, “confident that he meant them for you as well: `Trust in the Lord.'”
Seven of the bishop's nephews and nieces bore the gifts for Communion to the altar, where they were blessed by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, who presided at the Mass.
After Communion, the archbishop anointed the bishop's coffin with incense, the rising smoke symbolic of prayers going heavenward. He read a note from the Vatican, sent on behalf of Pope John Paul II, offering condolences on the loss of Bishop Hoffman.
In his final commendations, the archbishop called Bishop Hoffman “a good friend and a good shepherd. We will miss him, but we trust in the Lord.”
Pat Militello, 30, one of Bishop Hoffman's nephews, described the funeral as “wonderful, perfect. It was so right. I don't want to say it was a perfect ending. It was a perfect beginning.”
“When my husband died 10 years ago, Jim always took care of us. He was really good to us,” Mrs. Militello said.
Bishop Hoffman will be buried in a private ceremony today at St. Ann's Cemetery, Fremont.