I heard many nice things about Bishop Robert W. Donnelly since his death July 21. “He was a regular fixture in the neighborhood,” Msgr. Michael Billian, the priest of his home parish, Most Blessed Sacrament, said. That was the neighborhood where he grew up and where he returned when he retired, living first in the rectory with his brother, the Rev. Martin Donnelly, who was Blessed Sacrament's priest, and then in a house the Donnelly brothers bought. “Even at the end, when he was a little confused about life, it was everybody's job in the neighborhood to keep an eye out, and they did a beautiful job of doing that.”
At Blessed Sacrament after he died the talk “was very loving, more than anything about his gentleness; when he celebrated the sacraments; when he visited with people,” Msgr. Billian said. “That was just a great, strong impression. The soft gentleness was a strength of his and it opened him up to people, and they felt very welcomed in his life.”
“In the 65 years of my friendship with Bob Donnelly, never once, in no instance, did he ever say a bad word about anybody,” the Rev. Raymond Sheperd said in his homily during the bishop's vigil on Monday. “He knew how to say good things or say nothing.”
The only bad in his life, it seems, might have been his saying nothing and being protective of colleagues during the church abuse scandal.
Claudia Vercellotti, a Toledo member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, urged me to watch a 2006 documentary, Twist of Faith. The bishop is in about five minutes of the film and is accused of not acting on his knowledge in 1986 that a priest had sexually abused Central Catholic High School students. Ms. Vercellotti also criticized Bishop Donnelly for the diocese's supporting and defending Gerald Robinson, the priest who died in prison July 4, convicted in 2006 of the 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.
SNAP, now a 25-year-old organization, is a group of people who themselves suffered and still feel great hurt by acts of church leaders, and they continue to call on the hierarchy to tell the whole stories. We cannot forget why they speak out.
Msgr. Billian was the chancellor of the diocese at that time. “They weren't always easy years,” he said. “That was the terrible, tumultuous time. [Bishop Donnelly] always reminded me what the focus of the church was. It wasn't the institution; the church was the people of God, and they were individual peoples put together in community. Whenever you despaired about anything else, he could help me focus back on that reality, the realness of the church. How can you not love that? That was a great thing for me.”
From what I‘ve learned about Bishop Donnelly, he leaves a good legacy. It is difficult to be a minister to all -- to people who suffer and those who cause pain. My impression is that he tried to do that and, as a human, he was not perfect.
The Rev. James Bacik, in the bishop’s funeral homily Tuesday, said, “I'd like to think that Bishop Robert Donnelly could be used as a model for the kind of bishop that Pope Francis talks about and wants.” He quoted a guide that said, “The bishop is to be a servant of the community and he should be a shepherd that the sheep recognize.”
Father Bacik used a phrase the pope says, that he wants a bishop who “has the smell of the sheep.” Bishop Donnelly worked among the sheep and had that smell, Father Bacik said.