Thomas Gumbleton is 84. Officially, he is the “emeritus,” auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Detroit. He is to be addressed as “the most reverend.” But that’s not the kind of bishop this man is. Tom Gumbleton is a soft-spoken renegade. Like St. Paul, he shuns respectability and walks among the outcasts.
He is the only American bishop to be arrested for protesting the war in Iraq.
He founded Pax Christi, the Christian peace group that has long taken “thou shalt not kill” literally.
Bishop Gumbleton remembers when Pope Paul VI went to the United Nations and said: “No more war.” “Americans,” the bishop told me, “still call World War II ‘the good war.’” But Pope Paul VI called the bombings of civilians in Japan and Germany “butchery.” Pope Paul said our example should be Gandhi.
Nonviolence works, said Bishop Gumbleton, sitting across from me in his small office in Detroit. Skilled linguists and area scholars at the State Department also would help.
Bishop Gumbleton recalls that, during the Iran hostage crisis, there were only two people in the U.S. embassy who knew Farsi. He discovered that when he went to Iran with other U.S. clergymen, one month after the hostages were taken in 1979. Together they saw all but two of the 52 hostages, including the only two women. In groups of three or four the bishop met hostages and celebrated Mass with them. The first group was three Catholics and a Jew. The two women were Lutheran and Episcopalian. He held a Eucharist with them too. The bishop is still in touch with some of the hostages today.
Bishop Gumbleton is also the only American bishop to speak out on the Church’s sex abuse scandals. He says that confession and forgiveness are key, but so is truth, treatment, and justice. He came to Columbus a few years ago to testify before the legislature — to urge that a “window” be opened in the statute of limitations so that some abusers who escaped the law might be brought before it. He said the church’s methods had not brought healing.
And he said something else: It happened to me.
He had been assaulted by a priest. He said he didn’t want to dramatize it — that when it happened he was 15 and able to defend himself. But he hoped that legislators would listen to one who had been victimized.
They listened but did not act.
The Vatican did. Within days, they forced the bishop to retire and give up the parish where he had been pastor for 23 years — a black parish in the inner city. For years, no new pastor was sent to replace him. So, for his bravery, and for trying to walk as Jesus walked, the bishop was punished. What bothered him more was that his parish was punished.
He keeps on, he said, visiting the sick, burying the dead, counseling troubled folk, confirming youths. He works for peace and reads the daily homilies of Pope Francis online. He is unbroken. But St. Leo’s on Grand River was hurt.
He recounts these things without a hint of anger. He is impassioned about the current war-mongering in Washington, the dignity of faithful Christians who happen to be gay, the number of young black men in prisons, the lack of pastoral care for poor people in Detroit. But I don’t hear anger. Bishop Gumbleton personifies Gandhian detachment. Christian forgiveness. And grace.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.