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Bishop Loras Watters, R.I.P. (04/01/2009)
From: Ivan Kubista

It was early summer of 1983, and I’d been waiting over a week for the results of my job interview with the Diocese of Winona’s search committee. Feeling enough time had passed, I made a follow-up call to the diocese.

“This is the Diocese of Winona,” answered a soft male voice, “Bishop Watters speaking.”

It was the equivalent of calling tech support for Microsoft Explorer and having Bill Gates answser the phone. After I recovered, I asked if I was still in the running for the position of Communications Director.

“Oh, yes...meant to call you...can you start on Monday?”

During the next four years I was blessed with working for--and with--Bishop Loras Watters, a man who lived his Christian calling with a faith like no other person I’ve known.

His humility was not an affectation. Although the diocese had a receptionist, he often answered his own phone (as he’d done when I called). He felt no need for a secretary, and did his own filing and correspondence. Nor did he feel his position entitled him to any luxury, so he chose to live in a tiny apartment in a corner of the diocesan pastoral center.

Watters was a prayerful man, but not in the sense that he felt it a duty. I often had the impression that he simply enjoyed communing with his God. During lunch hour he could be found strolling outside the pastoral center, reading from the Liturgy of the Hours. During a drive to a far corner of the diocese he would stay alert by saying the Rosary.

He might have been doing just that on the day he totalled his brand new car on an icy highway near Rollingstone. The priests of the diocese had given it to him as a retirement gift, and he’d only had it a few days.

But for all his devotion to the spiritual, he was anything but monkish. Always approachable, he delighted in a good joke, good companionship and good conversation. It was not unusual for him to come to my office to just sit and visit about “how things were going today.”

Those office visits were invariably preceded by his tuneless whistling as he came down the hall--a friendly warning to all who might be too relaxed at their jobs!

Part of my job was to edit and publish the monthly diocesan newspaper, The Courier, for which the bishop wrote a monthly column.

“Feel free to alter or make any corrections to make it more readable,” he would say. But in some fifty columns he provided during my tenure, I don’t remember adding or deleting so much as a comma. His writing style was so precise and his construction so integrated, it was virtually impossible to re-write or condense anything.

Watters was loathe to criticize, but I remember one mild reprimand (perhaps the only one he ever issued me). In an issue of The Courier I had just run a photograph of a priest from another diocese who was to present at some workshop or other. The priest was wearing a sport shirt and slacks.

“Never print a picture of a priest wearing other than his priestly attire,” Watters warned.

Although he must have had a set of “civies” in his closet, I never saw the bishop in anything but his Roman collar and black suit. He always insisted that clergy be identifiable in public, a constant reminder that it was perfectly natural for lives to be devoted to God.

But if he ever may have wanted to melt into anonymity, it would have been during the sexual abuse scandal that erupted in the early eighties, involving a diocesan priest who had been active on Watters’ watch, then moved to the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Mpls.

The subsequent civil trials in St. Paul, with all the sensational media attention and the crank calls flooding the diocesan switchboard, took a huge toll on the bishop. He would often visit my office, plop into a chair and just unload his grief and frustration.

Especially hurtful to him were the accusations that he had “covered up” allegations of abuse and “knowingly” reinstated the offending priest after treatment.

“We knew nothing about pedophilia back then,” he would say, “but it’s too late for excuses.”

Painful as that experience was for him, Watters knew it was part of his job to take ownership of it and move on.

The job of bishop, however, was never one he sought or even wanted. But he was an obedient servant of his church and he accepted it as a task God had given him. To the end of his long tenure as the leader of some 130,000 Catholics, he remained a humble, gracious and loving man who saw the world as good, and his own role in it as leading others to the God who made it.

Rest in peace, Loras Watters, my old friend. 

 

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