Despite this week's overwhelmingly respectful coverage of his death, it's unlikely John M. D'Arcy will ever be made a saint, at least not in the official sense. Barring a miracle or two, that is.
But that's OK, because the former bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who succumbed to cancer this week at the age of 80, deserves to be remembered as someone far deeper and more complex than the well-intended but superficial “Beloved man of the people” epitaph offered by Monday's News-Sentinel headline.
In both his life and even more importantly his death, D'Arcy proved himself to be a saint in the true biblical sense: a man who struggled with human concerns and fallibilities but through faith often transcended them.
Whether because of our short memories or out of a polite respect for the dead, this week's coverage glossed over the fact that D'Arcy was hardly universally beloved after coming to Fort Wayne from Boston in 1985. As successor to the popular William McManus, he changed members of the office staff and at time removed priests from parishes, sometimes without warning or explanation – a practice he told The News-Sentinel in 2005 had earned him the title of “hatchet man.”
“There was an unsettledness among us about what was going on,” the Rev. James Shafer of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church recalled years ago.
Hindsight indicates some of D'Arcy's “pruning” may have represented an attempt to address problems his predecessors didn't. In late 2003, he made the stunning public confession that priests in the diocese had apparently abused 33 people sexually – most of them minors – since 1950. Legal fees and settlements had cost the diocese about $1.3 million between 1985 and 2002 alone, he added.
The announcement was both courageous and consistent with D'Arcy's history. While in Boston, he had campaigned for tougher standards for admission to the priesthood as far back as 1979 and had raised concerns about a prominent Boston priests suspected of molesting boys the year before coming to Fort Wayne.
But depicting D'Arcy merely as a full-speed-ahead crusader bent on purging bad priests from the church would do him a disservice. I know from personal experience how the issue tormented him.
In late 2002 I wrote about two women's claims to have been molested by a priest as children. The son of one of the women said they had notified the diocese of the abuse in 1998 – a claim diocese officials denied. The family did eventually meet with church officials, but remained dissatisfied with the response and subsequent offers of help.
Even so, he nevertheless showed up at mass not long after my story was published and told parishioners that the allegations against their late priest “appear to be credible. Christ said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life.' The church is a place of truth, and you have the right to hear the truth.” Later, he privately apologized to the first woman who had come forward.
Here's the point: Even though my sometimes-difficult interviews with D'Arcy concerning this and other cases of alleged priest abuse demonstrated his concern for the institution he had a sacred duty to lead and protect, his pastoral concern for the victim proved stronger than whatever desire he may have had to shield the church or its priests from scorn.
He demonstrated that courage in the face of possible political backlash several times during his tenure, such as in a 2002 interview with me in which he explicitly rejected the ordination of gays and in 2009 when he boycotted Barack Obama's appearance at the University of Notre Dame because of the president's outspoken support for contraception and abortion rights.
These and other decisions weren't necessarily the easy ones, pleasing as they did some people and angering others. But D'Arcy did his duty as he saw it, and it is a tribute to his character, integrity, judgment and personal charm that the controversies have faded so soon.
Appropriate, since D'Arcy's most important legacy will be not how he lived, but how he died.
His courage, grace and profound expression of faith in the face of a disease he knew was terminal offered a powerful message to those who view Christianity as nothing more lasting or profound than a recipe for holy or prosperous living. On the deathbed, such earthly concerns are exposed for what they are, or aren't.
D'Arcy demonstrated that, in the end, Christianity is about clinging in faith to a gracious God's promise that our human weaknesses and pain will be replaced by everlasting joy. That's what it's like to be a true saint, as D'Arcy was, and is.