Reverend William Howard Bishop: Toward an Understanding of His Charism as Founder of the Glenmary Home Missioners
By Father Dan Dorsey
(Numbered notes, indicated in parenthesis, are listed at the end of this Web page.)
Our study has not produced any startling discoveries about the charism of Father Bishop, but has uncovered a number of significant insights. It might be compared to re-discovering the fertility and richness of soil in a field that has been left fallow for many years.
We have learned in our study that Father Bishop’s response to the gift of faith was generous service-service in his priesthood, service to the people of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart and St. Louis Church, service to the N.R.L.C., and, finally, in his establishing the Glenmary Home Missioners service to all who inhabited the neglected rural areas of the United States. We have witnessed Father Bishop’s fierce dedication to his priesthood and to the Church even when this exacted a great deal of personal suffering. This was particularly evident in his two years at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. Our study has also revealed that Father Bishop closely identified with the causes of the poor and unconverted; and that he actively labored to alleviate human misery and preached the Good News of salvation to those who were forgotten. Finally, we have seen that Father Bishop faithfully adhered to and took nourishment from daily mass and the recitation of the breviary.
Our study has also raised, but left unresolved, at least one important question. In the twenty-four year period that we have examined Father Bishop experienced what we would describe as four crucial turning points: 1) His request of Cardinal Gibbons for a transfer from the Shrine of the Sacred Heart (1917); 2) The completion of the parochial school in Clarkesville (1923); 3) His request of Archbishop Curley to be released from the Archdiocese of Baltimore (1937); 4) His retreat at the monastery of Gethsemane when his “plan” was progressing slowly. At each of these four crossroads prayer plays a prominent role in Father Bishop’s life, and yet, outside of these four instances he does not mention his interior life in his diary and consequently we know precious little about this important area. Does the fact that he does no mention his “prayer life” in his diary mean that one does not exist? That would seem to be a hasty conclusion. Perhaps he “put in a great deal of time praying”(1) only during periods of crisis, or perhaps it was only during such periods that he recorded his reflections. The answer to this question is unclear and in future studies it will be necessary to rely more heavily on eternal evidence-did his life display the “fruits” of a deep, personal relationship with Christ in prayer? Was Father Bishop patient, forgiving, and above all charitable? What other Christian virtues did he demonstrate? Regrettably these questions can only be raised and will have to remain unresolved for the present.
Our study has also reflected the fact that Father Bishop’s charism had a personal character. He was a man who existed in a concrete historical situation, and who found a particular need in the Church that was being overlooked. Empowered by the Holy Spirit he acted to address this need. This personal character of his charism then became communal, when others with a similar faith-vision joined with Father Bishop and gave their lives to God according to this faith-vision. We have also seen the traces of the social character of the charism when Father Bishop and the first members of Glenmary embarked on their apostolic activity and others outside of the small community began to take notice of their activity. The final part of this process, the ecclesial character, where the Church inserts the new foundation into the mission which the Church has received from God, is evident only in its preliminary stages. Father Bishop published this plan in The Ecclesiastical Review and in doing so was tacitly requesting the approval and support of the wider Church. This request was made explicit as he traveled from diocese to diocese visiting bishops and Church leaders, explaining his proposed society and asking for their support. The first concrete manifestation of the ecclesial character of Father Bishop’s charism occurred when Archbishop McNicholas agreed to sponsor his new community.
Almost forty-five years have passed since Father Bishop established the Glenmary Home Missioners and in comparison to most other religious communities Glenmary is a “mere babe in arms.” The Society’s relative youth works both to its advantage and disadvantage. On the positive side, it is neither bound to systems and customs of a past age, nor is it constrained by traditions whose meaning has been obscured with the passing of time. On the other hand, however, Glenmary lacks deep and strong roots that are capable of withstanding the “ravages and storms” that inevitably are inflicted by the world and which a more mature community might be better equipped handle. In a certain sense Glenmary is presently passing through a period of adolescence as it advances toward maturity as a religious community.
There is an impending crisis in Glenmary’s immediate future that, in part, will be precipitated by its “adolescence,” and because of which it is particularly vulnerable. It is a crisis of its charism and it could possibly deal Glenmary a deathblow or propel it to new unparalleled growth. In future years a steadily increasing majority of Glenmarians will have had no personal contact with Father Bishop. The danger of betraying the spirit and charism of a founder does not lie so much with its first generation of members but with succeeding generations who have no personal knowledge of the founder.(2)
Glenmarians must first and foremost live the charism of Father Bishop, but they also have the serious responsibility to deepen and continually develop that charism in harmony with the entire Body of Christ. Faithfulness to this responsibility demands that they strive for a greater familiarity with their original charism through an open-minded reading and meditation on Father Bishop. To know the history of our own unique religious family is essential and there can be no substitutes. The time for an exhaustive and in-depth study of Father Bishop’s charism and spirit-a study which in some ways involves all Glenmarians-is NOW.
Members of Glenmary must always keep in mind that Father Bishop’s charism is a living force, and as an impulse of the Holy Spirit this “force” continues to guide and direct us in the present. But, as St. Paul was painfully aware of with the Corinthians, communities are prone to rely on the “wisdom of men,” and not the “Spirit of God.” The Holy Spirit’s presence in the midst of the Glenmary community is no guarantee that we will not succumb to the “spirit of the world.”(3) Cognizant, therefore, that we are “merely unworthy servants”(4) we must search out the will of God “through the Spirit” so that our communal voice might be one with that of St. Peter as we labor in the missions in the United States: “I have no silver or gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”(5)
(1) Diary, April 28, 1937.
(2) Cf. Rudolf M. Mainka, “Charism and History in Religious Life,” UISG Bulletin 58 (1982): 27.
(3) Cf. I Cor. 2:1-13.
(4) Luke 17:10.
(5) Acts 3:6.