The archbishop's last day


Archbishop's garbThe archbishop awakes at 6am on his 75th birthday. He makes a cup of coffee and dresses for his daily walk. He used to run ten kilometres every morning through the city, wearing his sweatpants and a sweatshirt from one of the Catholic high schools in the city, but mostly now he walks, although here and there, if the sun is out, and he feels limber, he runs. Some people know him and wave and a couple of people bow and say Your Excellency but most of the people he sees just see an old man running, which is not something you see much.

By 8am he has showered and had a second cup of coffee and prayed quietly for a while in his room. By 9am he is at the chancery. At noon he says Mass in the chapel in the chancery. Usually there are maybe 20 people at the noon Mass in the chancery but today there are 60 or 70. Ten or 20 of the people at Mass cross their arms over their chests when they come up for Communion and he blesses them and they say amen and several say thank you and one says happy birthday.

After Mass he skips lunch and goes back to his office.

You know we have to get the letter into the mail today, he says to his secretary.

Yes, Archbishop.

She has worked with him for 14 years, since the very first day he walked cheerfully into the office and soon discovered the horrors boiling under the placid surface of the archdiocese, and she admires him more than any other man she ever met, she thinks, not because of his position but because of the way he handled the rapes and lies and bankruptcy hearings, he never shirked a moment, he never was anything but flat-out honest and blunt about sin and responsibility, and even in the darkest hours he managed some thorny flinty tough cheerfulness and humour that more than once, truth be told, pulled her out of a dark place; if he could keep a smile on his face through all that, then so could she, damn it; a remark she had once made to him in an unguarded moment, which provoked his famous roaring laugh.

He has a laugh like a country, enormous and welcoming and infectious; you can hear him all the way down in the mail room, and supposedly you can hear him in the street outside, even though it is a busy street, always choked with traffic.

In his office he reaches for his dictaphone and dictates the letter. The letter is two paragraphs long. He doesn't hesitate over the language; he knows what he is supposed to say, what he is not averse to saying, but which he does not want to actually finally irredeemably say; but he says it, beginning with Your Holiness and ending with Yours in Christ's love and mercy.

He was melancholy that whole day, says his secretary later.

He turns the dictaphone off and pops out the cassette and walks out his open door and hands the cassette to his secretary. He doesn't say anything and she doesn't say anything either and he goes back in his office.

At 2pm the archbishop comes out of his office and says to his secretary you need to do the letter, remember. The mail comes early and it needs to go out today.

Yes Archbishop, she says, but I put it off and put it off, she says later. I put it off as long as I could. But that was a Wednesday, and the mail does come early on Wednesday, so I finally did it. I printed it out on letterhead and gave it to him. We have a system. He likes to see letters the way they'll look for the recipient. Sometimes he makes little changes and I print out a second copy. I don't mind. We have a system. In this case he did make a couple of small edits. He signed the second copy and I put it in the envelope and walked it down to the mail room. The letter goes to the papal nuncio in Washington, D.C., and then into his diplomatic pouch for delivery to His Holiness. I don't know who opens the diplomatic pouch at the Vatican, no. Perhaps His Holiness' secretary.

The archbishop also celebrates Mass in the Cathedral at 5pm, and this second Mass is packed.

A lot of people who can't get to Mass in the morning or at noon catch the evening Mass at the Cathedral anyway, partly because it's smack downtown and a lot of people can get to it on their way home, but it is also crowded this day because, I think, because it is the archbishop's birthday, and a lot of people have stopped by to convey their regards. I think a lot of people know it was the day he had to write his letter, also, because I hear a lot of people say thank you to him after Mass, so many people that he is almost late for a dinner he has to attend.

He's so friendly and unassuming that this happens to him all the time, where he's almost late for things because everyone wants to talk to him and shake hands and ask for blessings, and he never rushes anyone but he's never late for anything either. We don't know how he does it. I think it comes from him being a parish priest so long. He knows how to be completely accessible and friendly but not get bogged down.

He almost gets bogged down on his birthday, though. I bet a hundred people say thank you for what you have done for us and bless you for your honesty and thank you for saving the children and thank you for your service and bless you for your humor. One man says to him thank you for being a beacon of light in such darkness, it is so pithy and what so many of us think about the archbishop.

But he does finally make it to his car and to the dinner, with about a minute to spare, I think. I don't know how he does it, but he's never late. If he says he will be there, he'll be there. That's why so many of us admire him so much, I think. You can trust that man.



Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the author most recently of Grace Notes, a collection of spiritual essays. 

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, archbishop, religion



submit a comment

Existing comments

Doyle presented an insightful protrait of a man who is in the winter of his adult life and his life in Christ. An honest mini-lens on the less known side of Authority in all its humaness

Carole Belgrade | 10 October 2012  

Who is he, this inspirational man of God? This is truly wonderful, and it made my day.

Peter M | 10 October 2012  

Thank you for your description of a wonderful human well on the way to being a saint. This beautiful person reminds me so much of our own Monsignor - holiness and dedication personified. You cannot help but be inspired by such champions. These are the true heroes of our day. Such heroes are all around us … but they can be even more effective with all the support we can muster.

m.stewart | 10 October 2012  

Are we allowed to ask who he is or should we know?

Peter Hanley | 10 October 2012  

I like your writing very much. In reading this, my thoughts turned to the Archbishop of our diocese, to the Synod (Anglican) currently meeting in Sydney. It would be accurate to say that our Archbishop is loved and respected within our diocese, but a controversial figure within secular society. I can't agree with all his views but I am grateful for his leadership, for his devotion to his people and for the love he always displays openly.

Pam | 10 October 2012  

Did I miss something in reading this article? An admirable cleric But was that all? So I read it again - and I didn't get anything more the second time !!

frank hetherton | 10 October 2012  

I think this Bishop must've been one of those Thirty Good Priests that Brian Doyle wrote about a couple of years ago. I used that writing as a Spiritual Reflection at a Deanery meeting last year. It's clergy like these who outnumber the offending ones. We have to keep that in mind in these dark days of dealing with past abuses and lack of leadership.

glen avard | 10 October 2012  

I am honored at such response. To Frank Hetherton, to me the whole point of the piece (and the man) is his honest grce; I do not think there's any higher feat than that for a being of any stripe, and I wanted to celebrate this being, in particular because he is exactly the sort of bishop we wish we all had, and here in America we have occasionally had. For those who want to know his name, he is Archbishop John Vlazny of Oregon, who walked into a hellstorm and has been an honest blunt cheerful compassionate servant to his fellow Catholics, not an arrogant blowhard liar like some other bishops I could name, but won't, unless I mention Cardinal Bernard Law formerly of Boston.

Brian Doyle | 11 October 2012  

This was lovely and uplifting for me. Thank you.

Millie | 11 October 2012  

I read the piece first without noticing the "non-fiction" tag, found myself encouraged and inspired, thought of some English bishops who are (I think) heading in this direction, and had just got as far as thinking "if only..." when I read the comments and discovered that 'the Archbishop' is no heart-warming fiction but a consoling reality. Thank you for this gift of genuine consolation, read and received on the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Council.

Brendan Callaghan SJ | 13 October 2012  


Tim Merriman | 24 October 2012  

Brian's is a voice that needs to be heard, telling the stories of the honest and devoted people of faith that make a difference without headlines. Bless you for spreading a little of that peace that passes our understanding.

---dean | 24 October 2012  

Beautifully written. An honorable man. Honest grace. Amen. Thank you.

Colleen | 24 October 2012  

Similar Articles

Alone in Obama's America

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 18 October 2012

On a television in a grimy bar, Barack Obama waxes lyrical about the unity of the people. In the foreground, a brutal and enigmatic enforcer of the criminal underworld scoffs. America is not a community, he counters — it's a business. 'I'm living in America, and in America, you're on your own.'


Historical precedents for Jones' Shamegate

  • Brian Matthews
  • 12 October 2012

The name Charles Hughes Cousens is not one that has been canvassed during the lamentable and often tawdry debate about the Alan Jones affair, but perhaps it should have been. Cousens' ordeal as the target of a treason-baying press lies in the distant but pointed background to Jones' assault on Julia Gillard.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up