Another call: South Bend native, Holy Cross priest reflects on becoming a bishop

Published: Mar. 26, 2019 at 8:47 PM EDT
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When people land dream jobs, it's not always easy to self-restrain thoughts of how much can be achieved in a career. But ascending the proverbial ladder never crossed the mind of a priest, who grew up serving as an altar boy at Christ the King Catholic Church in South Bend.

"For those of us in a religious order like (the Congregation of) Holy Cross, I think -- we're just -- our goal is to serve wherever we're sent," said The Most Rev. Bill Wack, C.S.C., the bishop of the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese.

In May 2017, Wack was a parish priest in Austin, Tex., trying to fix the church's air conditioner that was knocked out by a storm. That's when he received a phone call from an unknown number from Washington, D.C.

"I answered, and as soon as I heard, 'Hello,' I thought, 'This is different. This is not, you know, spam or whatever you call it,'" Wack recalled.

It was as far from a robocall he could receive: the papal ambassador to the United States was on the other end, explaining to then-Fr. Bill Wack that Pope Francis would like for him to become the next bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee.

"Finally, he said, 'You ask a lot of questions. Pope Francis needs an answer. What shall I tell him?'" said Wack. "I took a deep breath and said, 'Yes, with the help of God, I say, yes.'"

In August 2017, Wack was ordained a bishop.

"You know, I'm not an academic, an intellectual. Other people have even said that, almost disparagingly, you know about me, kind of like, 'You're a bishop? But you're not an academic. You're not an intellectual,'" tells Wack.

When he received the phone call in May 2017, Wack assumed the apostolic nuncio meant to call his younger brother.

"I think Billy thinks I'm more of a priest than he is. And by that, I mean, more of kind of the official, have the suit jacket on, have the official administrative duties, do all those things," listed Fr. Neil Wack, C.S.C, the vocations director of the U.S. Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross. "So in that respect, I suppose that it could be seen as, 'Wow, the call should have come to me.' But as far as being someone of the people and for the poor, it's clear that he is the man."

The older of the Wack priests, who come from a family of 10, has worked in prisons and soup kitchens.

"I think working with those who are in great need, like the poor, the homeless, or inmates, prisoners, it's a pretty simple thing: you go to minister to them. You go to listen to them. You go to talk to them about the faith," said Bishop Wack.

In mid-March, he and his brother, Fr. Neil Wack, C.S.C., led a parish retreat at Christ the King, the church they attended as children and where Neil was the former pastor.

"It's home. It's where I grew up spiritually in that church at Christ the King. I had my First Communion there. I had my Confirmation, celebrated my First Mass (as a priest) there and everything," said Bishop Wack.

And he finds himself being asked by a lot of people, especially the younger generation, if he ever has had regrets of becoming a priest?

"I say, 'No.' And they say, 'Come on.' But I say, 'No, I don't mean regretted like, 'Oh, I made a mistake.' But have I ever wondered what it would be like to not be a priest, say to be married and have a family? Absolutely, I'm human," said Wack. "I think you'll always wonder what it would be like if you did something else."

But the 'what if's' are ephemeral.

"I love my vocation. I love being a priest, and so, if you love something, you don't spend a lot of time wondering, 'What would it be like if I weren't, do you know what I mean?'" posed Wack, a priest of nearly 25 years.

Bishop Wack will make another return trip to South Bend in late April when he celebrates the ordination Mass for Holy Cross priests at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.