On the ice and in the pulpit, Bishop Thomas Paprocki takes hard shots
The office of Bishop Thomas John Paprocki is a veritable shrine to hockey.
On a table sits a miniature Stanley Cup, next to a photo of him posing on the ice with members of his beloved Chicago Blackhawks. In the office foyer hangs a photograph of Paprocki posing with the cup itself, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Gov. Pat Quinn.
“Those were in happier times,” quips the bishop, who castigated the governor a year ago, when Quinn, a Catholic, said that his faith prompted him to sign a bill allowing civil unions.
They call him the Holy Goalie, the bishop who saves goals and saves souls. He is, according to Jeff Rocco, director of the Sacred Heart-Griffin hockey squad, the real deal in the net – you’d never know that he didn’t take up ice hockey until the late 1990s, when he was closing in on 50.
What possesses a man in mid-life to become a puck target?
“Why do you want to play goalie – it’s like, why do you want to be a priest?” answers Paprocki, who also runs marathons. “Part of it, I guess, is being at the center of the action. Being a goalie is like being a bishop: You’re at the center of the action.”
Really, Paprocki says, it isn’t much different than playing goal in floor hockey, which he did back in the eighth grade while growing up on Chicago’s south side. There were no ice rinks, and so his six brothers and their friends played in a basement beneath his father’s pharmacy.
“The basic principle is, you play the angles,” he says. “You just want to position yourself in a way so the puck hits you.”
Plenty of pucks have hit Paprocki since his arrival in Springfield 18 months ago. He doesn’t shy from strong statements, which has earned him critics who call him divisive, arrogant, inflammatory – and worse.
The final straw for Maryam Moustoufi came last Christmas Eve. During midnight mass, Paprocki ripped airport security personnel for not profiling Arabs and warned that Muslims could impose Islamist values in the United States if they keep moving here until they reach a majority. He also gave a history lesson about a failed invasion of Europe by Muslim soldiers.
“The commander of the defeated Ottoman army, Kara Mustafa Pasha, was executed in Belgrade on Dec. 25, 1683,” Paprocki preached. “Merry Christmas!”
The homily shocked many.
“I had a number of calls from people who were apologizing for his homily, and that included priests within this very diocese,” says Mostoufi, a Muslim who is a member of the Greater Springfield Interfaith Association. “He’s advocating a religious war. It’s nothing short of fear mongering.”
Paprocki didn’t back down when Corey Brost, a priest and a high school teacher in Arlington Heights, wrote an opinion piece published in the State Journal-Register, saying that Paprocki had given an inaccurate portrayal of Islam, invited fear and advocated unconstitutional human rights abuses.
In a response published in the diocesan newspaper, Paprocki mocked Brost for writing that there is no modern onslaught of Muslims attacking Christians.
“Oh, really?” Paprocki wrote. “That’s easy to say from the calm and peaceful security of Arlington Heights, Illinois.”
Nearly a year later, Paprocki says he didn’t expect the negative reaction and repeats his defense, saying that he had intended to focus on the plight of Christians in Iraq, where observances had been canceled for fear of violence.
“It would have been almost hypocritical for us to be sitting here and having this nice, joyful feeling about Christmas when I know that fellow Christians in another part of the world are not able to share that sentiment,” Paprocki says. “So that was really the main focus.”
The homily was vintage Paprocki, a man known for damning torpedoes. In 2007, Paprocki told a group of judges and lawyers in Michigan that monetary awards to victims of sexual abuse by priests were excessive and that the legal system needed reform.
“Today in North America and elsewhere, the law is being used to undermine the charitable works and the religious freedom of the Church,” Paprocki said four years ago. “This attack is particularly directed against bishops and priests, since the most effective way to scatter the flock is to attack the shepherd. We must also use our religious discernment to recognize that the principal force behind these attacks is none other than the devil.”
Paprocki also told his audience that sexual abuse of minors is a crime demanding punishment. But critics said that his remarks encouraged victims to remain silent rather than join forces with the devil and sue the church.
Six weeks before his installation as bishop last year, Paprocki was still explaining himself, writing in a State Journal-Register opinion article that his remarks were directed at lawyers and judges, not victims, and that he was advocating a middle ground to compensate victims of sexual abuse.
“I still stand by this: Is there a middle ground, what I call charitable viability, where we can compensate victims justly and fairly but we can do that without putting the charitable works out of business?” Paprocki said during a recent interview in his office. “Sometimes, I’ll say things…which would be intended for a particular audience, like a group of lawyers and judges, and then when other people hear it, maybe they hear it in a different way, so that requires a little more explaining – what you mean by that.”
But Paprocki doesn’t back off from statements made a year ago or in 2007.
“You can always think: Did I express myself in the best way possible? Could I have been more diplomatic? Could I have used a different set of words?” Paprocki says. “But in terms of the substance, I do stand by what I said. … It’s not like I’m shooting off at the mouth constantly – I’m not. When I do say something, I’ve usually given it a lot of thought – something like this needs to be said.”
Precisely, says David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who blasts Paprocki’s 2007 statements and accuses him of trying to guilt-trip victims, witnesses and whistle-blowers into remaining silent.
“Paprocki, like most bishops, is a smart, highly educated guy,” Clohessy says. “When a prestigious prelate claims to be misunderstood in a carefully prepared presentation, I think it’s best to be a little skeptical.”
Paprocki says that he believes that the Catholic church has done more to address the sexual abuse of children than any other organization. But the diocesan website does not include a toll-free number set up in 2006 so that victims or whistleblowers can report suspicions directly to J. William Roberts, a former U.S. attorney retained by former bishop George Lucas to investigate sexual abuse allegations. (Lucas is now archbishop in Omaha, Neb.) who is now archbishop in Omaha, Neb. Instead, Paprocki in a column published last May in the diocesan newspaper tells anyone with concerns to contact the “diocesan victim assistance coordinator,” who is also the diocese’s human resources director.
Paprocki says that he is considering posting the toll-free number on the diocesan website.
“I’m certainly open to doing that and looking for the best way to do that on our website,” the bishop says.
This year, on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy, some U.S. dioceses held interfaith observances. But not in Springfield, where diocesan services were ecumenical, open only to Christians.
“There wasn’t any conscious decision on my part – I never had that conversation, interfaith versus ecumenical,” says Paprocki.
The bishop says he was out of town and did not participate in planning. But he defends the decision to exclude other faiths from 9/11 services.
“Not that it couldn’t have been interfaith, but that does alter it,” Paprocki says. “It’s one thing for Christians of different denominations to get together and pray to Christ. It’s another thing when you’ve got Jews and Muslims and Hindus and others who don’t believe in Jesus Christ. … There are those of other faiths, as well, who will say that we don’t pray in the same way, we can’t really join in prayer.”
The lack of interfaith services organized by the diocese did not go unnoticed.
Diane Lopez Hughes, a lay Catholic who is active in peace movements, stops short of direct criticism, but sounds disappointed at the decision to make 9/11 observances ecumenical instead of interfaith.
“It would have been a wonderful opportunity,” says Hughes, who points out that people of all faiths died in the attacks, including Muslims who were not terrorists.
Hughes says the verdict on Paprocki is open.
“My sense is, he’s a very traditional bishop,” Hughes says “I certainly am not a traditional, just-go-to-church kind of person. I don’t expect that he’s going to be as active in terms of active social teachings as folks like me would like. The best way I can be honest to my own faith is to put my statements in terms of hope. He hasn’t been there that long.”
Paprocki remains a lawyer with malpractice insurance. He says he does pro bono work, but won’t elaborate. While Grossman foresees him becoming a cardinal, Paprocki says he didn’t see himself becoming a bishop when he graduated from law school and became an associate pastor in a Chicago parish.
Satan and a singing bishop
When it comes to passionate issues, Paprocki can say things that are flat wrong.
In a column published last year in Catholic Times, the diocesan newspaper, Paprocki wrote that abortion was outlawed in every state prior to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. In fact, abortion on demand was legal in four states prior to the court decision.
Paprocki looks stunned when asked about the error.
“I’ve heard that for years – that was the impression I always had,” the bishop says. “Nineteen seventy-two, I was still in college. If I’m in error, I stand corrected.”
That Paprocki would flub such a simple fact surprises Ed Grossman of Chicago, who met the bishop more than three decades ago on the opening day of classes at DePaul Law School.
“He’s pretty detail-oriented,” says Grossman, who remains a close friend.
Paprocki as a law student held his ground in the same way he does today, Grossman recalls.
“He wasn’t a back-of-the-class guy,” Grossman says. “He would, occasionally, get into a discussion or debate or argument with a professor on principles of constitutional law or principles of law.”
Paprocki is as conservative as they come when it comes to church doctrine, Grossman says, but on social issues such as environmental justice, he is “extremely liberal.”
After passing the bar exam in 1981, Paprocki and Grossman founded the Chicago Legal Clinic, which still provides legal services to the poor. Grossman is executive director while Paprocki remains president. Grossman, who is Jewish, says the bishop has a keen sense of humor, the sort who enjoys stories that begin with “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar….”
“He always tells those jokes,” Grossman says.
But Paprocki knows where the line is located.
“He is never not a bishop,” Grossman says. “It’s not a job for him. It’s a lifestyle. It’s something that permeates every aspect of his being.”
Paprocki entered law school three months after he was ordained – it was all part of a plan that made sense to him, he says, but perhaps not to others.
“That all fit for me,” he says with a chuckle. “I describe the law as a tool for ministry. Other people looking at that, ‘He was ordained a priest and now he’s studying to be a lawyer? He’s already so dissatisfied with the priesthood...’”
“I knew that my priesthood was going to be, in some ways, a little bit different because of my interest in the law,” the bishop says. “I was going to be a parish priest with a kind of specialized project.”
That vision didn’t last.
He lasted just five years as a parish priest in a south Chicago church before he was named a parish administrator. In 1985, four years out of law school, he became a vice-chancellor for the Archdiocese of Chicago and rose to chancellor in 1992. After a two-year stint as pastor of St. Constance Parish in Chicago, Pope John Paul II made him auxiliary bishop of the Chicago Archdiocese in 2003, a position he kept until coming to Springfield. Along the way, he learned to speak Italian while studying canon law in Rome. He already spoke Polish and Spanish, byproducts of studying Spanish at Loyola University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, and being raised in a Polish neighborhood that became popular with Hispanics.
Paprocki says he’s not an extrovert, but he likes to sing solo from the pulpit, choosing contemporary numbers from such performers as Nickelback. During his installation ceremony in Springfield on June 22, 2010, he sang “Jesus Loves You” by former Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell. He shouldn’t quit his day job, but he does not embarrass himself.
That’s not to say that Paprocki is a rock-and-roll bishop. He wins high praise from parishioners such as Danny Faulkner, who is old enough to recall masses said in Latin and says that the Second Vatican Council, commonly called Vatican II, which convened in the 1960s and decreed changes aimed at modernizing the church, went too far.
While others raise eyebrows at some of Paprocki’s statements, Faulkner applauds.
“He comes right to the point of things,” Faulkner says. “I can tell the way he is. He’s very conservative, you know.”
Under Paprocki, parishioners have resumed reciting a prayer to St. Michael at the conclusion of Mass. The practice largely ended after Vatican II, but Faulkner said he never stopped reciting the prayer, albeit alone, in which worshippers ask the saint to cast into hell Satan and other evil spirits that roam the earth.
“When they stopped saying the St. Michael, everything went to hell in America,” Faulkner says.
Paprocki says that he didn’t order parishes to resume the prayer. He says he brought up the idea of praying to St. Michael during a series of welcoming masses shortly after his arrival in Springfield.
“If we’re going to overcome sin, we need his intercession,” Paprocki says. “I said, ‘There’s no reason why we can’t say that prayer.’”
Using money from a donor, the diocese printed up 50,000 cards with the prayer printed on them and distributed them to parishes, with no mandate, Paprocki says.
“I simply said it was authorized,” Paprocki said. “When I first did that a year ago, I would invite people to take out the prayer card. What I’ve noticed now is, I don’t even have to ask them to take out the prayer card – they’ve got it memorized. … It’s touched a lot of hearts.”
Paprocki’s views on Satan drew attention from the New York Times and CNN last year, when he organized a conference on exorcism in Baltimore that attracted more than 100 bishops and priests. One goal was to ensure that someone in every American diocese could at least screen potential candidates for exorcism.
Headline writers had a field day: “Exorcist wanted. No experience necessary.” “Good news: Catholicism announces a new career option for Catholic men.” “Catholic exorcism conference turns heads (ahem).”
For Paprocki, the devil is no laughing matter. Pointing to polls that show most people believe in angels, Paprocki says the devil exists, and not as a metaphor.
“If you believe in angels, you really ought to believe in devils, because a devil is simply a fallen angel,” the bishop says. “Angels are intelligent beings created by God with free will, just like we are. The only difference is, we have bodies, they don’t. But they have the same possibility of a free will, and those that have exercised that free will in choosing against God are those that we call devils, or demons.”
St. Michael, Satan, exorcisms: Is Paprocki a throwback?
“To some extent, I guess we all are, especially bishops,” the bishop says. “A main role for a bishop is to be custodian of a tradition that goes back 2,000 years.”
Davlin and the day-to-day
After the late Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin committed suicide a year ago, Paprocki again found himself having to explain things.
The church teaches that life is sacred, that whether to live or die is God’s decision, and suicide was once considered a sin so serious that funeral masses were banned when the deceased took their own lives. The restriction was eased in 1983, although funeral masses can still be denied for people who commit suicide. It is a case-by-case decision.
In Davlin’s case, Paprocki didn’t hesitate.
Upon hearing the news, Paprocki says he called the mayor’s mother to offer condolences. She didn’t ask him for a funeral mass; he offered.
“The funeral is as much for the family and friends as it is for the departed person,” Paprocki explains. “Pastorally, I’m the shepherd of the Catholic community here in Springfield and he was the mayor, a very prominent figure and a Catholic – a member of that community. I thought my place was to be with the Catholic community and leading the community at that point.”
Two weeks after funeral services, Paprocki explained his reasoning in a column published in Catholic Times, acknowledging that there had been questions about the propriety of a funeral mass for Davlin and pointing out that Pope John Paul II had lifted the ban.
“My place was to be shepherd of the flock in their time of grief,” Paprocki wrote.
The mayor shot himself the day he was due in court to account for funds in the estate of Margaret Ettelbrick, a cousin who had died in 2003. Davlin was executor, and it was ultimately determined that $340,000 was missing. Davlin had taken most of it for his own use instead of turning it over to Catholic Charities, contrary to Ettelbrick’s will.
Davlin’s family donated the remainder of the mayor’s campaign fund, more than $220,000, to the church. Under the law, Catholic Charities could still have demanded $340,000 from Davlin’s estate. Instead, the diocese settled for $250,000, effectively leaving $90,000 on the table.
While Paprocki says that there was no quid pro quo when the Davlin family donated campaign funds, that money, nonetheless, made a difference.
“I got sort of an unspoken message that it was their own sense of equity and fairness in making that donation, and so I took it in that sense as well,” the bishop says.
Between explaining himself on high-profile matters, Paprocki leads the day-to-day life of a bishop, lawyer, marathon runner (he finished 531st out of 1,330 finishers with a time of 4:08:39 in the Kansas City Marathon last fall) and, Grossman says, a man who is making plans to earn a master’s degree in business administration. Somehow, he finds time for matters large and small.
“You can imagine a person in his position must get asked a favor or for something a million times a day,” Grossman says. “He always, always, always takes time for people.”
Including for members of the Sacred Heart-Griffin hockey team, which won its first-ever championship last season, when Paprocki served as the squad’s goalie coach during his first year in Springfield. The bishop attends about 70 percent of the team’s practices and games, says Rocco, the team’s director, and he commands respect by blocking 60-mph shots by college-bound players.
“He can play,” Rocco says.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.