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Shared memories of Bishop Rueger’s 25 years

Posted By March 29, 2012 | 1:33 pm | Lead Story #3

By Tanya Connor

Bishop Rueger observed his silver jubilee as a bishop in his typically humble fashion, avoiding the limelight. But he happily shared memories with The Catholic Free Press. So did some of the many he’s touched.
Pope John Paul II promoted Father George E. Rueger to the Titular See of Maronana and Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Worcester on Feb. 14, 1987. He was ordained to help Bishop Timothy J. Harrington, the diocese’s ordinary, with ministry here. But, according to church custom, he was given titular jurisdiction over a suppressed diocese in northwest Africa, explains a story in The Catholic Free Press Feb. 27, 1987 supplement about the new bishop.
“I think, first of all, the reality of my being a bishop came as a surprise,” the retired auxiliary said of the day he got the news. He said he was working on plans for the parish hall at St. Peter’s in Worcester, where he was pastor, when Bishop Harrington called and asked him to come to his house.
“I honestly thought he was going to transfer one of the priests,” Bishop Rueger said. “When I got there, the nuncio was on the telephone. The nuncio told me.”
What did he feel?
“I think total shock,” replied Bishop Rueger.
“I couldn’t say anything.” Not because of the shock, but because of the protocol. Only he and Bishop Harrington were to know until it was officially announced some days later, on Jan. 21. But Father John W. Barrett, then director of the diocesan Office of Communication and now deceased, apparently found out.
“I met him at Holy Name Church and he came up to me and he wanted some biographical material,” Bishop Rueger recalled. “So then I knew that he knew.” Shortly thereafter, it was announced in Rome and the radio broadcast it before Bishop Harrington announced it at the Chancery, he said.
Father Charles F. Monroe, pastor of Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Worcester, said the day of the announcement he, and other priests who had been or were living at St. Peter’s, concelebrated the 5:15 p.m. Mass with the bishop-to-be. He said it was exciting to have a priest from the diocese named auxiliary to replace Bishop Harrington, who held that office before becoming the ordinary.
Father Monroe said he gave Bishop Rueger ideas for his coat of arms. Paul J. Sullivan, a heraldry expert from Narragansett, R.I., completed it, according to The Catholic Free Press report.
The center of the shield features a gold cross with fleur-de-lis extensions on a blue field, like the diocese’s coat of arms. Bishop Rueger was the first priest ordained for the Worcester Diocese to be ordained to serve as a bishop in Worcester County. At the base of the shield is a rock symbolizing St. Peter, for Bishop Rueger’s share in the Church’s apostolic leadership and for the parish where he grew up and served as associate and pastor. The silver dove represents the Holy Spirit.
His episcopal motto, “That they all may be one,” from Jn 17:21-22, shows his “desire for the work of the Spirit to create unity,” Father Monroe said. (The bishop was vice president for mission and ministry on the Worcester County Ecumenical Council, and had been involved in various ecumenical activities.)
“He was a vibrant pastoral leader,” said Father Monroe, who’d been one of his associate pastors at St. Peter’s. “He was a joy to live with and work with.”
Bishop Rueger said Father James M. Shea, then associate pastor at St. Peter’s and now deceased, drove him to St. Paul Cathedral for his ordination on Feb. 25.
“It was a cold, clear night,” he recalled. “It was a great night of jubilation. I enjoyed it thoroughly.”
He said Father James A. Mongelluzzo, then director of the Diocesan Office for Worship and master of ceremonies, who’s been serving at Boston College, told him to relax and enjoy it; he would take care of the details.
“It was just beautiful,” Bishop Rueger reminisced. “A lot of my classmates from Boston came.” (He’d studied for the priesthood at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton.)
“The next day I had Mass at the parish,” he said. “I just continued my life at St. Peter’s,” waiting for the appointment of a new pastor.
“Bishop had asked me to find a residence,” Bishop Rueger said of Bishop Harrington. He chose St. Stephen rectory in Worcester, where the “attic” (third floor) afforded him privacy and his visitors confidentiality, he said. Twenty-five years later, he’s still there.
Pauline Vidito, who’s served at St. Stephen’s for 22 years, as secretary and now administrative assistant, said she sees more of Bishop Rueger now that he’s retired.
“You get to see who he is as a man, as opposed to the bishop,” she said. “I would consider him a friend.”
She called him the most down-to-earth person she’s ever met.
“He’s not impressed with his title at all,” she said. “He always has time for everybody.” If a stranger comes to the rectory seeking a priest, and he’s the only one there, she’ll call him and he’ll come.
“He’s always very positive – a good person to be around,” said Father H. Edward Chalmers, St. Stephen’s pastor, who has known him for years. “He was a very kind and considerate priest, just like he’s a kind and considerate bishop. He’s given so much service to the Lord. A very, very humble man.”
Father Dennis J. O’Brien, associate pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Fitchburg, said he accompanied the new bishop on his trip to Rome to meet with the pope. (Father O’Brien was associate pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Hopedale when Bishop Rueger was pastor there, and later lived with him at St. Peter’s. )
In Rome, Father O’Brien told a seminary classmate working in the Congregation of Bishops, “We are so excited” about Worcester’s new auxiliary bishop.
“The recommendation of the priests of Worcester was the determining factor,” replied the classmate.
“That’s what the priests have said: ‘He’s one of us,’” Father O’Brien mused. He’s been one with others too.
“When I think of Bishop Rueger, all I can think of is the words of the Psalmist: ‘Zeal for your house consumes me,’” (Ps 69:9) Father O’Brien said. “At Marian High the girls would call him ‘Eager Rueger.’ He’d be right there in the midst of them wiping the tables, even though he was the headmaster. His whole life has been consumed by service to others – even now. I can remember living with him in Hopedale. He’d go running down the stairs; every new day was a new opportunity to serve. It was all done with joy.”
“He’s been friends with my family since I was in high school,” said Kristina Benoit, of St. Paul Cathedral Parish, who met him in 1969 as a freshman at Marian. In 1983 he celebrated Mass for her parents’ 30th wedding anniversary and a month later was main celebrant at her father’s funeral, she said. Nearly three years ago he baptized her nephew.
Deacon John Franchi, campus deacon at Anna Maria College, said Bishop Rueger performed the weddings for him and his wife and their children, and baptized their children and grandchildren.
He first met then-Father Rueger as a 16-year-old Catholic Youth Council member at the new priest’s first parish – Our Lady of Lourdes in Worcester, where he was a role model for youth.
“He is the quintessential disciple, because he’s truly dedicated to the mission of discipleship,” the deacon said. “He’s constantly reaching out to help people. He’s a man of compassion, understanding, love. Besides the Lord, he’s the reason I’m a deacon. He’s been an inspiration to me.”
“I just find him amazingly giving,” said Ruth Beringer, Cursillo weekend organizer and a member of St. Joseph Parish in Charlton. “Everybody on both the men’s and the women’s weekends – they just love him. He’s one of the highlights of the weekends because he’s so real. He brings an amazing energy. He’s sharp, he’s witty, he’s an absolute asset.”
Bishop Rueger said he also serves on a few committees and does voluntary prison ministry.
“I feel very, very grateful to Bishop McManus, because, even though I am retired, he permitted me to continue, not just with confirmations, but TV Mass, Propagation of the Faith,” he said.
Through the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, he arranges for missionary representatives to speak in parishes here.
“I think I enjoy learning more every year how widespread are the missionary efforts of the Church,” he said.
“I love confirmations,” he said. “I think I enjoy it because I can have a very brief communication with young people. I always enjoyed youth ministry.”
He said he asks boys who take the confirmation name Anthony if they’re Italian and whether their mother or grandmother makes the best pasta. Ninety percent say their grandmother.
“I never tell their mothers,” Bishop Rueger said. But apparently one youth told his grandmother, who told the bishop she does, indeed, make the best pasta – because she has the pots with a lot of garlic in them.
“Oh, and then the other thrill I have to tell you about happened to me last year,” the bishop enthused. “I was at Sacred Heart, Webster.” Permission had just been granted for the use of Blessed John Paul II’s name, he said. One boy yelled out the late pope’s name as his confirmation choice.
“I said, ‘Many people may choose it, but you’re the first,’” Bishop Rueger recalled.
The bishop also recalled his first confirmation – at Our Lady Immaculate Parish in Athol. When the first student approached him for the sacrament, he told her, “Remember this: you are the first of a new bishop.”
“It turned out to be a long line,” he mused. A line that continues.
Characteristically humble, Bishop Rueger said there are many priests who could have been bishop before him.
“Me? That was my first reaction,” he said. But he added, “I could not have been happier; I enjoyed every single minute of it.”