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Becoming a Bishop in Europe
The pain started to work up from my knees, but I hardly felt it. The church was packed, but I was alone. It seemed like a dream, but it was all quite real.
It began on my birthday, November 12. I went to Florence with Bishop Jeffery Rowthorn and his wife Anne for the beginning of a packed ten-day schedule, which was to include my ordination as Bishop in Charge of the American Churches in Europe. After a long but pleasant journey from Paris, I was soon in meetings with the Board of St James Church, our parish in Florence. The board, one of three New York non-profit corporations set up long ago to manage church property in Europe, has backed the Rector’s extraordinary vision of a complete overhaul of the facility. They have consecrated the better part of the endowment to this work. The Reverend Peter Casparian has been rector for some seven years, and this culminates a ministry that has seen strong growth in the parish, spiritually as well as in numbers. The intelligence of the renovation and that the board was willing to back it amazed me, and the results are nothing short of remarkable. I can’t wait to go back in late April to help celebrate the work’s completion. Moreover, St James has a great ministry to Italians as well as Americans. The Reverend Claudio Bocca is our first Italian priest in the Convocation. Our Prayer Book in Italian is entering its second edition. But that's not enough: St James also has a strong ministry to college students in Florence.
On to Rome, where the Board of St Paul’s-Within-the-Walls was meeting and examining renovation and repairs being made there as well. This church, begun in 1870, is not only architecturally unique, but also unusual in terms of ministry. The only place a refugee can go hang out in the great city of Rome is in the Joel Nafuma Center found (where else?) in Rome’s only Episcopal parish. The Rector, the Reverend Dr. Michael Vono, has led the church into this new era of ministry. Besides the present congregation, St Paul’s also is home to a flourishing Latino (yes, from South America) church, led by a young Ecuadorian Lay Pastoral Leader, Aldo Erazo. They threw a party for the convention. Over one hundred twenty-five Latino parishioners came. It seemed we were not in Italy, but somewhere in Latin America, as we ate and danced and celebrated through the evening.
I sat in on the convention of the Convocation. European Episcopalians face quite different challenges than stateside Episcopalians, but one thing they have in common is that they love to voice their opinions! One amusing moment came when the roll was called and then the visitors announced. My name was missing. Finally someone asked, "What about Pierre?" Everyone laughed. I thought that since I was neither a delegate to convention nor a visitor, it was okay not to include me. I asked the person next to me whether I could go home now. But there was no home to go back to anymore.
The Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold, and his wife Phoebe were our special guests, and both gave excellent addresses to the convention. They also attended the farewell dinner for the Rowthorns and our welcome dinner. A group of people came up with the idea of an endowment named for the Rowthorns that could subsidize new church plants and youth ministry in Europe, two ministries dear to their hearts. So the Jeffery and Anne Rowthorn Endowment for Mission came into being. The fund being kept as a surprise, I had positioned myself to watch Bishop Jeffery’s face, especially when the total was announced—over $125,000 contributed by more than 317 names. It was wonderful! The leadership he and Anne have provided over the years has been God’s instrument for the renewal and wonderful growth of the Convocation’s parishes, which have led to, among other things, the election of a bishop to serve them.
We had gotten word back in September that we might receive an invitation to the Vatican. Then it was off, then on again, so that when the details firmed up, we were already in Rome. St Paul’s incredibly competent secretary, Andrea D’Agasto, managed at the drop of a hat to get buses for all the delegates to take us to the Vatican. None of us knew what to expect, not even Bishop Griswold. As it is the custom for Roman Catholic bishops-to-be to wear episcopal vestments even before their ordination, Bishop Griswold told me to put on my brand-new purple cassock for the occasion. It was November 17, a beautiful sunny Saturday in St Peter’s Square. My father, a devout Roman Catholic, accompanied me. My mother had told me that due to her trouble walking (at age 87), she would not be able to accompany us. But when we got to the Square, a Church of England priest came running up to me to inform me that my mother was there. At first I was incredulous. But I accompanied him after he forcefully informed me that the Presiding Bishop himself had sent him to find me. Sure enough, there she was, accompanied by one of my sisters, both in tears of joy. It was a wonderful moment.
Then we entered the Vatican. While others were questioned by the guards, even searched, to my amazement I was waved right through as the Swiss Guards came to attention. Up we went, climbing innumerable marble steps up to a huge audience chamber. They sat me up front between Mgr. Carlos Lopez-Lozano, Bishop of the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church, and the Rt Rev Dr Geoffrey Rowell, new Bishop of the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe. After a moment, a procession of Swiss Guards, chamberlains, and security guards came into the room. As we stood, a bemedaled majordomo came out, looked around, and then looked back. Behind him came the familiar white–robed figure. Bent over, walking slowly, John Paul II saw us and beamed, greeting us with his well–known two-handed gesture. He went up to a chair on a dais, sat down, and the audience began.
The new chairman of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Walter Cardinal Kasper, read a brief speech in Italian welcoming the Convocation of American Churches. The Pope then spoke in English, also giving us his greeting and reiterating the Roman Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism. The Presiding Bishop then replied in kind and Bishop Rowthorn presented the pontiff with a bronze of St Paul.
But the best part was yet to come. We had brought representatives of our young people and children, who came up and greeted the Pope, much to his evident delight. He hugged and kissed them all, including our daughter Marie-Noëlle (which brought tears to her father’s eyes). Little Nicholas, son of our Canon Missioner, the Reverend Joseph Britten, was so enthused that he literally leaped into the papal lap. We gasped, but the Pope was thrilled. The four-year-old got extra hugs and kisses, which he endured very well.
Our young people lined up. Nina Miegs, a sixteen-year-old from Emmanuel Church, Geneva, prayed a prayer for Christian unity she had written. I was astonished at her composure. In a hall designed to intimidate visitors, in front of the pope, eight cardinals, a dozen Anglican bishops including the Presiding Bishop, and some fifty Roman bishops making their first trip to the Vatican, not to mention an overflow crowd, Nina’s voice raised up in prayer. The room hushed. The Spirit blew through us all, and many if not all had tears in their eyes when she was finished. John Paul was visibly moved as well, and I am told that he asked for a copy of her prayer.
After that, what followed was anti-climactic. The Anglican bishops and one bishop-elect lined up to be greeted by the Pope. When it was my turn, he shook my hand and said, "Welcome." Back in Florence, I had asked Padre Bocca’s wife Alicia, a Pole, what one said when greeting a Pope, on the off chance that I might actually meet him personally. "Whether it is a Pope or a country priest," she replied, "the greeting is the same. ‘Blessed be Jesus Christ,’ you say, and the priest replies, ‘forever and ever. Amen.’" She taught me the Polish and made me repeat it several times. I said to the Pope what she had taught me. He smiled and gave me the reply, to which we both said, "Amen."
Our welcome dinner that night was a smashing affair, including several people whom I had never met in the flesh but only online. My parents and two of my sisters also were able to be there, along with a brother-in-law and two nieces. My sister Marie Sharp brought the episcopal jewelry she had designed and showed the ring and pectoral cross to me (and everyone else) for the first time. The spectacular designs (I know, I am her brother, but it is great work) captivated everyone. They take their inspiration from the seal of the Bishop in Europe, which currently serves not only for the Bishop in Charge but also for the Convocation itself.
The next morning I put on a purple shirt for the first time. My daughter Marie-Noëlle asked me to wear a black one, which she is used to, but I said no. We went to St Paul’s, where I watched the Reverend Carl Gerdau, the Canon to the Presiding Bishop (and new honorary Canon of the American Cathedral in Paris) heat up the wax for the bishops to seal my ordination certificate. Then the service formally began with Deborah Bly singing several songs in her wonderful and inimitable style. We lined up in the courtyard and came in singing Hyfrydol. I saw 26 people from my former parish, St Andrew’s Church and School, Fort Pierce, Florida, in attendance. It was overwhelming.
I was shaken by the printed title of the liturgy: "The Ordination of the Reverend Pierre Welté Whalon as Bishop." I kept wanting to say "Who?" The feeling persisted as the presenters led me in front of the Presiding Bishop: "We present Pierre Welté Whalon…" "Whom are they talking about?" said a little voice inside me. Soon I was alone, kneeling on the mosaic floor of St Paul’s during the Litany for Ordination.
The pain started to work up from my knees, but I hardly felt it. The church was packed, but I was quite alone. Above me loomed Jesus Christ on his throne of judgment. The four rivers of Eden flowed out from beneath it. Below him were saints from various eras, men and women, some in armor, others in dark robes, who gazed down on me with inscrutable faces. (The walls of St Paul’s are covered with extraordinary pre-Raphaelite mosaics by Edward Burne-Jones. They are imaginative, if not to say idiosyncratic, in their presentation of Christian symbols. For instance, one panel depicts Jesus crucified on a Tree of Life in full bloom.) Though I am a large man, I felt tiny…
In his sermon that morning, Bishop Griswold expressed what I was feeling when he said that the higher the office, the deeper the person in it has a sense of spiritual poverty. This is "the hidden gift of episkope," he said. I had felt so much of my identity stripped away as I left my former life. Moving to Paris had required us to sell or give away most of our possessions. Now I was beginning a new form of ministry, which can only be learned on the job. In Europe.
Shortly thereafter, I was once again on my knees, now surrounded by bishops. But I had no thought of them at that moment. Again, a terror seized me, the same trembling fear as on my ordination to the priesthood at the laying-on-of-hands. All began to sing the Veni creator, the 11th-century hymn invoking the Holy Spirit. Suddenly I was transported back to my father’s organ loft at Jesus Savior Roman Catholic Church, Newport, Rhode Island, a little Portuguese parish. I could hear his men’s choir singing the hymn, which I learned to love as a little boy. For a moment, I could se every detail of that scene. Then it dissolved as the heavy hands descended upon me. The fear left, and they helped me rise.
In the liturgy for ordinations, deacons and priests are asked whether they believe they are called to their new ministry, while episcopal candidates are asked whether they are persuaded that they have been called to the episcopate. The Presiding Bishop asked me whether I was so persuaded. I took a deep breath, the kind you take before a high dive into the deep end of the pool for the first time. "I am so persuaded," I replied.
God help me.
God help us all. The Lord bless Bishop Jeffery and Anne Rowthorn as they move to a new ministry in the United States. And may God richly bless the people and clergy of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe as we step together into God’s future.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.