By Riley Manning
The St. James parish in Tupelo is becoming somewhat of a second home to the newly appointed bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz, the diocese’s 11th bishop following the resignation of 10-year bishop Joseph Latino in December, delivered the English and Spanish masses at St. James last weekend. The visit marked his third stop at the church in a mere six weeks in the position.
“At this rate,” he told the congregation, “you’re going to get tired of me.”
Having served the diocese of Scranton, Penn., in which he grew up, Kopacz told the congregation his appointment came quite unexpectedly, yet he was pleased to find himself in Mississippi “among good company.”
Out of Scranton
Kopacz grew up in a family heavily involved in the church, receiving his education in the Catholic schools of the Sts. Anthony and Rocco Parish. The priests there, he said, were very influential in his decision to become a priest.
Following high school, Kopacz went on to receive his undergraduate degree in history from the University of Scranton, then entered Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, N.Y. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1977, and over the next 30 years, held various pastor and associate pastorships, as well as administrative positions across the Scranton diocese. In his assignment prior to the bishop role, Kopacz served as pastor of three parishes in close proximity. Under his leadership, the communities were consolidated into the Holy Trinity Parish. It was while looking over plans for a new church Kopacz received the call that he would be serving in Jackson.
“I got the call around Thanksgiving, but I couldn’t tell my family until like the day before the official announcement, which was weeks later,” he said. “It’s hard to hold in something so dramatic.”
Once the announcement was made, Kopacz spent the next two months organizing the transition, orienting new pastors, and saying goodbye to the people he’d spent his whole life around.
“Being a priest for 36 years in the same place, you become a part of so many people’s lives, and that was kind of daunting to part with,” he said. “All of a sudden, you have to pack everything up, decide what to take and what to throw away.”
But at the end of the day, he said, he knew this new adventure would be a continuation of the ministry he had already been doing.
Charting new territory
As Kopacz has made his rounds throughout his new territory, it’s not uncommon for him to be treated somewhat like a celebrity among Catholics. After mass, St. James parishioners eagerly vied for a handshake, a group photo, or even for the bishop to hold their children.
“In a way, it’s similar to my work as a pastor, in that I’m constantly coming in contact with new people,” he said. “But everything being so public has been a big adjustment.”
The geographic and cultural landscape of the Jackson diocese is quite a change from what Kopacz is accustomed to. His former area was much smaller, and contained a higher concentration of Catholics.
“The St. James parish itself is a large parish,” Kopacz said. “And very diverse. For instance, Southaven has around 1,300 families represented in their congregation, while, say, Iuka may have 20.”
However, what Kopacz has seen so far in Mississippi is solid, steady growth. In addition to the traditionally Catholic families already living in the state, the population is increasing due to residents moving in from more Catholic areas and an ever-growing Latino community.
“There’s a lot of life in this diocese,” he said. “My challenge is to create unity.”
Kopacz said he would spend his first year as bishop traveling around the state, to gain perspective on the diocese as a whole. With a clear picture in mind, he and his cabinet will decide on a direction in which to steer the Jackson diocese, which includes all of Mississippi except the 17 southernmost counties.
Day in, day out
According to Father Lincoln Dall, priest at St. James, Kopacz is exemplary of the type of leadership Pope Francis is looking for.
Pope Benedict XVI was much more of an academic type, Dall said. Under his administration, the types of people more likely to be chosen for bishop were Canon lawyers or maybe the director of a seminary.
“But Benedict never spent one day in a parish,” Dall said. “As a priest, the rubber meets the road not while making the rules, but pastorally applying them. Pope Francis highly values that pastoral experience, the day-in and day-out work of the priests on the ground level. In his eyes, a bishop’s most important attribute is the ability to be comfortable and genuine interacting with everyday people in a meaningful way.”
Kopacz agreed. Especially as one new to the area, he told St. James, a bishop is called at times to lead the people, at times to walk beside the people, and at times to follow the people.
“And that’s what I’ve been doing so far,” Kopacz said. “A lot of listening and following.”