A Bishop Reminisces on 42 Years of Service
by Charlene Scott
The Most Rev. Ronald Michael Gilmore probably is the only bishop in the world today who was born on his grandmother's kitchen table.
The sixty-eight-year-old bishop emeritus laughed when he told the story of his birth April 23, 1942 in a two-story frame house west of Pittsburgh, Kansas. He removed a framed photograph of the old homestead from the wall, and ruefully said that the house is gone now.
Bishop Gilmore, the oldest of four boys, is gone now too as bishop of the Diocese of Dodge City. He resigned his position and was succeeded February 2 by the Most Rev. John Balthasar Brungardt of Wichita. Bishop Gilmore is gone, but not away, as he still lives in Dodge City.
Looking back on his life and 42 years of service to the church, he recalled: "My family was not overly religious. We attended Catholic schools and served as altar boys, but we were staunch and faithful Mass goers. I remember riding my bicycle to 6:30 Mass in the morning."
The dark-haired boy actually began thinking about becoming a priest in the fourth grade, and his religious vocation "unfolded over the years," he said.
"I always say, 'They made me do it,'" he laughed again. "It was the example of my religious teachers, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wichita, and the priests of my parish whom I knew. I wanted to do what they did and be like them. I admired them."
Bishop Gilmore remembers himself as a high school sophomore sitting in a world history class, listening to a nun talk about the missionary work of the church. "I thought, 'I could do that.' My vocation clicked into place that year."
He left high school after his junior year and entered St. John Vianney Benedictine Priory in Omaha, but never joined the monastery, deciding instead to study for the Diocese of Wichita. He attended the University of Ottawa in Canada from 1963 to 1969, receiving two degrees in Philosophy, a B.A. and a B.Ph., and three degrees in Theology.
"They made my life possible," he said of the Wichita Diocese. "They taught me, and I felt I ought to give them something back."
What he gave back was service with Cuban refugee youth in Wichita, pastoring several churches, and 16 years as Chancellor, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Wichita. He was ordained and installed July 16, 1998 as the fifth bishop of the 23,000-square-mile Dodge City Diocese's 50 parishes in 28 counties. He served for nearly 13 years.
A friend of Kansas farmers and ranchers, he moved onto the national scene in 2004, serving two three-year terms as president of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference of U.S. bishops. He also became the chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Agricultural Issues.
The prelates of that committee put their heads together and over two years developed the statement "For I was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: Reflections on Food, Farmers and Farmworkers," adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2003.
"The statement grew out of hearings held all over the country," Bishop Gilmore said. "We invited farmers and ranchers from Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma to a hearing at Newman University in Wichita. The huge room was packed."
The bishop who began life on a table surely had a hand in the statement's wording: "A table is where families gather for food, but some have little food or no table at all. We cannot secure a place at the table for all without a more just agricultural system. Some small farmers are losing their place at the table. Some farmworkers never had a place. And so many people in our own land and around the world, seeking to feed their children, have no real place at that table."
Bishop Gilmore believes the Diocese of Dodge City has dealt well with these issues.
"We are dealing with dying towns and overstressed ranchers and farmers," he said.
"We are siding with them by reminding people that our economic system is for the welfare of the person, not the person for the system. We distribute food and fiber to individual human beings. I think we have done as good a job with the difficult conditions of rural life as any diocese in the country."
Bishop Gilmore also has been a faithful friend of farmworkers and immigrants who have settled and worked in the diocese, noting that "their sense of family and fiesta is one of the great gifts they have brought to us."
The bishop has special memories of Pope John Paul II, whom he met in Rome prior to his ordination as bishop in 1998 "while the pope still was in fairly good condition, although he already had the onset of Parkinson's."
Bishop Gilmore had a private meeting for 30 minutes with the pope, and then was invited to lunch with him and four or five other bishops. He also celebrated Mass with the pope in his private chapel.
In 2004, he met for the last time with the popular pope who served 26 years and 168 days, visiting 129 countries.
"The Holy Father was not able to talk," Bishop Gilmore recalled. "But I knew he was a poet, and I asked him if he still wrote poetry."
Instead of nodding in the affirmative, "The pope pulled himself up in his chair, and said, 'Yes, I can!' That was at Thanksgiving, and he died the following April."