National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 1, 2003

Archbishop John R. Roach: called "instrumental in calling national attention to social justice issues, fostering ecumenism and building up the work of the laity"
-- CNS
Minnesota's Archbishop Roach dies

St. Paul-Minneapolis prelate was leader in justice issues

Catholic News Service

Archbishop John R. Roach, head of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese from 1975 to 1995 and president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1980 to 1983, died of heart failure July 11 in St. Paul. He was 81 years old.

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis said that Roach “was instrumental in calling national attention to social justice issues, fostering ecumenism and building up the work of the laity.”

While Roach was president of the bishops’ conference, the bishops took up two of their most notable projects, pastoral letters on peace and on the U.S. economy, which many regard as the most significant statements in the conference’s history.

“The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response” (1983) was credited with sparking serious new thinking throughout the nation on moral issues surrounding nuclear deterrence and other U.S. defense policies.

“Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy” (1986) was intentionally developed more slowly so as not to distract attention from the peace document.

As chair of the bishops’ Committee on International Policy in 1991-94, Roach spoke out on the conference’s teaching on war and peace during the first Persian Gulf War.

In that capacity he also frequently defended human rights and condemned violence around the world, from Latin America to Africa, from the Middle East to East Timor and the Balkans.

After retiring in 1995, Roach continued as head of the bishops’ national Task Force on Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Education, which produced “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions” in 1998, a document the bishops overwhelmingly adopted.

In it the bishops pronounced Catholic social teaching “a central and essential element of our faith” without which Catholic faith formation and education programs are not fully Catholic.

“Archbishop Roach was a devoted churchman and a courageous leader rooted in prayer. His devotion to the bishops’ conference was inspiring,” said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., bishops’ conference president.

Roach held other positions and posts:

  • He served on a number of episcopal conference committees, including administration, priestly formation priorities and plans, and its ad hoc committee on sexual abuse when it was formed in 1993.
  • He chaired the National Catholic Educational Association, 1986-89.
  • His reputation as an articulate advocate for family farms and policies of sustainable agriculture and development put him in the middle of the U.S. bishops’ efforts to stem the collapse of family farms as thousands of farmers faced bankruptcy in the 1980s.
  • He headed the U.S. bishops’ Task Force on Food and Farm Policy in 1987-89.
  • He was president of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1986-90, during which he oversaw a restructuring of the conference to help it address new needs.
  • He also served as vice president of the bishops’ conference for three years before he was elected president.
  • After the national Call to Action conference in 1976, a largely lay gathering sponsored by the bishops at which representatives of dioceses and Catholic organizations issued calls for changes in society and the church, Roach headed the bishops’ follow-up implementation committee until the bishops’ conference distanced itself from the lay organization that subsequently formed.

Born in Prior Lake, Minn., near the Twin Cities, on July 31, 1921, Roach was ordained a priest June 18, 1946, after theological studies at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul. He also earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Minnesota.

After ordination, he taught at The St. Thomas Academy in St. Paul, for the next 22 years, five as a Latin and religion teacher and 17 as headmaster. He was founding rector of the archdiocese’s new college seminary, St. John Vianney Seminary in 1968 -- a post he held until he was named auxiliary bishop of St. Paul- Minneapolis in 1971.

When he was named archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis in May 1975, he was the first Minnesota native to hold that post.

An ecumenical and interfaith leader, he met in 1976 with Minnesota rabbis and the Jewish community to discuss the U.S. bishops’ “Statement on Catholic-Jewish Relations” and preached to 1,500 at a synagogue service.

In 1979 he was the first Catholic to preach at the traditional Lutheran Reformation festival in the state. He told the 4,000 guests, “We have gone too long as a people separated. When we look at the plea of Jesus Christ for unity, it is hard to regard our division as anything but sinful.”

Shortly after he became archbishop he was one of the leaders in bringing the state’s Catholic and Lutheran bishops together for an annual joint retreat. In 1990 the archdiocese and the area synods of St. Paul and Minneapolis entered a Catholic-Lutheran covenant.

A pioneer on justice front

Even before he became president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Archbishop John Roach was nationally recognized as a forthright social justice advocate unafraid to take on difficult issues.

In his installation homily in July 1975, he signaled what would be one of his major concerns when he commented that the church exists “in the midst of too much hate, too much suffering, too much injustice.”

Before his installation, he once donned a Sioux ceremonial headdress and beaded garment to attend a Native American hearing at a local parish. Over the years he broadened efforts to reach out to black Catholics and welcomed Southeast Asians, Koreans, Hispanics and other new arrivals in the area.

To reach out to those in troubled marriages, he established an office to aid separated and divorced Catholics.

Although he took a lead in promoting women to positions of responsibility in the church, on several occasions he reminded groups pushing for women’s ordination that the issue was closed.

In 1978 he publicly rebuked a pastor who had turned over his pulpit to feminist Gloria Steinem.

In the late 1970s he endorsed the J.P. Stevens and Nestle boycotts, both controversial social justice issues of the day.

In 1979 he established the first Catholic diocesan commission on women in the United States, and in 1985 he formed the first diocesan AIDS ministry.

He established what is now called the Westminster Corp. to develop low-cost housing for needy individuals and families. Through creative private-public partnerships it has built and manages more than 2,000 units and has served as a model for similar diocesan projects in other parts of the country.

In the early 1990s, when his archdiocese, like a number of others around the country, was hit with cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests, he responded with a comprehensive sexual misconduct policy and education program that was long cited as one of the earliest and best in the nation.

-- Catholic News Service

Roach faced his own dark side

St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Roach faced a personal trauma in February 1985 when he had a minor auto accident near his cabin in rural Chisago County, Minn., and was arrested for driving while intoxicated. He was fined, spent 48 hours in jail and received counseling.

A proud man, he said it was difficult to face “my own flawedness,” but he was grateful for the outpouring of support he received from his priests and people.

That Easter in his “Peace” column, a regular feature in his archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic Bulletin (now The Catholic Spirit), he wrote about how he had been changed during Lent and how his “prayer life took on new meaning.”

“I felt the loving embrace of the Lord’s mercy, gentleness, love and, finally, peace. ... I will know a special joy in celebrating Christ’s resurrection because you have sustained me as I tasted the agony,” he wrote.

A longtime friend and colleague, John Carr, secretary for social development and world peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- who was a student at St. John Vianney Seminary when Roach was rector there -- said a sign of Roach’s greatness was that, instead of being destroyed by the arrest, as many bishops would have been, the archbishop went through rehabilitation and “became a better man for it.”

At the archbishop’s request, Carr, one of the U.S. church’s leading social justice figures, was to speak at the funeral.

-- Catholic News Service

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2003

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