Bishop Emeritus Gaydos: 50 years a priest


“The whole world being at peace.”

That’s how the Roman Martyrology describes the moment when the Son of God brought light into the world by being born.

Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos, third bishop of Jefferson City, was born in 1943, when the whole world was at war.

“But I was born into a Church in this country that was very vibrant,” said Bishop Gaydos, who is celebrating his 50th priestly anniversary the week before Christmas. “It was the Church our European ancestors had so beautifully built up here.”

He grew up in the Benton Park neighborhood of St. Louis. Modest St. Agnes Church, where he and his brothers served Mass and received their sacraments, was one of many churches within sight of the Gaydos home.

They spent summers outside playing, riding bikes to the library, catching streetcars to the swimming pool — safe and secure in a city of over 800,000 people.

“We weren’t afraid of anything,” he said. “So I guess, in that sense, our little world was at peace.”

Families were fruitful. Priestly and religious vocations were plentiful.

Bishop Gaydos’ aunt, Sister Mary Gaydos, was a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Two of his uncles were Redemptorist fathers, one was a Vincentian priest.

Joining them at dinner and in living-room conversations during family gatherings, the child John came to know them as people, as relatives, as adults worthy of admiration.

Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet at St. Agnes School started noticing priestly potential in him.

Tired of his sixth-grade teacher encouraging him to be a priest, he told her he wanted to become an ichthyologist — a person who studies fish.

She knew he might make a better fisher of men.

Rhineland native Father Arnold Bruckerhoff was associate pastor of St. Agnes, followed by St. Thomas native Father (later Monsignor) Bernard Boessen.

“I always say, it was Fr. Bruckerhoff who sent me to the seminary and Fr. Boessen who kept me in the seminary,” said Bishop Gaydos.

Decades later, it occurred to him that the two who encouraged him the most were from what is now the Diocese of Jefferson City.

“Ahead of time, you don’t see any of this,” he said. “But there are all these circumstances in life, ways in which God is touching our hearts and our lives and asking us to ‘Come follow Me.’”

Home of the Knights

He went to high school at St. Louis Prep Seminary on the grounds of Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis.

“I wanted to see if I was supposed to be a priest, if this is what God wanted me to do,” he said. “Obviously, I didn’t know — I was only 14 years old, for goodness sake! But I was there to try to find out.”

He had 107 classmates his freshmen year.

His chemistry and typing teacher was Vincentian Father Walter Reisinger, who later ministered for 31 years in Crocker and Dixon.

Young John enjoyed getting to know his fellow seminarians from all over the St. Louis archdiocese — urban, suburban and rural.

Of the 60 who graduated from “The Prep” in 1961, 45 continued their formation at nearby Cardinal Glennon College.

They and another 45 from throughout the St. Louis archdiocese and surrounding dioceses made up the freshman class.

That year, Pope St. John XXIII convened the first session of the Second Vatican Council.

“Steadfast is my heart”

As Bishop Gaydos’ senior year drew to a close, Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter of St. Louis invited him to complete his studies in Rome.

That fall, he packed his bags and boarded an ocean liner to the Eternal City.

He lived at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) and began his theology studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in the fall of 1965.

His first semester coincided with the fourth and final session of the Second Vatican Council, which drew bishops, theologians and observers from all over the world.

Formal and impromptu gatherings and lectures throughout the city complemented the official proceedings in St. Peter’s Basilica.

“It was amazing!” said Bishop Gaydos. “I really wish I had kept a diary of all the things that were going on.”

His class of more than 90 seminarians was one of the largest in the NAC’s history. Sixty-five of them would become priests.

Bishop Gaydos was ordained a transitional deacon on May 5, 1968.

On Dec. 20 of that year, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Bishop Francis Frederick Reh, rector of the NAC, ordained him and 64 other seminarians from all over the United States to the Holy Priesthood.

A priest forever

Bishop Gaydos keeps in his office a framed photo of him and his fellow ordinandi, laying prostrate on the basilica floor, a gesture of death and resurrection and of obedience and total reliance on God.

The moment defies description for him.

“It’s a matter of being very, very joyful,” he said. “You have the outward signs of the sacrament, and you intuitively know what’s happening. But there’s a simplicity to it. I wasn’t nervous at all. I was at peace.”

To this day, he sees it as a tremendous grace to have been ordained a priest near the end of Advent — “to share in the Priesthood of the One High Priest, Jesus Christ, the Word Who became flesh and made His dwelling among us.”

The significance of all of that didn’t fully hit him until his First Solemn Mass the next morning in St. Alphonsus Church on the Via Merulana, not far from the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

The mother church of the Redemptorist Fathers, the order of two of the future bishop’s uncles, St. Alphonsus had also been Cardinal Ritter’s titular church.

Never fear

If Bishop Gaydos could go back 50 years and talk to his newly ordained self, he would tell him: “Be not afraid!”

It would not surprise him if the young priest fired back, “I’m not!”

1968 had been a tumultuous year for the Church and the rest of the world.

Amidst great controversy, Pope St. Paul VI had promulgated his encyclical, “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”), which upheld the Church’s teaching against artificial contraception.

The Tet Offensive had drawn the United States even deeper into the Vietnam War, with appalling casualties on both sides.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, brother of the fallen president, had been assassinated.

Riots over civil rights and the war were tearing cities and campuses apart.

“That was the atmosphere of the world in the year that I was ordained a priest,” said Bishop Gaydos.

“But in the midst of all of that ... there’s this great mystery that I cannot understand — of how God decided He wanted to use me to try to be a witness to His love, to the importance of justice in our world, to the fact that the only way to true peace is when we all live and are striving to be just.”

“That is what I’ve been trying to do for these past 50 years,” he said.

Tested by fire

Upon returning to the United States, Bishop Gaydos was appointed associate pastor of St. Joseph parish in Manchester.

It was a formerly small, rural parish being rapidly engulfed by suburban development.

His five years there were invigorating and overwhelming.

He said that by the time he had been ordained for two years, “I knew without a doubt, ‘This is what God wants me to be doing — being a parish priest!’”

“I think I had pastorally dealt with just about everything you can deal with in human life — EVERYTHING,” he said. “After that, I’ve never had anything surprise me.”

It was also where he came into contact with School Sisters of Notre Dame. Members of that congregation would be close collaborators with him during his time as a bishop.

At his next assignment, an eighth-grader in the parish school was among the first to greet him. The young man grew up to become Bishop Edward Rice of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.

That parish, St. Cecilia in St. Louis, reminded Bishop Gaydos of the parish he grew up in.

“It had a lot of the same flavor,” he said. “And we had Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet stationed at the school. So for me, it was like going back in the ‘Way Back Machine’ — but not as one of their students this time.”

Nonetheless, he did learn from them.

He was eager to keep working with and learning from pastors before becoming one himself.

“But when the archbishop calls and asks you to be his secretary, he’s not really asking,” he said.

So he went to work in the Chancery, helping Cardinal John J. Carberry answer correspondence, schedule parish visits and other events in the archdiocese, and research liturgical protocol.

He also helped establish the archdiocese’s formation program for permanent deacons.

In 1978, he accompanied the cardinal to the funeral of Pope St. Paul VI and to the conclave at which the cardinals elected Pope John Paul I.

A month later, they returned to the Vatican for the newly elected Pontiff’s funeral and for the election of Pope St. John Paul II.

Cardinal Carberry retired in 1980. His successor, Archbishop John L. May, asked Bishop Gaydos to serve as chancellor for the diocese and to continue as his secretary.

He did so for 10 years, including the archbishop’s three-year term as president of what is now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He then was appointed pastor of St. Gerard Majella parish in Kirkwood — the first diocesan priest to serve there since the Redemptorist order turned it over to the archdiocese.

Years later, the parish would build a school library and name it in honor of Bishop Gaydos.

Archbishop (later Cardinal) Justin F. Rigali in 1996 appointed him vicar general and archdiocesan vicar for priests, a ministry he carried out for about a year and a half.

Knot to be

Bishop Gaydos refers to the day Pope John Paul appointed him bishop of Jefferson City as “the day the sky fell in.”

“But from the beginning, I was overcome by the welcoming overtures of a very hospitable people,” he said. “In a sense, I felt like I’d been here all my life.”

On Aug. 27, 1997, in the Cathedral of St. Joseph, Archbishop Rigali ordained him a bishop.

 More than 30 other bishops — including Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Alabama, and Bishop Gaydos’ predecessor of 28 years, Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe — took part in the Ordination Rite.

Gaydos means “shepherd” in Slovak, the language of his ancestors, so he chose as his episcopal motto, “With a Shepherd’s Care.”

Standing back to observe for a while, he was struck by the commitment and dedication of the people of this diocese.

“The priests, all the wonderful religious that we’ve had, all the leadership of the parishes, among the laypeople, it’s really been heartening to see,” he said.

Cardinal Carberry often likened complex situations such as Church governance to a “big rope with a bunch of knots in it.”

“You can go in and try to undo all those knots, and most of the time, you make them worse,” the cardinal would say. “Or you can sit there and keep shaking it until all the knots work themselves out.”

Archbishop May liked to emphasize the importance of collaboration. He knew that meant everyone bringing their own strengths and weaknesses to a situation.

“He knew that if you think all you have to do is change some people if you don’t like what they’re doing, you’ll just get someone else who’s just as imperfect in a different way,” said Bishop Gaydos.

Something beautiful

He believes it was a great honor to be sent to serve “as shepherd of not just ‘a’ diocese but this diocese.”

“You get up every day and can’t believe you’re doing this — being able to walk with some of the most wonderful people in the world,” he said.

“God knows: We’re not perfect,” he continued. “But together, we are doing something beautiful. And it’s all God’s grace that’s doing this.”

He recognizes that God is always leading His people, even in times of difficulty and confusion.

“The Good News is going to prevail — it IS prevailing!” he said. “The victory of Jesus over sin and death is an absolute fact.

“God’s creation is an awesome, wonderful thing!” he said. “Look around: Whatever is beautiful that we experience in this life, whatever is TRUE, whatever is GOOD — that’s God’s creation! It’s what God is calling us to respond to and embrace and share and develop.

“As members of Christ’s Body, the Church, we have that call — each one of us, no matter what our vocation is, we have that great call to embrace that great adventure.”

“With a Shepherd’s Care”

Bishop Gaydos walked with the people of this diocese through periods of happiness, change and turmoil.

He stayed focused on evangelization in light of sweeping demographic changes and fewer available priests.

Several churches, schools and Newman centers were built or expanded on his watch, including Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia.

He worked with the family of the late Alphonse J. Schwartze to build a new diocesan chancery and pastoral center, which was completed in 2006.

He oversaw the process of returning the diocese’s mission parishes in Peru to local leadership and expanding mission efforts to projects in other countries.

He welcomed priests from the Philippines, Nigeria, India, Uganda and other countries to staff parishes here and create new mission partnerships.

With his support, the number of active permanent deacons grew beyond the number of active priests here.

He promoted a diocesan pastoral plan, with emphasis on promoting family life; cultivating a deeper understanding of the faith; and creating welcoming parish environments for newcomers, immigrants, the marginalized and the inactive.

One of the concrete developments of that was an enhanced outreach to the growing populations of Hispanic Catholics throughout the diocese.

One of his last major undertakings was a collaborative process to evaluate and plan for future staffing of parishes.

Last spring, when he found out he needed to have major heart surgery, he asked Pope Francis to allow him to retire a few months shy of his 75th birthday.

The Pope on Nov. 21, 2017, appointed Bishop W. Shawn McKnight to be the fourth bishop of Jefferson City. He was installed on Feb. 6.

Bishop Gaydos now lives in the Cathedral of St. Joseph Rectory, offers daily Mass, travels and keeps up with voluminous correspondence.

He is grateful that God sent a bright, energetic new bishop to pick up where he left off.

His advice to his successor: “Fear not!”

Amazing gift

The bishop emeritus said there’s never been a day in these past 50 years that he didn’t want to be a priest.

“Not every day has been easy, but every day, I am graced,” he said.

For him, the Priesthood is a tremendous gift, “and I’m not worthy of it.”

“So my reaction to it is, ‘Let’s see what we can do together today to help make things better,’” he said.

He’s astounded by what God has been able to do through him “just by showing up.”

“God’s grace is what allows you to say the right thing, to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

He emphasized repeatedly that his vocation is not his doing: “It’s the work of God, and God is calling all of us from beyond ourselves.”

Everyone struggles with sin, doubt and everyday challenges.

“But we are also all made in the image and likeness of God — filled with that truth, beauty and goodness, waiting to be tapped every day!” he said.

“God is great at not wasting any experience in your life,” he added.

All aboard!

Bishop Gaydos sees his golden jubilee as “simply another special opportunity to recognize that Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving.”

“I’m so thankful to God for bringing me into existence when He did and where He did, and continually sending me forth to be on mission with some of the most wonderful people,” he said.

He will celebrate his jubilee by praying and giving thanks for all the people who have helped him become the priest he is.

Accordingly, he asks everyone to give thanks for all that God has done for them.

“The world can try and throw its worst at you,” he said. “But Jesus really is in the boat with us. I’m proof positive of that. That’s the only way I could get to this point in my life.”