Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 7, 1993
Compassion, Humility Were Marks of Leadership
By Thea Jarvis
Both before and after his death, Archbishop James P. Lyke, OFM, was acknowledged by close friends and associates as a formidable leader of African-American Catholics and a compassionate shepherd of the contemporary church.
Beverly Carroll, head of the U.S. Bishops Secretariat for Black Catholics, called Archbishop Lyke a giant in the African-American Catholic movement. At his death, he was the highest ranking African-American prelate in the U.S. Catholic Church.
He was certainly one of the most prophetic leaders I have ever met. He had such a passion for the Catholic tradition. She said, recalling his keen sense of family and the prolific writings he addressed to the people of God.
Many relationships the archbishop developed and nurtured sprang from the black Catholic support groups which began in the late 1960s.
In those days, all of us had heard about each other, said Father Edward Branch, who met Father Lyke through the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus at a time when only 100 black Catholic priests were ministering in the U.S. church. Today, the number exceeds 300. Father Lyke became mentor and close friend to Father Branch, now campus minister at the Atlanta University Center.
He did not make decisions for you. He gave input, but knew when to keep quiet. Thats key as far as I am concerned, Father Branch said. He also knew when to give an answer rather than leave you searching around. There are some times when you need a straight answer.
Father Branch succeeded his friend as campus minister at Gambling State University in north central Louisiana after Father Lyke was appointed auxiliary bishop of Cleveland.
He was a model for us all to follow, Father Branch said. He continued being in touch with people, encouraging and supporting them even as he rose to higher positions in the church hierarchy.
In Atlanta, Father Branch often found himself driving around town with the archbishop. He didnt waste time. He used (the car phone) to maintain relationships, which are critical to a healthy priestly, celibate life, he said.
Father Branch remembered a gathering this year at Hallinan House, the archbishops residence, held for a friend from Cleveland visiting with the archbishop. It was a party like many others the archbishop hosted, Father Branch said, where there were grand and wonderful discussions, mutual exchanges of ideas and viewpoints.
In deference to the archbishops fragile health, guests came after dinner and brought dessert. They were to leave by nine, Father Branch recalled, but were there till 11 oclock waving, screaming, hollering when I was out the door.
People stayed for the fellowship and intellectual stimulation, he indicated. The level of conversation was always so high. The archbishop joined in and added his stuff, just listening, watching it like it was a tennis match.
Archbishop Lykes keen intelligence was something we came to take for granted. We went looking for wisdom and assumed it was there.
Some would consider him a liberal, a radical. Some would consider him a conservative, Father Branch said. He was radical about some things, but conservative, too, in his likes and dislikes.
The archbishop was a traditionalist, he believes, because the traditions held value for him. He wasnt going to break the rules, but he would go right up to the edge and be able to tell you why both theologically and practically.
He was a politician in the best sense of the work, said Father Branch. He understood the dynamics of people an institutions. He was constantly playing that piano.
As a black Catholic leader, Archbishop Lyke was indispensable, he said. Thats why all of this is so tragic. Who do we go to now? Its like when a father dies. You are faced with having to take over and having to do things yourself now. Its like a death in the family.
On the other hand, Theres a certain maturity that takes place when somebody leaves the scene. Its not like you dont know how, because he showed you.
The trappings of hierarchical office were unimportant to Archbishop Lyke, whom people frequently have described as the first real Franciscan theyve ever met, Father Branch said. He was above and beyond all of it and used it to the benefit of everybody. Thats what poverty really means.
Father Edward Braxton, a close friend of the archbishop who also met him through the Black Clergy Caucus, agreed that the archbishops simplicity was one of his great gifts.
His singular love and attention to every person he met, despite his own office, was constant, said Father Braxton, former professor of theology at Harvard and Notre Dame and currently pastor of St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy Church in Oak Park, Ill.
Archbishop Lyke visited his friend when Father Braxton was assigned in New York City some years ago. Walking down a Manhattan street, the two priests encountered a homeless woman who asked them for money. They were wearing Roman collars, Father Braxton remembered, and had just come from the theater. They were meeting friends and were pressed for time.
I was getting annoyed with her, said Father Braxton, who told the archbishop that the woman was a great frequenter of the parish and had received more than her share of handouts over the past few months.
I cant give you any money, Archbishop Lyke told her, but If youre extraordinarily, hungry, sister, I can help you.
He walked with the woman to a delicatessen down the street and instructed her to Pick out what you like, Father Braxton said. The hungry lady had two sandwiches, some fruit and a piece of pie.
Archbishop Lyke must have spent 45 minutes with her, he recalled. Most people wouldnt have done that.
Being archbishop of Atlanta didnt make the slightest difference in terms of his accessibility, Father Braxton said. His consistent pattern of availability was extraordinary, extending to seminarians, former Grambling students, couples he had married, friends in the religious community, as well as homeless persons he met on the street.
The archbishop became known for his late-night phone calls, according to Father Braxton. He didnt call to gossip, but to show concern, to offer healing when needed. His capacity to be attentive to the human situation was uncanny.
Both personally and administratively, he was very quick to acknowledge when he was wrong or made a mistake, Father Braxton said. He wasnt a compromiser of solid Catholic orthodoxy, but had the ability to embrace the whole of the Gospel.
Archbishop Lyke followed a philosophy of stability regarding Atlanta which gave him a freedom, Father Braxton said. The archbishop had made up this mind to stay in the archdiocese and wasnt looking ahead to the next, bigger assignment.
In addition, the archbishop hoped to infuse the spirit of local church into the Atlanta archdiocese, said Father Braxton. He worked toward integrating multi-ethnic groups, heightening the churchs visibility in the South and making it more of a grass roots community, more hand to hand, door to door, he said.
His primary ministry in Atlanta, as it was in Cleveland, was not as a black bishop, Father Braxton pointed out. He has been a bishop of the universal church, who brought the African-American heritage to his position. To consider him otherwise would be to narrow the scope of who he was, what he did.
Father Rothell Price, who met Archbishop Lyke while the archbishop was chaplain at Grambling, said, We best know Jim and remember him for his Christ-like love of the entire human family.
In his eyes, Nobody stood outside of grace. He had an engaging way of inviting many marginalized persons or those who had been hurt. He had a way of bringing them home.
Father Price, now in his first pastorate at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church in Shreveport, La., said he learned from the archbishop as a Christian and as a young priest, reaping from his strength and pastoral care.
The energetic Grambling chaplain was the first Catholic priest with whom the young Price could talk openly. The archbishop became mentor and friend, guiding Father Price through conversion to the Catholic faith and a vocation to the priesthood.
Archbishop Lykes greatest concern, said Father Price, was to truly be a dedicated Catholic in the spirit and charism of Francis.
African-Americans recognized him as a spiritual father they came to know through his prolific writings, his love of liturgy, his conviction that African-American heritage was enhanced by the teachings and traditions of the church, Father Price said.
He will be remembered by the African-American community for his pastoral care as a priest and bishop, he said, because he generously shared his spiritual advice and direction with others. Our sense was that he really took to heart Jesus Gospel to tend the sheep and lambs.
Father Bruce Wilkinson, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Atlanta and director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Black Catholic Ministry, was the only black seminarian at the Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, when he met Father Lyke in 1976.
Over the years, when there was a question of vocation, he helped me continue toward ordination, Father Wilkinson said.
Shortly before he was named administrator of the Atlanta archdiocese, Archbishop Lyke came to Atlanta for Martin Luther King, Jr., Week and stayed at St. Anthonys Church, where Father Wilkinson was pastor.
I shared with him how difficult it was to minister alone, Father Wilkinson recalled. He was very encouraging. Personally, he was a great source of inspiration, a major reason why I am a priest today.
Archbishop Lyke strongly believed in an African-American witness within the archdiocese, but was convinced that it also needed to be inclusive, he said. His dedication toward helping the universal church understand the position and needs of black Catholics in the U.S was monumental.
When he later came to Atlanta, following the resignation of Archbishop Eugene A. Marino, SSJ, in 1990, Archbishop Lyke faced a difficult challenge, said Bishop Joseph A. Francis, auxiliary bishop of Newark who had known him since the archbishops seminary days.
Bishop Francis characterized his friend as very smart, very much aware of the politics, the feelings that were swirling about him, feelings of anger, resentment.
People were looking, seeing if he was going to be able to handle the situation, said Bishop Francis, adding that African-Americans are judged at a much higher scale. The stakes are much higher for them.
Bishop Francis admitted that he and other bishops were concerned about Archbishop Lykes health and the national spotlight that would be turned on him.
The press was after him constantly. They hung on every word he said. It took wisdom and courage not to fall into the trap of second guessing previous events and future happenings, Bishop Francis said. He himself did not throw any blame on Archbishop Marino. He never became involved in the legalism that attends such things.
Although there were administrative matters to be resolved, the archbishop worked quietly, outside any public forum, and was an inspiration to a lot of us, Bishop Francis said.
Archbishop Lyke helped heal the wounds of the church in Atlanta, he said, and the African American community is extremely proud of what he has done. The church in this country was solidly behind him, sincerely in sorrow over his illness and death.
He had already won his place as a national figure, said Bishop Francis. He had done that very well before he came to Atlanta. Atlanta was simply the opportunity for him to enhance his national reputation, to let the whole world know what a remarkable person he was.
Early on, Bishop Francis observed the qualities of leadership and balanced spirituality his friend possessed. In Memphis, he saw Archbishop Lyke developing, introducing innovative parish practices and liturgical elements.
Quite obviously, he was a great priest, a great pastor. He was very creative, particularly in the initiatives he took that responded to peoples needs, he said.
As chaplain at Grambling, he really blossomed, Bishop Francis said. He was a source of guidance, a mentor to so many. During the archbishops time in Louisiana, he and Bishop Francis attended many meetings together.
I recognized very clearly that this young man would become a very, very good bishop. I did make it known quite publicly that he should be looked at as a church leader, Bishop Francis said.
When he did ascend to the ranks of the church hierarchy, Archbishop Lyke became a leader among leaders, promoting the gathering of African-American bishops on a regular timetable.
He indicated to us that it would be a very good thing to be organizing more formally than we were, Bishop Francis remembered. Since Archbishop Lykes suggestion in the early 1980s, black bishops have been meeting twice yearly to work on national issues of common concern.
Archbishop Lyke was one of 10 African-American bishops who together wrote What We Have Seen and Heard, a pastoral letter proclaiming the richness of black Catholic heritage and pointing to racism as a festering wound within the church. He coordinated the writing and issuance of the letter in 1984.
He actually gave us the content, recalled Bishop Francis, who worked on the pastoral with his brother bishops.
Archbishop Lyke went on to assume responsibility for Lead Me, Guide Me, the hymnal developed specifically for black Catholic worship.
Its used all over the country and in the Caribbean, Bishop Francis said. I found it in a church on Park Avenue in New York. It is not limited to use by the African-American community, but is universal in its appeal, he said.
Theres a great deal of pride on my part that I knew him and in some small way have contributed to his growth, he said. The two men shared a tremendous love, even when we disagreed with one another on strategies.
Last May, Bishop Francis was in Atlanta and had an opportunity to visit at length with his friend.
We sat and talked frankly about his illness, about our own mortality, the uncertainty we all have, said Bishop Francis, who himself has undergone three serious heart operations. I told him that, just maybe, God had brought him to Atlanta for a moment, to do what had to be done picking up the pieces, being sensitive, kind.