Trusting in the Holy Spirit, Wack embraces the call to be bishop
By Amy Moraczewski
Priests are often asked when they first received the call to the priesthood, but what about the call to serve as bishop? For Holy Cross Father William (Bill) Wack, that call came in May while he was outside repairing the air conditioning unit at St. Ignatius Martyr Parish in Austin.
After the shock of hearing from the apostolic nuncio that Pope Francis had chosen him to serve as the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, he retreated to the Adoration chapel in prayer before resuming his normal duties for the next nine days until the public announcement.
In his eight years as pastor, Bishop-elect Wack ingrained himself in the fabric of St. Ignatius Martyr Parish. Beginning with a focus on the sacraments, he has shared in every aspect of parish life, from fostering faith in the schoolchildren to leading a capital campaign and even to offering a hand in the maintenance department. The bonds formed during his time in Austin have been many to the point that a number of St. Ignatius Martyr parishioners and priests from the Diocese of Austin will travel to his ordination Mass on Aug. 22.
During his time in Austin, Bishop-elect Wack has served on the Diocesan School Advisory Board, the Presbyteral Council, and as dean of the Austin Central Deanery. Bishop Joe Vásquez said Bishop-elect Wack is an exemplary priest who is well-respected by his brother priests and loved by those he serves.
“He has been of great help to me, and I express my deep appreciation to him for his years of service in the Diocese of Austin. As the people of Pensacola-Tallahassee come to know him, they will see his love for the church and his desire to serve his flock with warmth and compassion. I offer my prayers for Bishop-elect Wack and the faithful of Pensacola-Tallahassee,” Bishop Vásquez said.
Nine long days after receiving the call from the apostolic nuncio, Bishop-elect Wack, who turned 50 in June, stood at a podium where he could finally share his treasured secret with the world. As the press conference launched from Pensacola on Memorial Day morning, many of Dr. James and Alice Wack’s other nine children and numerous grandchildren gathered in front of the television in South Bend, Ind., as they awoke to the news that Pope Francis had appointed their son/brother/uncle the next bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee.
“But Bill, you don’t know anything…” his mom reacted, before adding, “…about the church down there.”
Bishop-elect Wack maintains that she must have had something stuck in her throat, hence the long pause. He acknowledges that one of the biggest challenges he faces is being new to the diocese. He does not know much about the 67,000 Catholics spread across the Florida panhandle. However, he has already been actively working to ensure this does not remain true for long.
Each day since the announcement, Bishop-elect Wack has set aside time to call priests, staff and administrators at the 49 parishes throughout his new diocese. He also made a special request that some of the children from the diocesan schools be present for his ordination.
As he integrates himself into the communities, he faces the additional challenge of serving in an area where Catholics compose only approximately 5 percent of the population. The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee (est. 1975) is a mission diocese, meaning that they receive funding from Catholic Extension, a national foundation that provides resources for infrastructure and ministries to support mission dioceses on the path to becoming self-sustaining.
“I’m hoping that we can turn that around,” Bishop-elect Wack said. “I say since we’re a mission diocese, let’s be missionaries to one another and to our neighbors as well!”
Missionary work is a familiar concept for Bishop-elect Wack, who, as director of Andre House, served the homeless community of Phoenix for seven years prior to his arrival in Austin. Until recently, he thought his next assignment may be as a missionary priest at a Holy Cross parish in Peru or Mexico. While saddened to leave the Holy Cross order, being released from the vows of poverty and obedience, he remarked that he has always approached his priesthood with an attitude of “Where is the most need? I’m ready to go.”
This helped him embrace a new form of obedience, now to Pope Francis rather than his Holy Cross Provincial Superior.
“I love Pope Francis. If he wants me to do this, then I will absolutely do it!” he smiled.
A flood of emotions has ensued since that phone call in May. Bishop-elect Wack said he has felt many reactions, including honored, thrilled, humbled and anxious, but the most overwhelming reaction has been surprise. Even receiving his new bishop’s regalia has yet to conquer that surreal feeling. He joked that he may not recognize himself in the mirror with the miter on his head.
Both Bishop Vásquez and Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Garcia have served as mentors leading up to, and especially after, his appointment. The three men gathered for dinner, as the two bishops patiently answered the numerous questions of their soon-to-be-peer.
As much as Bishop-elect Wack values their advice, he asserts that the most impactful guidance came in the very first moment he received the news when Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio said, “What I’m about to tell you will change your life forever, but do not be afraid; trust the Holy Spirit.”
These words filled Bishop-elect Wack with a sense of comfort, reminding him of the words once spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel. Trusting the Holy Spirit, he accepted the call and will joyfully serve as the next bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee.