Remembering a peacemaker: Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen

Guest blog post by John Zokovitch

This past summer, Pax Christi USA honored one of its own, Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen, as the 2009 recipient of the Teacher of Peace Award. Despite having just turned 88, Bishop Matt, as he encouraged us to call him, was full of wit and energy as he shared stories, reconnected with old friends, and most of all solidly challenged the church to declare nuclear deterrence as morally unjustified once and for all. The moment seemed to energize him.

I don't think any of us present that night sensed that this might be among the last words publicly spoken by this Lone Star prophet.

On Monday, March 22, Bishop Matthiesen, retired bishop of the Diocese of Amarillo, passed on in glory, leaving behind a life that, from his earliest days in ministry, witnessed to the transformational power of Jesus' message of justice and peace. (See Pax Christi's press release about Bishop Matthiesen's death.)

Befitting his Texas roots, Bishop Matt seemed to have a larger-than-life quality about him, especially for Catholics yearning for bold and courageous leadership in the institutional church. Bishop Matt didn't shrink from confronting the big issues of his time–whether as a young priest denouncing the racism all too prevalent in Texas during the 1950s, or rallying his brother bishops to speak truth to power on nuclear weapons at the height of the Reagan-era arms build-up.

But most of all, Bishop Matt will be remembered for the loving, but unequivocal message he delivered to the people of his own diocese when the Reagan administration announced in 1981 that Pantex, the factory outside of Amarillo that is the final assembly point of all nuclear weapons in the U.S., would begin assembling neutron bombs. Bishop Matt wrote a column for the diocesan newspaper asking the people of his diocese who worked at the plant to reconsider their jobs, to conscientiously reflect on the morality of the work at the factory, and to seek employment in peaceful pursuits.

This stance brought him personal attacks and angry denunciations both locally and nationally. But it also energized the Catholic peace movement, garnering support from the other Texas bishops, and ultimately influencing the writing of the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter on the nuclear arms race, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response."

Bishop Matt died just two days before the 30th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, another great pastoral leader. Romero once stated: "A church that doesn't provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin – what gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don't bother anyone-that's the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in."

Bishop Matt did light up this world we live in. And for that, we are grateful.

Guest blogger John Zokovitch is the program director at Pax Christi USA.

Bishop Matthiesen wrote U.S. Catholic magazine's April 2010 Sounding Board, Let's drop the bomb, on the need for the church to work for nuclear disarmament. In it, he wrote about his own personal conversion to this point of view.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.