NORTHVILLE, Mich. — Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka, who led the Detroit archdiocese from 1981 to 1990, and later was appointed to oversee the government of Vatican City State, died Aug. 20 at the age of 86.
He was a mentor of Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, who was saddened to hear of the cardinal's death.
“His Eminence was always very kind to me and very supportive," Archbishop Sample says.
Both men were priests of the Diocese of Marquette, Mich and both were chancellors of the diocese and pastors of St. Christopher Parish when they were named bishops — though 35 years apart.
"When I was ordained Bishop of Marquette, Cardinal Szoka did me the great kindness of giving me my episcopal ring," Archbishop Sample says. "It is inscribed with both his coat of arms and my own. He was a great and faithful servant of Christ and his Church, even serving the Holy Father in a very close and personal way. Yet he always looked on his simpler days as a parish priest in Marquette as some of the happiest of his life. He will be greatly missed. Requiescat in pace!”
While his accomplishments were often larger-than-life, Cardinal Szoka carried lessons learned growing up poor in hard-working Polish-American communities with him as he served as parish pastor, chancery official, founding bishop of a new diocese, archbishop of Detroit and in high Vatican posts.
Cardinal Szoka was the eighth ordinary and third archbishop of Detroit, serving from 1981 until 1990, after which he served for 16 years under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI at the Vatican, including as head of the Vatican City State. Having retired from active ministry in 2006, Cardinal Szoka had been living in Northville, and had recently been active again in the life of the archdiocese he once led.
Cardinal Szoka considered his greatest accomplishment in the city of Detroit as being the transformation of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in 1988, according to a 2011 interview during the celebration of his 40th anniversary of episcopal ordination.
And although he headed up one of America’s largest archdioceses and achieved acclaim for restoring the financial condition of the Holy See, he pointed to his role in setting up the Diocese of Gaylord in northern Michigan when asked in 2004 about the accomplishment that meant the most to him personally.
“When I came there, I had no place to live, I had no chancery office, I had no secretary. I had a territory, but none of the facilities I needed,” said Cardinal Szoka. “God really helped me, because when I think back on it now, it went much easier than you might think.”
His episcopal motto — “To Live in Faith” — was one the cardinal took greatly to heart.
“It is the perennial challenge the Church always faces, strengthening the faith of the people and helping them to live that faith fully and actively,” he told The Michigan Catholic in 2004.
Edmund Casimir Szoka was born Sept. 14, 1927, in Grand Rapids to Polish immigrants Casimir and Mary Szoka. His father had immigrated from what is now Belarus; his mother from Poland.
Speaking in later years of his family’s origins, Cardinal Szoka told how no elements of a family coat of arms could be incorporated into his episcopal coat of arms when he was made a bishop — researchers could find no evidence that any of his forbears ever had any such heraldic device.
In the 1930s, the Szoka family, including an older sister, Irene, moved to Muskegon as his father sought to find sufficient work to support the family.
Later, while a student at St. Michael Grade School in Muskegon, he visited St. Joseph Seminary High School in Grand Rapids. Seeing young seminarians made an impression on him, and he entered the seminary in 1942, working odd summer jobs to help pay the $250/year tuition.
He went on to study at St. Joseph Seminary College in Grand Rapids for his freshman and sophomore years, transferring to Sacred Heart Seminary College in Detroit for his junior and senior years.
He went on to study theology at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth Township. Bishop Thomas Noa of Marquette, who had been rector of St. Joseph Seminary, became the seminarian’s mentor.
Cardinal Szoka was celebrating his 60th jubilee as a priest this year, having been ordained by Bishop Noa on June 5, 1954, to serve the Diocese of Marquette. His first assignment was as associate pastor of St. Francis Parish in the Upper Peninsula town of Manistique, but after 15 months Bishop Noa brought him to Marquette to serve as his secretary and as chaplain to St. Mary Hospital.
Later, he was also named chaplain to K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, and had to apportion his time among all three jobs.
In 1957 Bishop Noa sent Fr. Szoka to Rome to study canon law at the Pontifical Lateran University. He returned to Marquette in 1959, and resumed his hospital and chancery duties.
When then-Fr. Szoka was named assistant chancellor of the Marquette Diocese in 1962, he also was appointed pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Ishpeming. The following year he became pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Marquette, where he continued to serve until being named diocesan chancellor on July 20, 1970.
He became Bishop Noa’s full-time secretary in 1961 — though with additional duties on the diocesan tribunal — an experience that would lead him to streamline and improve the annulment consideration process both in Gaylord and Detroit.
Besides computerizing the archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal in Detroit, then-Archbishop Szoka also abolished all fees for its services, which had been as much as $300. Fr. (now Msgr.) George Miller, who was judicial vicar of the Tribunal at the time, said Detroit was one of the first in the country to do away with fees, and said the Tribunal’s work was something Cardinal Szoka was “very proud of.”
As priest secretary to the bishop in October 1962, he had accompanied Bishop Noa to Rome for the first session of the Second Vatican Council, and precisely one year later, he was ordained and installed as the first bishop of the new Diocese of Gaylord, created by Pope Paul VI from 21 northern Michigan counties that had been part of the Saginaw or Grand Rapids dioceses.
Because it was brand new, there was no cathedral or chancery, so Bishop Szoka shared an office in St. Mary High School, Gaylord, with the school’s athletic director as he put together the campaign to raise $1.5 million to build St. Mary Cathedral and its rectory and parish hall. An abandoned dance hall was renovated to house chancery offices.
To fund diocesan operations there, he launched the Catholic Services Appeal, forerunner of the greatly successful campaign he would later introduce in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Cardinal Szoka also expressed deep concern over the racism and poverty that plagued Detroit during his tenure. In 1985, he sponsored Detroit Mayor Coleman Young’s membership as the first black member of the all-white Detroit Golf Club, a sponsorship that had “an awful lot to do” with Young’s acceptance into the club, a member said at the time.
In 1981, Cardinal Szoka testified before a field hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee in Detroit, telling committee members the government could not abrogate its responsibilities toward the poor or expect churches to fill the gap left by budget cuts.
“These are issues of social justice,” he said. “The government simply cannot say ‘We’ll let the private sector take care of the poor.’”
Summoned to Rome in March 1981 to meet Pope John Paul II, he learned he would succeed Cardinal John Dearden as archbishop of Detroit. He was installed as archbishop on May 17 of that year.
Msgr. John Zenz, former moderator of the archdiocesan curia, said Cardinal Szoka was “clearly the pope’s choice” for Detroit based on his closeness in spiritual leadership with St. John Paul II.
“Inspired by the charismatic leadership and vision of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Szoka tried to implement here in Detroit the energy and message of the pope — affirming the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception, strengthening Eucharistic devotion, renewing priestly formation, focusing resources on evangelization and working for social justice and an end to racism,” Msgr. Zenz said during the cardinal’s 50th jubilee in 2004.
On taking the helm of the Detroit archdiocese, Archbishop Szoka faced financial difficulties to which he was able to apply his past experience, but also faced challenges of enforcing Church discipline in two controversial cases.
In both cases – one involving a woman religious who had become head of a state agency that paid for abortions among its activities, and the other involving a priest-theologian who had co-authored a controversial book on sexuality — he showed himself willing to put principle above popularity.
No stranger to the media world, in September 1984 he was made chairman of the board of directors of the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America (CTNA).
In 1987, it was Archbishop Szoka’s insistence that brought his friend and mentor Pope John Paul II to Detroit, as the Holy Father made his historic visit that included events in Hamtramck, at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament and at the Pontiac Silverdome.
After being rebuffed in attempts to add Detroit to the Holy Father’s U.S. trip itinerary, Archbishop Szoka refused to concede defeat. While in Rome in 1986, he found his opportunity when Pope John Paul II invited him to breakfast one day.
“I asked him, ‘Holy Father, are you coming to Detroit?’ He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no,” Cardinal Szoka recounted. He continued to write, call and ask, until the pope finally agreed in January 1987.
The same year also saw Archbishop Szoka’s dedication of the Catholic Television Network of Detroit (CTND), which helped the archdiocese reach thousands through cable television. With his guidance, CTND was soon included in basic cable packages around Metro Detroit, and by 1991 the network had about 750,000 viewers.
“Cardinal Szoka was very supportive of that because he could see that it was a powerful means of reaching people,” said Msgr. Robert Humitz, who was in charge of the station. “He came at the right time and he had the right vision — and thank God he did.”
In 1988, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals and oversaw the virtual re-inventing of Sacred Heart Seminary through the addition of a graduate school of theology, or “theologate,” plus a revamping of its undergraduate program and the addition of lay ministry programs. Cardinal Szoka, who has a library named for him at the seminary, is often referred to as its “second founder” for the monumental changes he made to the new “major” seminary.
It was, however, a year of great controversy sparked by Cardinal Szoka’s decision — after several years of studies and consideration — to close several dozen parishes in the city of Detroit that had experienced declining membership.
Difficult though the process was at the time, his decision was later praised as necessary by his successor as archbishop of Detroit, Cardinal Maida, and others.
“He was very courageous in addressing these problems as he saw them,” recounted Bishop Walter Hurley, who served as moderator of the curia during Cardinal Szoka’s tenure. “He never backed away from a difficult situation, and always tried to face it with care and concern for the people.”
But Cardinal Szoka also presided over pockets of growth in the local Church, including the opening of new parishes, including multicultural parishes such as St. Andrew Kim (Korean) in Northville and St. Paul (Albanian) in Rochester Hills.
Cardinal Szoka left Detroit in 1990 to take up a new ministry to the worldwide Church when the pope called him to the Vatican to serve as president of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See. Faced with a budget crisis, he assessed the situation and called bishops together from around the world to present his plan for bringing the Vatican back to financial health.
The reforms he initiated stanched a 20-year flow of red ink, and set the course for healthy balance sheets for the rest of his time in the position and for several years thereafter.
Norah Duncan IV, interim chair and associate professor of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts at Wayne State University, said Cardinal Szoka wasn’t all business, though. Duncan recalled a priceless meeting with Cardinal Szoka in 1994, while preparing for a choral pilgrimage in Rome.
Duncan said he had arranged to meet with the cardinal while in Rome, but when he called at his residence, Cardinal Szoka was out. He decided to go for a walk in a nearby park, and said that to his surprise, “there was Cardinal Szoka jogging in the park! I called out his name … He had three more laps to do. Then, continuing to jog had me join him, and we both jogged to his apartment in Vatican City — a cardinal and a member of the Roman Curia running with a black man from Detroit.”
Cardinal Szoka had also arranged for Duncan to attend Mass the following day in the pope’s private chapel, and for Duncan to personally meet the pope afterward.
In 1997, the Holy Father called Cardinal Szoka to a different ministry, as president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State — informally as “governor” of Vatican City State — which put him in charge of a wide range of activities such as the Vatican museums, and the microstate’s mint, post office and police force.
Despite the high responsibilities, Cardinal Szoka said he accepted the appointments with humility.
“When I was in the seminary, my only ambition was to be a parish priest,” he said at the time. “But a priest is obedient. I did not go asking for these jobs.”
Throughout his years at the Vatican, the pope called on Cardinal Szoka numerous times to represent him at events held around the world. The cardinal’s facility with foreign languages helped him prepare to celebrate Mass in Japanese, Korean and other languages on those visits.
In June 2004, Cardinal Szoka celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
On June 22, 2006, Pope Benedict released the announcement that he was accepting Cardinal Szoka’s resignation as president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, as Cardinal Szoka was then 79 years old.
He returned to the Archdiocese of Detroit, saying in an interview that year, “I miss Detroit. I missed very much living there, and I still miss it.”
However, until 2008 he remained a member of five Vatican congregations — the Congregation for Bishops, for the Causes of Saints, for the Evangelization of Peoples, for Clergy and Religious — as well as belonging to the second section of the Vatican Secretariat of the State.
Residing in Northville and aiding local parishes in the following years, Cardinal Szoka also participated in social and fundraising events to help support the local Church.
He is preceded in death by his parents, Casimir and Mary Szoka.