August 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

Detroit's Cardinal Szoka honored at funeral for 'rich and full' life

Detroit— Cardinal Edmund Szoka would have enjoyed his final farewell Tuesday.

Not because of the pageantry, though there was plenty of that during the funeral Mass in the massive Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

No, what His Eminence would have loved, said friends, was that the religious pomp was rooted in ancient tradition.

The former archbishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit liked that Catholic funerals were about God, not the person who passed away.

Still, Hartford Archbishop Leonard Blair couldn’t resist saying something about his former mentor as he addressed 900 mourners who packed the Detroit church.

“His life was rich and full,” said Blair, who had been a priest secretary to Szoka. “He had so many experiences.”

He was referring to Szoka’s becoming the confidant of a pope and one of the most powerful figures in the Roman Catholic Church.

Szoka’s 60-year journey with God began as an associate pastor of a church in the Upper Peninsula, gradually moved to Detroit and ended up in Vatican City, where he was the financial administrator and then governor under Pope John Paul II.

The journey ended Aug. 20 when he died of natural causes at Providence Park Hospital in Novi. He was 86.

Szoka, who also cleaned up the finances of the Michigan dioceses he led, acknowledged he was probably best known for his administrative acumen, said Blair. He was an old-style religious leader who brooked little dissent.

But that’s not how he wanted to be remembered.

“He wanted to be known for believing in the renewal of our faith,” said Blair. “He was always a man of deep faith.”

As for the solemn spectacle that is a funeral Mass, how better to celebrate eternal life than through Szoka, one of the princes of the church, one who once worshipped at this very altar?

During the two-hour ceremony, the walls echoed with prayers and hymns, some in Polish, as incense rose to the vaulted ceiling.

Unlike most Masses, where attendees’ responses are muted, the mourners gave exuberant, full-throated replies to Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron as he presided over the service.

Among the fiery faithful was Shannon Kilpatrick, 63, of Troy.

She had never met Szoka but felt it was important to pay her respects because of his position in the church.

“He preached the faith. He walked the walk,” she said. “He was a great man.”

With light streaming through stained-glass windows, the ceremony began and ended with a procession of 200 Catholic clergy of assorted ranks. Among them were 30 cardinals and bishops from across the country and an emissary from the Vatican.

The long line of ministers walked through the wide, wooden doors of the church and down its center aisle. There were so many it took 10 minutes for them to file in.

Led by the archbishopric cross, whose double crossbeams towered high above, the clergy sang as they moved past the pews.

They were dressed in white robes, whose color symbolized rebirth.

Szoka’s mahogany coffin was perched at the foot of the altar, beneath towering gray-stone arches.

It was draped with a white linen cloth and then sprinkled with holy water.

After the service, the prelate was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield in a private ceremony.

Afterward, mourner Priscilla Love recalled Szoka’s tenure as Detroit archbishop in the 1980s and marveled at everything he accomplished there and then in Rome.

Love, 67, of Detroit admitted she wasn’t happy when the religious leader closed 31 churches in the city in 1989.

But she was in a forgiving mood Tuesday and said she hadn’t been aware of his exploits in Vatican City until recently.

“Oh, my, he ate with the pope,” she said, referring to Szoka’s close friendship with the popular John Paul II.

Szoka, the child of Polish immigrants, spoke fluent Polish and would converse with the Polish-born pope in that language.

The friendship may have helped Szoka score one of the coups of his nine-year reign over Detroit.

In 1987, he coaxed John Paul II to come to Detroit. Before that, the pope had been planning to limit his U.S. visit to southern and western states.

When Szoka moved to Vatican City in 1990, he shook things up. A rare American in the Italian-dominated administration, he demanded strict financial accountability.

Within three years, he helped wipe out multimillion-dollar deficits, putting the Vatican’s $150 million budget in the black for the first time in 23 years, said Vatican watchers.

During the service Tuesday, Blair described another funeral, that of his father, which Szoka had attended.

Blair had given the homily and, afterward, Szoka complimented him for not turning the homily into a eulogy. Blair had kept the focus on God, not his dad.

Blair was tasked with delivering the homily Tuesday and joked he had better get it right. If he didn’t, a certain plain-spoken prelate might be waiting for him at the pearly gates.

“I may hear about it in the future,” he said as the church filled with laughter.

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com
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A nun prays beside the body of Cardinal Edmund Szoka before his funeral on Tuesday at Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit. / Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News