By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
SALINA, Kan. — Perhaps the heart that loves truly, deeply and completely is never divided. Instead, it is multiplied.
The funeral Mass of the Resurrection for Bishop Emeritus George K. Fitzsimons packed the spacious Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in downtown Salina, the heart of Kansas wheat country, with lay people and clergy who came from two dioceses that Bishop Fitzsimons loved truly, deeply and completely in his 84 years of life and 52 years of service as a priest and bishop.
And they were witness to the model of Christ that became Bishop Fitzsimons’ life, said Salina Bishop Edward Weisenburger in his funeral homily.
“Surely you recognized that any affection you offered him came back to you having earned interest a hundred-fold,” Bishop Weisenburger said.
Yes, he served the Diocese of Salina from 1984 to 2004 as its bishop, then for nine more years in “retirement” as an assistant pastor at St. Patrick Parish in Ogden, where he made his home in retirement.
Ogden is near the eastern boundary of the Salina diocese, cutting nearly an hour off the frequent drives he would make to his home where he was born, raised and ordained as both priest and auxiliary bishop.
So frequent were those 300-mile round trips to and from Kansas City that Msgr. James Hake, who served as Bishop Fitzsimons chancellor and vicar general in Salina, gently joked that the news of the bishop’s unexpected death at the Ogden rectory sometime during the Sunday afternoon of July 28 was greeted not without a measure of relief.
“The first thing I said was, ‘I am so grateful to God that his death wasn’t because he fell asleep while driving on the highway,’” Msgr. Hake said at Bishop Fitzsimons’ wake, the evening before his funeral.
“That is actually the biggest fear we’ve had over these past many years with Bishop George,” Msgr. Hake said. “God loved him so much that he surely must have assigned a whole host of angels and archangels to watch over him.”
Before the funeral Mass the next morning, a delegation of Kansas City-St. Joseph priests that included Bishop Robert W. Finn and Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey, whom Bishop Fitzsimons, as auxiliary bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, ordained as a Benedictine priest spoke of Bishop Fitzsimons’ unfailing and never-ending love for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Barely a celebration in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph happened outside the presence of Bishop George K. Fitzsimons, said Bishop Emeritus Raymond J. Boland. He was at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in May to help Bishop Boland celebrate his 25 years as bishop.
Bishop Boland said that when Bishop Fitzsimons retired in 2004, Bishop Boland offered him the opportunity to take up residence in Kansas City.
“He thought about it for a while, then he told me that he was going to stay in Salina,” Bishop Boland said. Such was his love for his second home diocese that he couldn’t leave.
But just two weeks before his death, he shared a table with his Kansas City-St. Joseph brother priests, including Father James Hart, at a Serra Club luncheon in Kansas City.
“He told me, ‘Jim, I didn’t do all that much in Salina. When I got there, everything was going fine, the priests were all working hard, and I didn’t want to mess that up,’” Father Hart recalled. “He was a wonderful man.”
Father Terry Bruce, who knew Bishop Fitzsimons since Conception Seminary College, said that was the bishop’s style.
“He was pastoral,” Father Bruce said. “He would step back and give the leaders and the people with skills he didn’t have what they needed to do the job, and he let them do it.”
But he was also a “work horse,” Father Bruce said. “They would give him anything and everything, and he would take it on.”
Indeed, Bishop Fitzsimons was blessed with the work ethic, the intellectual curiosity and the physical gifts to take his life anywhere he chose and be successful at it, said his seminary classmate Father John McCormack, who is now the sole survivor of five priests, including Bishop Fitzsimons, ordained on March 18, 1961, by then Bishop John P. Cody.
Known as “The Saint” during his days at Rockhurst High School, Bishop Fitzsimons was an all-star athlete, excelling in particular at basketball, Father McCormack said.
When Bishop Fitzsimons graduated from Rockhurst High School in 1945, he joined the U.S. Navy and served as a pilot for four years. Then he returned to Rockhurst College, where he earned a degree with honors and launched a successful career in banking and real estate before hearing another call.
Father McCormack, also a Rockhurst graduate, and Bishop Fitzsimons entered Conception Seminary College together.
“We both had philosophy and Latin from the Jesuits,” Father McCormack said. “At semester, they moved us into second year philosophy and Latin, so we both gained a year.”
But gifted as he was, Bishop Fitzsimons also had a contagious sense of peace and calm that sprung from competence, humility, simplicity of life and love for the church and her people, said Msgr. Hake at the wake service.
“As our active bishop for 20 years, Bishop Fitzsimons’ devotion to the church and to the people of God was paramount,” said Msgr. Hake.
“He truly gave his all, for the church and the people he served. He would go anywhere for any one and for any occasion,” Msgr. Hake said.
That was the Bishop Fitzsimons that Bishop Weisenburger quickly came to know in just the three years that Bishop Weisenburger has served the Diocese of Salina. Even as age began to take its toll on his predecessor, Bishop Weisenburger could see “a life that was lived well” and that ended with “what I tend to think was a little nap, in the afternoon, after the joy of Sunday’s liturgy, and waking up, perhaps rather unexpectedly, to discover what he had preached, prayed for, introduced to others and yearned for a long lifetime to see.”
“From that vantage, perhaps despite any grief we feel, we can also rejoice for this dear man, who loved God, loved us well, and deserves only the fullness of love,” Bishop Weisenburger said.
“As a people who knew, admired, journeyed alongside, prayed with, sometimes suffered with, and were privileged to celebrate with Bishop George, let us now lovingly entrust him now to the shepherd, the gateway to the treasured flock, the one who even now promises us that the sorrowing will be comforted, the lost will be found, and the dead will rise to new life,” Bishop Weisenburger said.