Bishop Rene Henry Gracida, the retired Bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, has released his autobiography, An Ordinary’s Not So Ordinary Life, available through Amazon.com. The book shares the bishop’s amazing story, including his growing up during the Great Depression, serving his country as an airman during World War II, living as a monk in the nation’s oldest Benedictine monastery and service as bishop in three American dioceses. Despite being age 92, the bishop is an active blogger—visit www.abyssum.org and www.thehuffingtonriposte.blogspot.com—writer and speaker.
At the encouragement of friends, including Fr. Jay Patrick Serna of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, he composed his autobiography. Fr. Serna said he thought many would be interested in Bishop Gracida’s story because “he’s well respected because he stands for something. You either love him or you don’t. He stands for the truth and Jesus Christ, which attracts some and is an aversion to others.”
Yet despite his clashes with other public figures, including his fellow bishops, Fr. Serna noted, Bishop Gracida has a great charity for all: “He reminds me we’re Catholics and we need to forgive. He really lives out the message of love and forgiveness.”
Bishop Gracida recently spoke with CWR about his autobiography.
CWR: How’s your health and what are you doing in retirement?
Bishop Gracida: My health is amazingly good. Although I’m not as strong as I was 10 or 20 years ago, I have no major complaints.
As I was approaching my retirement in 1997, I thought about what I should do. So many bishops I’ve known who retired with nothing to do rapidly declined mentally and physically. I didn’t want that to happen to me.
So, in enrolled as a student at Texas A&M University and took animal husbandry classes. I earned a certificate, bought a few acres of land north of Corpus Christi and began raising cattle, sheep and goats. Although I was born in the city, I’m a country boy at heart, so I loved it.
Texas had a drought, however, and it forced me to abandon the ranch. I moved back to Corpus Christi and I’m living in a small house built by my predecessor, Bishop Thomas Drury.
I keep busy by operating two blogs, one ecclesiastical and theological, the other satirical and political. I focus on end-of-life issues. It is my apostolate in my retirement.
CWR: You’ve written much in defense of life. What did you think of the sting videos depicting Planned Parenthood staff and the selling of aborted baby parts?
Bishop Gracida: I was horrified by it. I’ve always been horrified by abortion, but these videos reminded me of the work of Nazi Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele. When they first came out, I was doing four or five blog posts a day, trying to keep alive the public awareness of this barbarism.
CWR: What made you decide to write your autobiography?
Bishop Gracida: Several priest-friends had been asking me to, so I sat down with the intention of writing a chapter a day. After 26 days, my editor told me to stop. Otherwise, the book could have gone on for 100 chapters.
CWR: What was your upbringing like?
Bishop Gracida: I was born in New Orleans in 1923. My mother was French American Cajun, my father Mexican. He had fled from Mexico to escape religious persecution. I grew up during the Great Depression, and my father did almost anything he could to support the family. I had one sister, born four years ahead of me.
My mother was a very devout Catholic; my father less so. I had a great uncle who was a vicar general of a diocese in Mexico, and he was very strict. Because of him, my father had an antipathy towards the Catholic clergy. He was not happy when I became a monk!
CWR: You have an interest in the North American martyrs.
Bishop Gracida: Yes, I was fascinated by them. I remember reading The Last of the Mohicans as a teenager, and developing a special interest in the Jesuit martyrs. Years later, when I entered the Benedictine monastery, I had to propose three names to my archabbot, one of which he’d pick to be my religious name for the rest of my life. The first I chose was the Jesuit martyr Rene Goupil [1608-42, a French Jesuit lay missionary martyred by Iroquois Indians]. To my great pleasure, the name was approved.
CWR: You went on 32 bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. Were you ever afraid you wouldn’t survive the war?
Bishop Gracida: Absolutely. I was a tail gunner for my first 12 missions, then became a flight engineer for my remaining missions. The flight engineer operates the top turret.
CWR: What were some of your close calls?
Bishop Gracida: My 4th mission was over the Ruhr Valley. We lost two engines, and the plane was on fire. We dropped from 25,000 feet to tree-top level—and I must say I’ve always suffered from a fear of heights!
The pilot told the crew to prepare to bail out. I jettisoned the rear door, put on my parachute and waited for the command to bail out. Fortunately, the pilot regained control of the plane and cancelled the order. It was my first bad mission.
The German flak was tremendous. One large piece of shrapnel pierced the plane, hit the beam above my head and landed by my feet. I picked it up and it was still warm. It missed my head by 12 inches. If it had hit me, it would have taken my head off. I still have that piece of shrapnel today. I keep it as a memento.
Another time we were attacked by German ME 262s, the world’s first operational jet fighter aircraft.
CWR: In your autobiography you mention that there have been other times when you nearly lost your life, but that God has kept you alive for a purpose.
Bishop Gracida: Yes. I have no doubt that the only reason I’m alive today at 92 is because God has work for me to do. I have a message to deliver; God has kept me alive to deliver it.
One incident I mention in the autobiography happened when I was a Benedictine monk in the 1950s. It was winter, and I was suffering from pneumonia. We were in a cabin on top of a mountain. It was very cold, and I got a chill. To help, some of the monks offered me Mass wine.
I was on codeine, and the wine combined with the drug to slow down my breathing. My classmates saw me turn blue, so they ran down the mountain to call an ambulance. It was at that time I left my body, and was floating 20 or 30 feet above. I looked down and saw how blue I was. I knew I was dying. I was filled with sadness, as my mother was widowed, and I knew how devastating the loss of her only son would be on her.
However, the ambulance arrived, and I was taken to the hospital. I drained a tank of oxygen on the way. I would have died without it.
CWR: You are a private pilot. Did this help you in your work as a bishop?
Bishop Gracida: It proved essential. When I was first ordained an auxiliary bishop of Miami, our archbishop, who had recovered from a heart attack, and I divided up the confirmations. There were 125 total, of which he gave me 80. He called me up the night before they were to begin, however, and told me he wasn’t feeling well. He asked me to take his confirmations.
That was in 1972. I worked so hard it put me in the hospital. I was driving all night from Naples to Key West.
When I got out of the hospital, I enrolled in flight school. I got my pilot’s license and rented an airplane. Having the ability to fly really saved my life. Later, I bought a Cessna. It gave me the ability to fly all over Florida, as well as to Washington, DC, for meetings.
CWR: You also related in your autobiography that you had some close calls while flying alone.
Bishop Gracida: Yes. It’s another example of God preserving my life. Twice I blacked out while flying; perhaps for several seconds, perhaps for several minutes. During thunderstorms, when I encountered turbulence, the plane entered an updraft. I experienced a tremendous g-force, pulling me down into my seat. The blood rushes to your head, and you black out. Then, when the plane is pushed down, you bang up against the ceiling.
I had no autopilot in my plane, but I did have a wing leveler. Although it doesn’t control pitch, it did keep my wings level. Both times when I awoke I was flying straight and level, although at a different altitude than before.
CWR: You joined the largest Benedictine Abbey in the United States, the Monastery of St. Vincent Arch Abbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. What made you want to be a monk?
Bishop Gracida: I had attended the University of Houston after the war and earned a degree in architecture. I began working as an architect, but something kept gnawing in me as I asked myself: is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?
One day, while I was looking out the window of my office, I saw a frail old woman pushing a grocery cart. I had the urge to help here, but because of my work situation, I was unable to. God used that incident to get me to consider joining the monastery. I had also heard a talk by a Benedictine monk that impressed me, so I decided to check it out.
St. Vincent’s was originally founded to help German immigrants, and when I arrived at the monastery in 1951, there were still a few German monks alive. During meals, some of our table reading was in German.
When I entered the community, I found I loved the liturgy. I loved polyphony, I loved Gregorian chant. I loved the Benedictine way of life, the prayer life and the intellectual life. There was lots of studying and reading. I began teaching religion to freshmen at the community’s St. Vincent College. I’d still be there, if the archabbot hadn’t forced me out.
CWR: You were dispensed from your vows in 1961, because you had a disagreement with your archabbot.
Bishop Gracida: He wanted to build a dormitory, and hired a contractor. The plans went before the community for a vote. Someone said, “Let’s hear from Rene, he’s an architect.” So, I offered a critique of the plans. My review was negative. I said the plans were better suited for a residential community, rather than a Benedictine community. I said the materials the contractor was using required a lot of maintenance and upkeep. The lifespan of the materials would be short.
The community voted down the plans. The archabbot called me into his office and told me I had no future in the community. The words I recall using … I don’t know where they came from … were “Fr. Archabbot, there is no proportionality between your dormitory and the priesthood of Jesus Christ.”
A few weeks later a couple of other Benedictine abbots were horrified by what had happened to me and saw that I was ordained a diocesan priest.
CWR: You were the first bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee. What are some of the challenges of establishing a new diocese?
Bishop Gracida: It was difficult. The new diocese was made up of the Panhandle of Florida, which was something like 5% Catholic. There were only 25,000 Catholics in Northern Florida at the time. We had no money, and it was difficult to recruit qualified personnel. For example, when I needed a head of our marriage tribunal, no one in the diocese had studied canon law. I had to borrow someone from a neighboring diocese.
CWR: When you served as Bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, you declared that some prominent Catholics involved in the abortion industry had excommunicated themselves. You also placed a Catholic politician under interdiction because he supported legalized abortion. Why did you think taking such steps was important?
Bishop Gracida: My impression is that many bishops forget that there is such a thing as canon law when they become bishops. I did not, however. I have great respect for law and the rule of law. In fact, I toyed with the idea of become a lawyer. As a bishop, I kept a code of canon law in my desk.
I challenged Catholics who publicly supported abortion. I invited them to talk. After six months of trying to reason or negotiate with them and nothing happened, I issued a decree declaring that they had automatically excommunicated themselves. The reaction was pretty negative both locally and nationally. Our local paper, which was pro-abortion, attacked me.
Even my brother bishops were very unhappy with me. I participated in a pro-life committee at a bishop’s conference, and the chairman, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, invited me to speak about the excommunications. There were seven bishops in attendance, as well as priests and lay staff. I spoke to them for 15 minutes about what I had done and why. When I had finished, the Cardinal asked if there were any questions. There were five minutes of excruciating silence.
CWR: You count among your friends Mother Angelica.
Bishop Gracida: Yes. In fact, if you read Raymond Arroyo’s biography on Mother Angelica, you’ll see that he refers to me as the “Savior of EWTN.” After her highly publicized dispute with Cardinal Roger Mahony, he led an effort to get the bishops to deny her the right to call EWTN a Catholic network. I was able to save EWTN by using parliamentary procedure and his resolution was voted down.
CWR: You like to celebrate Mass according to the Extraordinary Form.
Bishop Gracida: Yes. I was ordained a priest in 1959, and that was the only rite at the time. I love it. I find it more solemn, reverential and spiritually inducing to contemplation. Whenever I can, I prefer to use it.
CWR: As a bishop, you’ve gotten to know some popes. What experiences can you share?
Bishop Gracida: Yes. I had been serving in the Diocese of Miami a few years, and Bishop Coleman Carroll, the ordinary, told me to get a passport, so I could accompany him to Rome. We went for the coronation of Pope Paul VI. I was stunned to have been singled out for this honor.
I found Paul VI to be a gentle, humble man who really took a personal interest in you. He made me an auxiliary bishop after I returned home.
In 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, heard about a program with which I was involved with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He invited me to come to Poland to speak to him about it. I went to Krakow, but our visit was cut short when Pope John Paul I died unexpectedly. He had to go to Rome for the conclave that elected him pope.
In the time we did have together, he was fascinated that I was an airman during World War II. He asked me hundreds of questions. We became friends. I have a cherished place for him in my heart.
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