Joseph Leopold Imesch, the retired bishop of Joliet, Illinois, turns eighty today. He was my bishop. This is a milestone birthday for a polarizing man. I know those who love him and those who hate him. Both sides have reasons.
Imesch was born into a Swiss-American family near Detroit on June 21, 1931. He studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained there in 1956. He became auxiliary bishop of Detroit in 1973.
In 1979, John Paul II appointed Imesch bishop of Joliet, southwest of Chicago, where he served until his retirement in 2006. He was one of the last “Jadot bishops.” Archbishop Jean Jadot, then the Vatican representative in Washington and as such a key player in bishop appointments, was known to favor pastorally-oriented candidates rather than doctrinal hard-liners.
Imesch generally conformed to Jadot’s bias. When I was a staffer for the annual diocesan youth leadership conference, our chaplain-trainer described the bishop’s own unpretentious leadership style: he went around checking in to make sure everybody was doing okay. If all seemed well, he would not micromanage you.
At my confirmation, Imesch had the Knights of Columbus pass around dozens of foil-wrapped chocolate bars. He had eaten one at a lunch he had attended that day and thought they were marvelous. On impulse he asked his hosts for a box so he could share the bounty with us.
Then he launched into his homily: eventually we would have to stand before God and “say something” about what we did with our lives, specifically about the people we loved. If we spent our lives responding to the gift of the Spirit, then we would be able to speak up simply and without shame. “Say something,” Imesch repeated at the end. “Say something.”
Like all important truths, it was simple. And because it was simple, it was memorable. I try to live by it. I also try to remember that sometimes you should randomly give out chocolate just because you can.
Imesch, mindful that the local church must engage the world, founded a diocesan medical mission in Sucre, Bolivia. In the 1980s and early 1990s, sitting on the U.S. bishops’ committee to write a pastoral letter about women in the church, he helped formulate their unusual guiding principle: women would define their own concerns, and the bishops would listen.
And so it happened. But then the Vatican intervened. They kept shooting down the drafts until the bishops junked the project in 1992.
From what I’ve heard, Imesch was until then a man on the make. But as the pastoral letter slowly imploded, it became understood that Rome had judged him, permanently hitting the pause button on his career. It was also understood that Imesch accepted this, that he had knowingly turned the gun on himself.
The last time Imesch and I were in the same room was for the funeral of my parish deacon, who dropped dead in front of his grandchildren on Mother’s Day 2010. In his remarks, Imesch faced the cold truth that in a way, there is no good death: “You’re either too young or too old. It’s either too fast or too slow.” It was the kind of stark yet sage observation you make when you’ve buried people for most of your life.
All this might have been his legacy, but Imesch had a split personality when it came to clergy sexual abuse. He shuffled several credibly-accused priests around the diocese. Imesch was also alleged to have hid one priest from the authorities, to have transferred abusers to other dioceses without informing the bishops of the allegations, and to have accepted an offender into Joliet although aware of his history.
When deposing Imesch for a civil suit, a lawyer asked the bishop if he would want his own children around an accused priest. Imesch’s horribly wince-inducing response: “I don’t have any children.”
He was very proud to support his priests. He would say so. Somewhere along the way, his support apparently went blind. He was willing to live with the blindness.
Joseph Imesch is an Everybishop, even a kind of synecdoche for the late-twentieth-century American Catholic Church. His keynote virtues were those of the Body, as were his colossal embarrassments. Future scholars who want to know what it was like to be Catholic in this time and place will be wise to haunt Joliet, Illinois.
I hope it is a thoughtful, reflective birthday. Most eighty-year-olds I’ve known didn’t live much longer. Thoughtfulness and reflection behoove you when you are eighty, especially when you were given much and much was expected from you.