The Rev. F. Joseph Gossman once began a homily about the sanctity of human life by quoting the words of Jesus: I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd.
As bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh for more than three decades, Gossman was himself a good shepherd who guided his flock toward abundance. When he was made bishop in 1975, the diocese covering 54 counties in Eastern North Carolina had 38,000 Catholics, about 2 percent of the population. When he died Monday as Bishop Emeritus at 83, the diocese had grown to 192,000 registered Catholics with an additional 200,000 Hispanic immigrants living in the diocese, many of them Catholic. During Gossmans tenure, the diocese added more than 60 parishes, opened schools and reached out to serve Hispanic immigrants.
For all the dioceses growth and its rising wealth and influence, Gossman was defined by his humility and his desire to help the needy and the outcast. He took as the motto of his office, To serve, not be served. And in that, the bishop served well not only in leading his church, but as its ambassador to a region where many were unfamiliar with Catholicism and more than a few saw it as alien to the prevailing Protestant culture.
Gossman overcame the doubts of non-Catholics and the divides within his own church by extending his hand and heart to all. He led ecumenical efforts and joined with other churches in opposing the death penalty and wars and advocating for affordable housing and the rights of farm workers. In 1989, he used the sale of diocesan property to established a $2.5 million diocesan endowment for the poor. The N.C. Council of Churches honored him with its Distinguished Service Award in 2006, the year he retired as bishop.
Gossman created the Dioceses Office of Peace and Justice and sought to give women a larger role in church affairs. He thought more involvement by lay people was crucial to prevent the churchs culture from becoming insular and self-protecting, conditions that had allowed the churchs crisis of sex abuse by clergy to grow unchecked. Gossman said of the crisis, If we had the laity involved, we would not have gotten to this level because they would not have let it.
Though he took generally liberal positions on social justice issues, Gossman stood firmly against abortion. He declined, however, to join some conservative bishops who refused Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who took pro-choice stands.
Gossman said in a 2004 homily at St. Ann Church in Clayton, No one should mistake my decision not to make a public judgment about the state of the souls of those presenting themselves for Holy Communion as ignoring or excusing those who clearly contradict Catholic teaching in their public roles. But he added, I believe that as a bishop, I must renew my efforts to persuade rather than to penalize.
Gossman played many roles during the remarkable increase in the dioceses population, but what he valued most was spreading the faith that drove him.
In a 2008 homily on vocations, he quoted Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest, who said, The priest calls down fire on the earth. And he continued, A priest is not primarily someone who works, preaches, ministers or counsels; rather he is someone who at the core of his being has been set on fire with God and invites others to catch the flame.