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Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger, DD
Conferral speech for the Distinguished Alumnus Award given at the 2006 Saint Meinrad Alumni Reunion

Presented August 8, 2006
by Father Richard M. Ginther, President of the Alumni Board of Directors

In the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” Hickory High School teacher Myra Fleener says to Norman Dale, the school’s newBishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger, DD basketball coach, “This place doesn’t show up on most state maps.  A man your age comes here, he’s running away from something or he has nowhere else to go.”

Myra Fleener spoke of the fictional town of Hickory, Indiana.  But the same might be said of the real town of Ramsey. 

As a young man of thirteen years, one is not sure if Gerald Gettelfinger was running away from his real-life Hickory, or if he just didn’t have anywhere else to go.  But in the fall of 1949, with the second World War still fading from the national conscience, young Gerald left the family farm in Ramsey and took that 60-mile trip to Saint Meinrad for what would become a twelve-year stint on the Holy Hill.

Gerald was one of more than 75 high school freshmen that fall of 1949.  Certain names must come readily to mind.  Others may have faded in memory.  But there truly was a virtual alphabet of names in his class - names like Apple, Buche and Carrico, Dilger, Etienne and Fink, Harpenau, Jackson, Kramer and Lawlor, McGinley, O’Brien, Pearl, Ripperger, and Sweeney, Tuohy, Vogler, Wickord and Youngers.

Twelve years is a long time, and it has its attrition rate.  Of that original high school freshman class in 1949, only thirteen made it through all twelve years at Saint Meinrad.  And Gerald was one of them.  On the 7th of May, 1961, Gerald was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

He spent the next twenty-eight years serving in various capacities in the Archdiocese – as associate pastor and pastor; as teacher, guidance counselor, and principal of Bishop Chatard High School; as diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools; as rector of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, as Archdiocesan Chancellor; and, finally, as Vicar General.  In 1983, he was named domestic prelate, receiving the title “monsignor.”  And in 1989, he was selected to be the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Evansville.

On the day before his ordination as bishop, Gerald returned to the Holy Hill, the place he refers to as his “second mother,” to remember and give thanks for the many Benedictine monks who greatly influenced his life.  In a 1989 interview with The Message, the Catholic newspaper of the Diocese of Evansville, Bishop Gettelfinger recounted those who had made a deep impact upon him. There was his spiritual director, Fr. Adelbert Buscher; there was Fr. Marion Walsh, who taught him Latin; and his brother Fr. Joachim Walsh, who Gerald said, “taught us how to work.”  He recounted the influence of Fr. Theodore Heck, who, not ironically, was the second recipient of the Distinguished Alumnus Award.  There was Fr. Geoffrey Gaughn and Fr. Gavin Barnes, Fr. Alaric Scotcher, Fr. Herman Romoser and, of course, the disciplinarian, Fr. Amelian Elpers.  It was the influence of those men, and the other monks of Saint Meinrad involved with his formation, that laid the groundwork for what would become Gerald’s influence upon Church and society.  His continued connection with the monks of Saint Meinrad is brought home to Gerald every time he holds his favorite Episcopal gift – a wooden crosier made by his first cousin, the late Brother Lawrence Schidler.

As an educator, Bishop Gettelfinger has always had an interest in the evangelization and catechesis of youth.  Not only has he served in the capacity of teacher, guidance counselor and principal of high school students, he has also taken a great interest in the ministry of scouting.  He began his association with the Boy Scouts of America in 1970.  Currently, he serves as the USCCB’s Liasison to the National Catholic Committee on Scouting.  In 2005, the Boy Scouts of America awarded him the Silver Buffalo Award.  This award, created in 1925, is bestowed upon those who give truly noteworthy and extraordinary service to youth. The Silver Buffalo Award is Scouting’s highest commendation, and recognizes the invaluable contributions that outstanding American men and women render to youth.

The first Silver Buffalo Award was conferred upon Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement and Chief Scout of the World. In addition to Bishop Gettelfinger, other award recipients have included aviator Charles Lindbergh; artist Norman Rockwell, known for his many Scouting paintings; General Colin Powell; Apollo 13 commander James Lovell Jr.; artist and film producer Walt Disney; baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron; entertainer Bob Hope; football coach Vince Lombardi; astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon; “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz; Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund; and thirteen presidents of the United States. [applause]

In addition to the Silver Buffalo Award, Bishop Gettelfinger has also received the Silver Beaver and Silver Antelope Awards for his leadership with local and regional Boy Scouts of America councils.

One cannot describe his work with the Boy Scouts as simply “honorary.”  In fact, Bishop Gettelfinger will often make the biennial St. George Trek with the Boy Scouts, which entails eleven days of backpacking… in New Mexico… in July.   The Trek helps youth develop organizational and relational skills for Christian Leadership and Vocation Awareness.

But youth aren’t the only ones important to Bishop Gettelfinger.  He also has a deep devotion to family.  His seven brothers and sisters are here tonight in support of their brother Gerald.  The bishop’s love and appreciation of his family can be seen in a very tangible way in his coat of arms.  In the middle of the three vertical panels that constitute his coat of arms, Bishop Gettelfinger chose to place nine gold stars on a field of white.  The stars symbolize the parents, two brothers and five sisters of Bishop Gettelfinger. Gold represents the joy and wisdom shared in growing up in a large family.

The importance that “family” played in Gerald’s life has had a large influence on the bishop’s understanding of “vocation.”  From the very beginning of his episcopacy, Bishop Gettelfinger has asked the people of the Diocese of Evansville to join him in prayer for vocations – first to the vocation of marriage, which is the source of all vocations, and also to the vocations of priesthood, diaconate and religious life.

In his family members, Bishop Gettelfinger has realized the giftedness of all God’s people, regardless of their vocation.  In his leadership of the Diocese of Evansville, he has not only challenged the laity to answer the universal call to holiness – he has recognized and affirmed the laity’s giftedness through baptismal grace.  His recognition of the laity’s great contribution to the Church is evidenced in the creation of the Simon Brute Award, named for the first bishop of Vincennes.  The Brute Award was begun in the Diocese of Evansville in 1990, a year after Bishop Gettelfinger’s ordination, to honor parish members who have been especially generous in their time, talent, or treasure.  Bishop Gettelfinger presides over the ceremony each November at which he presents the Brute medals to recipients.  

He recognizes in the Church’s youth their gift of baptismal grace as well.  In his homilies at Confirmation liturgies, Bishop Gettelfinger often impresses upon the young that it is the grace of the Holy Spirit that calls them to their individual vocations – marriage, priesthood or religious life.  He also impresses upon them the concept of teamwork, how everyone plays a different role, but everyone is playing the same game.

It is evident that Gerald has the gift of connecting with young people.  At the receptions following Confirmation Masses, Bishop Gettelfinger takes the opportunity to greet and speak with each of the newly confirmed.  In his easy-going style, he will often place his zucchetto, which he refers to as his “pink beanie,” on the head of an unsuspecting teenager just before Mother snaps a photo.

Trusting in the goodness of youth, but perhaps trusting even more so in the goodness of God, Bishop Gettelfinger meets every year with the senior class of the four Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Evansville.  No prepared speech, no agenda – just an open forum where students are encouraged to ask their questions – whatever is on their minds.  Bishop Gettelfinger leads by example in showing that building trust with youth requires one to lead a transparent life.

Bishop Gettelfinger has been a loyal “son of Saint Meinrad.”  Through the years he has attended many, if not most, of the summer Alumni Reunions.  He is often present for the funerals of the monks.  He served on the Alumni Board for thirteen consecutive years, from 1970 to 1983.  And he was the Capital Campaign Chairman for the Alumni during its first campaign for the new monastery and library during the 1980s.   Due in great part to his leadership and determination the Alumni raised over one million dollars for the campaign.  He has supported Saint Meinrad by sending seminarians here for priestly formation.  He has chosen Saint Meinrad for the formation of his permanent deacons.  Many lay ministers in the Diocese of Evansville have earned their post-graduate degrees in theology from Saint Meinrad.  Bishop Gettelfinger was an enthusiastic supporter of Saint Meinrad’s “Making Connections Initiative,” which has led to the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates here at Saint Meinrad.

A fellow Saint Meinrad Alumnus recently described Gerald’s evolution as Bishop of the Diocese of Evansville.  That Alumnus, present here with us tonight, said, “When he came to the Diocese of Evansville, Bishop Gettelfinger was very proud of the fact that he was a good manager.  He looked forward to employing the management skills he had developed during his time as principal, superintendent, chancellor, vicar general, and cathedral rector.  Over time, what he has become is a good leader.  And that’s what people want.  That’s what people need.  They need leaders.”

In his 1992 encyclical, “Pastores Dabo Vobis, “Pope John Paul II quotes from the Book of Jeremiah.  The prophet writes, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart.  I will set shepherds over my sheep who will care for them.  They shall fear no more, nor be dismayed.”

The Diocese of Evansville has a good shepherd.  Saint Meinrad has benefited.  The Church has benefited.  Society has benefited.  And, tonight, we are proud to honor Bishop Gerald Andrew Gettelfinger as the twelfth recipient of the Saint Meinrad Distinguished Alumnus Award.

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