DETROIT — Retired Detroit Catholic Cardinal Edmund Szoka, who led the Archdiocese of Detroit in the 1980s as it closed dozens of city churches and then was budget director and administrative governor of the Vatican City State under his personal friend Pope John Paul II, died Wednesday night of natural causes at Providence Park Hospital in Novi at age 86.
Szoka’s death was announced by the Archdiocese of Detroit on Thursday morning.
The Michigan native, who this year celebrated his 60th anniversary as a Catholic priest, was named by Pope John Paul II to lead the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1981. Pope John Paul II named Szoka a cardinal in 1988. And in 1990, Pope John Paul II moved Szoka from Detroit to the Vatican, where Szoka oversaw economic affairs at the Vatican City State, and later served as the top administrator, much like a governor, of the Vatican City State.
During his tenure as archbishop of Detroit from 1981 to 1990, Szoka made his mark by helping bring Pope John Paul II to Detroit in 1987. He also streamlined the archdiocese’s methods to make it less expensive and easier for divorced Catholics to receive Catholic annulments, allowing them to remarry in the church. But he drew widespread criticism from area Catholics when he engineered the closings of some 30 Catholic churches in Detroit during 1989-90, the first large-scale closing of Catholic churches in a major U.S. city.
Pope John Paul II’s Detroit visit in 1987 was part of an American trip that concentrated on the Southern and Western U.S., but Szoka convinced the pope to make a swing to Detroit. Szoka, born in Grand Rapids, Mich., of Polish heritage, spoke fluent Polish and was a friend of the first Polish Catholic pope.
Szoka was called to visit Pope John Paul II as the pontiff lay on his deathbed in April 2005. And Szoka voted in the papal conclave in 2005 that selected now-retired Pope Benedict XVI.
In an interview this spring, Szoka recalled now Saint John Paul II’s final moments.
“He was dying. When I came into his bedroom, he was wide awake. He looked at me, and then I knelt down beside him and said the whole world is praying for you,” said Szoka. When Szoka stood up, he said he instinctively made the sign of the cross on the pope’s forehead, as he had done during other visits to the sick and dying.
“‘What did I do?’, I thought. ‘I blessed the pope. I should have asked him to bless me,’ ” recalled Szoka. “It’s kind of overwhelming when I think about that I not only knew him, but I worked very closely with him for 16 years.”
In a statement Thursday, current Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron said, “We mourn the loss of a dedicated shepherd. For 60 years Cardinal Szoka gave himself totally to his priestly service of Christ and his Church. He has gone home to the Heavenly Father with our prayers.”
Szoka moved back to the Detroit-area following retirement from active ministry in 2006.
Szoka presided at the 1987 ordination of Rev. Joseph Gembala, now pastor of St. Malachy parish in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Gembala credits Szoka with being a good fiscal steward of the archdiocese and the Vatican.
“He got a very unfair, bad rap when he closed all those churches in Detroit,” said Gembala, noting that many of them were sparsely attended and the city’s demographics had changed. His successors have continued closing and consolidating parishes. Szoka’s efforts were eventually repeated in other U.S. cities with declining and changing Catholic demographics.
“He came to many priest gatherings after his retirement,” said Gembala. “And he was very, very accessible.”
When Pope John Paul II brought Szoka to Rome, it was after the cardinal had alienated many metro Detroit Catholics with the heavy-handed process to close churches
Szoka went to the Vatican in 1990, serving as a budget director who helped balance the books and computerize operations. At the Vatican as its budget director, Szoka made headlines when he got rid of multimillion dollar deficits, and even recorded surpluses.
In 1997, Pope John Paul II appointed him to lead the operations of the Vatican City State. In his second role at the Vatican, Szoka served as a president of the world’s smallest independent state, and oversaw a multimillion-dollar facelift of Vatican infrastructure for Jubilee Year 2000, the church’s marking of the new millennium and a banner year for tourists. In that role, Szoka also oversaw restorations of the Vatican Museums and Renaissance artist Michelangelo’s landmark artistry in the Sistine Chapel.
In that post, Szoka was the boss for 1,400-plus Vatican employees, including police and postal workers, ambulance drivers, the staff that put up up to 25,000 chairs for papal audiences in St. Peter’s Square, and 60-plus gardeners. And as president of the Vatican, protocol dictated that he greet the pope whenever he returned from traveling.
Szoka lived in a residence behind St. Peter’s Basilica, and stepped down in September 2006 as governor of the Vatican City State, one day after he turned 79.
Szoka was born in Grand Rapids and raised in the Muskegon area. His mother was a Polish immigrant and his father hailed from what is now known as Belarus. His parents were divorced when Szoka was about 3. Because of the stigma around divorce at the time, it probably made it difficult for Szoka to enter the seminary in his home diocese. He became a priest after studying at seminary in the Upper Peninsula diocese of Marquette.
As both leader of first the Gaylord diocese and then Detroit, Szoka streamlined the process by which divorced Catholics could receive a church-sanctioned annulment, thus allowing them to remarry in the Catholic church, which opposes divorce.
The Archdiocese of Detroit has often led U.S. dioceses in granting annulments, and Detroit’s record was due mainly to Szoka’s reforms. For Catholics in the six-county Detroit archdiocese in 1982, Szoka abolished the $300 fee to apply for an annulment.
Szoka downplayed his parents’ own divorce as the impetus, instead saying his efforts on annulments were inspired by his tenure as a parish priest. He was uncomfortable asking for the money and didn’t want to foster the perception that annulments could be bought. So when he became the bishop of the Gaylord diocese, he abolished the fee.