The wisdom of Bishop O’Rourke

Ten years ago, the Diocese of Peoria said farewell to Bishop Edward W. O’Rourke, who died Sept. 29, 1999, at the age of 81. This beloved shepherd known as a “friend of the poor” had many friends. During two days of mourning at St. Mary’s Cathedral, about 4,000 people paid respects to the native of Downs who guided our diocese from 1971 to 1990.

On this tenth anniversary of his death, we pay respect to Bishop O’Rourke again by reprinting a small sampling of his wisdom in this space. In re-reading his words a decade later, we are amazed at their relevance to much of what is in the news this week.

For example, as we move into a month of rosary devotion in our diocese’s Year of the Most Holy Rosary, we remember that in 1993 Bishop O’Rourke proposed five new mysteries of the rosary. Nine years later, three of the events in Jesus’ life that Bishop O’Rourke suggested for meditation in his proposed “Mysteries of Jesus the Divine Teacher” — Christ’s baptism, the miracle at Cana and the Transfiguration — were incorporated in five “Luminous Mysteries” proclaimed by Pope John Paul II.

As Respect Life Month opens, we note that Bishop O’Rourke was our shepherd in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decisions legalizing abortion. In his first public statement, the bishop warned prophetically that in addition to the primary victims of abortion, other “indirect and tragic effects may follow” such as attempts to discriminate against or eliminate the aged, handicapped and “socially undesirable.” Eight years later, in his book “The Roots of Human Rights,” Bishop O’Rourke called abortion “the most important human rights issue of our times. At stake is the right to life of the unborn — and life itself is the most basic of all human rights, without which all other rights are impossible.”

As nations and individuals debate economic strategies and climate change, there is no debating the wisdom of Bishop O’Rourke’s teaching in his 1979 book “Living Like a King.”

“We have maintained a standard of living so luxurious it can be maintained only be exploiting resources needed by future generations and, in some instances, by exploiting people of other nations,” the bishop wrote. “It is time to assume a more sober and equitable posture among the people and the natural resources of the world. It is equally obvious that to the extent that we live extravagantly we limit our ability to aid our less fortunate fellow men . . . . In other words, pursuing a simple lifestyle is a major feature of our role in establishing the Reign of God.”

Finally, as the harvest approaches, we recall Bishop O’Rourke’s rural roots and his intense love of the land. In 1983, the former president of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference wrote the following about the region we call home: “As one drives from town to town and city to city in the Peoria diocese, the fertility and productivity of the soil is immensely impressive. There is perhaps no single block of land so extensive and so fertile in the world as that which stretches across this north central section of Illinois.”

Fertile and productive, too, was the seed of faith Christ planted in Edward W. O’Rourke. He lived what he taught — about leading by serving, about social justice, about the simple lifestyle, about loving one another as Christ loved us. His life impacted thousands then. His words and example will resonate for decades to come. — Thomas J. Dermody

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