‘Jesus is walking with us,’ bishop reminds those coping with the burden of cancer

Peggy Kocher of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Peoria, accompanied by her son Bob, comes in for a hug from Bishop Louis Tylka following the Spirit of Hope Mass for Cancer at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria on Oct. 7. Kocher’s daughter Mary Couri had passed away three days before from pancreatic cancer, the same disease that took Bishop Tylka’s mother Norma and youngest sister Mary Lou Bryant. Bishop Tylka had anointed Couri prior to her death. (The Catholic Post/Paul Thomas Moore)

By Paul Thomas Moore

In his homily at the Spirit of Hope Mass for Cancer on Oct. 7, Bishop Louis Tylka revealed that he had just arrived at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria “literally 15 minutes ago” from Chicago. He had been attending the funeral of his friend, Bishop Kevin Birmingham, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, whom he had known since their days together in the seminary.

Bishop Birmingham had died of a sudden heart attack, and was laid to rest on his 52nd birthday.

“Life can change in an instant,” Bishop Tylka reflected. He said the unexpected news of his friend’s passing had brought back the same “punch in the gut, takes your breath away” feeling he remembered from when his mother told him she had pancreatic cancer. He found himself asking once again: “How could this be?”

His mother “went home to God” exactly 34 years before this year’s Spirit of Hope Mass — Saturday, Oct. 7, 1989.

The next morning was a Sunday, Bishop Tylka recalled, so “I got up and went to Mass.” He said his church community was surprised. “Knowing what had transpired in my family’s life less than . . . 12 hours before, they thought it would be quite understandable if I wasn’t up to going to Mass.” But for Bishop Tylka, “I needed to be there.”

He connected that need with something Bishop Robert Lombardo of Chicago related in his homily at the funeral of Bishop Birmingham earlier that day.

Before the Spirit of Hope Mass for Cancer, tenor John McDermott (center, back row), poses with (from left) Franciscan Sisters M. Faustina Chesnut, Teresa Paul Selamat, Theresa Ann Brazeau, M. Angelita Van Hoey, Judith Ann Duvall, and Rose Therese Mann. Dr. James McGee is on the far right. (The Catholic Post/Paul Thomas Moore)

Bishop Lombardo had heard about his brother bishop’s passing just before videotaping a televised Mass for WLS-TV of Chicago. “He was reeling, he was shocked by the news,” said Bishop Tylka, “but he said in the moment he said the words ‘Peace be with you,’ he felt the peace of God in his heart; he felt the closeness of God.”

Now in its third year, the Spirit of Hope Mass for Cancer stemmed from a suggestion made to Bishop Tylka by Dr. James McGee, medical director of the oncology service line at OSF HealthCare, to offer a special Mass to provide hope for those with cancer, and those supporting them.


For Bishop Tylka, the Mass is both pastoral and personal. In addition to his mother Norma, he lost his sister Mary Lou Bryant to pancreatic cancer three years ago.

The invitation said the Mass was offered “for relief from the burden of cancer for all within the Diocese of Peoria.” In the same spirit, as cancer makes no distinction between persons, all were welcome at the celebration — of any faith or none.

The event was jointly planned by the Diocese of Peoria and OSF HealthCare.

The internationally-celebrated tenor John McDermott returned again this year, tracing the human journey of uncertainty, hope, and ultimately faithful trust in a musical prelude with songs such as “How Great Thou Art,” and “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” (Prayer of St. Francis). He also sang the Communion meditation, “Panis Angelicus.” He was accompanied by his long-time musical director and guitarist, Jason Fowler.

Deacon Ed Mallow assisted at the Mass. Jon Kroepel, director of music for the Diocese of Peoria, led the music and played the organ for the liturgy, and the cantor was Carmen McCarthy. The lectors were Lillie Snell and Brian Bamberger, and the gift-bearers were Janet Kavelman and her daughter, Anissa Longfellow.

Concluding his homily, Bishop Tylka expanded on his resolve to go to Mass on the morning following his mother’s death. “I needed a reminder, which the Mass offers us, that Jesus is walking with us,” he said, adding, “. . .  he stands before us today, and says ‘Peace be with you.’ Because Jesus love us that much.”



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