Szoka‚??s body leaves the mass attended by hundreds. He ‚??celebrated the gospel of Christ. May Christ now greet him,‚?Ě said Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron. / Romain Blanquart, Detroit Free Press
DETROIT - Hundreds of people packed a cathedral here Tuesday to remember the former top religious leader for Detroit's Catholics, Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka.
Szoka, who died Aug. 20 at age 86, also served as a financial administrator at the Vatican.
"He was always a man of deep faith," recalled the Archbishop of Hartford in Connecticut Leonard Blair, a former auxiliary bishop in Detroit. "Szoka had his share of struggles, fears, and disappointments" but he used his talents for the "renewal and strengthening of our faith."
Inside the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit, more than 800 Catholics and others worshipped and sang as Catholic Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron - once a priest under Szoka - led a funeral mass that included a couple of hymns in Polish. Several cardinals, who are the top regional leaders in the Catholic Church, attended, including those from Los Angeles, Toronto and Philadelphia. The Vatican's ambassador to the U.S. read a statement from Pope Francis praising Szoka for his "tireless ... ministry."
Szoka "celebrated the gospel of Christ. May Christ now greet him," Vigneron said.
In his homily, Blair compared the life of Szoka and other faithful Catholics to a "Michigan garden in August" on the verge of spiritual harvest.
Szoka was "like a fertile field planted" with the "seed of immortal life," Blair said.
"We bask in the fullness of summer" while also eagerly anticipating a "harvest of righteousness for those who have been faithful to Christ," Blair said.
Born in 1927 in Grand Rapids to Polish immigrants, Szoka led dioceses in Marquette and Gaylord before Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of Detroit in 1981. He shared John Paul's Polish ancestry and became close to the pope, who visited Detroit in 1987.
He served as the top religious leader for southeastern Michigan's 1.5 million Catholics until 1990. He then became a senior leader in the Vatican, overseeing economic affairs in the Vatican City State and president of it in 2001.
Szoka was known as a social conservative, "not a favorite of progressive Catholics," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst with National Catholic Reporter.
Szoka once called upon Sister Agnes Mary Mansour, who was head of Michigan Department of Social Services, to resign because the agency funded abortions through Medicaid.
Szoka also was known for being financially strict at a time when many in church leadership were sloppy with money. He reformed finances at the Vatican, upsetting old-timers. And in Detroit, he was known for closing a number of parishes.
But in both cases, he was praised for making financially wise decisions that helped strengthen the Catholic Church.
"To live in faith" was his motto, one that he carried out throughout his life, said speakers at the funeral.
As his health failed in recent years, he maintained his focus on the message of his faith, living out the "ultimate letting go of death," Blair said.
While he was known in public as a strict administrator who cut costs, he was known in person to be a warm, generous man with wit and charm. Christine Wofford, of Canton, met Szoka while visiting Rome in 1998.
"He was so kind," she said after the funeral. Like many other of Michigan's 920,000 Polish Americans, Wofford was proud that someone from Detroit of Polish ancestry became such a high-ranking Vatican leader.
Szoka became archbishop of Detroit after the tenure of Cardinal John Dearden. Szoka was outspoken on issues such as class and race in Detroit, recalled Melvin Hollowell.
Some were upset over the church closures in the city in the 1980s, but "he was always sensitive to the minority communities," Hollowell said after the funeral. "He was always thinking, caring and praying for his beloved city."
In a speech he once gave to the Detroit Economic Club, Szoka complained about "a pernicious and a pervasive racism in this area," Reese said.
"He had great humility and grace," Hollowell said. "We will always remember him."
Emmett Moten, of Detroit, remembered seeing Szoka jog in the city for exercise.
"He was a great friend, a great human being," Moten said.
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