The Most Rev. John S. Cummins, who served as bishop of Oakland from 1977 to his retirement in 2003, set out to tell the story of the first bishop of Oakland, the Most Rev. Floyd L. Begin, who embraced the spirit of Vatican II and enlisted a talented cadre of young priests, including Cummins, the then-34-year-old dean of boys at Bishop O'Dowd High School, to put it into practice in the new diocese.
The Cathedral Shop is planning to host a book signing for Bishop Cummins in the new year. The book is available for sale there now and is available at Amazon.com.
The congenial, collaborative spirit that characterized Bishop Cummins' tenure is reflected in the book, where, it seems, the word "we" appears more than the word "I."
It's important to Bishop Cummins to tell the Bishop Begin story. Over the years, he said, "so many said to me, 'We really didn't appreciate him.' He really set us on a great course."
What people remember is what some called Bishop Begin's volatility. "That's what people remember," said Bishop Cummins. "In the same conversation he could change his mind just as you were talking to him."
Bishop Begin was "absolutely, unambiguous about the Vatican Council," Bishop Cummins said. "This is the church and whatever comes out, that's what we do. He was just as strict as you don't go beyond that."
Bishop Cummins is particularly interested in changing a latter-day view that Bishop Begin was opposed to the Graduate Theology Union at UC Berkeley.
"GTU had lost all memory of Bishop Begin," he said. "I am absolutely sure of this: There would be no GTU without Floyd Begin. I think there would have been great indifference to it on the part of other bishops."
"From the very beginning, Bishop Cummins said Bishop Begin saw the GTU as "the work of the Spirit."
One chapter in the book discusses the sex-abuse cases in the diocese, and the first apology service before 135 people at Leona Lodge in Oakland in 2000, the jubilee year.
"The pope, John Paul II, set the pace," he said.
He credits Sister Barbara Flannery, CSJ, for planning the Oakland service. She became chancellor in 1994, the bishop recalled. "One of the early things she did was get to victims," he said. "She was really good at it; being a woman was an advantage. She wasn't a cleric," he said.
Anybody could get up and talk at the service, the bishop said. "The one thing you didn't expect: people who were abused in the Baptist church, and Episcopalian, they got up and talked."
Bishop Cummins' role as fraternal delegate to the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conference is covered by a lively chapter.
The empowered laity and the role of religious women are two of the chapters concerning the diocese of Oakland. He is quick to not take credit. "We didn't put women in for the sake of putting women in," he said, "It was a case of who's the best person for the job."
Among those positions, in addition to chancellor, were superintendent of schools and parish life director.
Although he collaborated with historians Rev. Joseph Chinnici, OFM, and Deacon Jeffrey Burns, as well as Frank Maurovich, the first editor of The Catholic Voice, the book is not a history but a memoir, sprinkled liberally with personal observations.
The memoir opens with Bishop Cummins' attendance at a session of the Second Vatican Council in 1963. The trip to the council was something of a consolation prize, Bishop Cummins writes, after Bishop Begin changed course and did not send his young chancellor to study canon law in Rome.
One of the personal stories Bishop Cummins shared is the call he received from Bishop Begin, who invited him to see him. At the meeting, the Oakland bishop showed then-Rev. Cummins the letter from the apostolic nuncio, who wanted to name him auxiliary bishop of Sacramento.
The letter, as Bishop Cummins recalled, seemed to offer him a choice. Bishop Begin didn't see it that way, declaring, "This is the call of God."
As the younger man demurred, Bishop Begin offered, "It's not as hard as it looks."
Bishop Cummins said he would take the matter to his confessor.
He went home and talked with his father.
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