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A Time of Transition: Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz, Ph.D. ’72

During Bishop Kopacz's ordination in Jackson, Mississippi, Feb. 6, 2014.

A Scranton priest adjusts to his new role as bishop and life in the South.

Soon after he got a call from the Apostolic Nuncio (on behalf of Pope Francis) to serve as a Diocesan Bishop in Mississippi, Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz, Ph.D. ’72, a Northeastern Pennsylvania native, became one of only 156 Diocesan Ordinaries in the U.S. 

Like anyone starting a new job in a new place, he initially had some trouble adjusting. “These past few months certainly have been an intense time of transition,” said Bishop Kopacz.

During his first two months in Jackson he was wearing borrowed vestments and living in temporary housing. Even the local cuisine requires some getting used to, he said. Cracking off the head of a crawfish can seem very foreign to a man who grew up in Dunmore and spent much of his life in the surrounding areas.

During his ordination on Feb. 6, Bishop Kopacz struggled with a new word: y’all. He quickly drew the congregation’s attention to his mispronunciation of the word. “I don’t know how well this coal cracker accent is going to go with the southern drawl, but we’re going to work on it,” he said with a laugh. The crowd laughed with him.

Bishop Kopacz has deep roots here. He grew up playing baseball and delivering newspapers in Dunmore, where he came from a family devoted to its faith. He was an altar server at St. Anthony of Padua parish, often walking proudly to church in his cassock.

Not only was his close-knit community supportive of his calling back then, his loved ones also recognized his deep devotion to God and the church. After graduating from Dunmore Central Catholic High School (now Holy Cross), he entered Saint Pius X Seminary in Dalton. During that time, he attended The University of Scranton, pursuing courses in theology and philosophy.

“I was at Scranton in the era of many active, teaching Jesuits, which was really special,” he said, remembering Rev. William B. Hill, S.J., a professor of English at the time, as one who inspired him. “The Jesuits were a great influence, and attending the University solidified my call to the priesthood.”

Bishop Kopacz stayed in touch with the good friends he made at Scranton. One such friend was Monsignor Joseph G. Quinn, J.D., J.C.L. ’72, now the vice president of University Mission and Ministry at Fordham University in New York. Msgr. Quinn remembers Bishop Kopacz winning fans early on: “He was tall, even then. And his ever-present smile, quick wit and easy laugh made him welcome in every group.”

After graduating from The University of Scranton, Bishop Kopacz earned a master’s in theology from Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, New York. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1977 and his first priestly assignment was in the Diocese of Scranton. This is where he stayed, at least until the Pope called (so to speak). He led various parishes and organizations. In addition to his pastoral duties, along the way he also served as vicar for priests and vicar general. Before he left Scranton for Jackson, he helped plan a consolidation of three churches within the Diocese. His departure was felt deeply by parishioners.

“Whatever community he served over the course of his nearly four decades as a leader in the Diocese of Scranton, the people never wanted to let him go,” said Msgr. Quinn, who worked alongside then-Fr. Kopacz in the Scranton Diocese. “He truly was — and is — a much beloved pastor.” 

Bishop Kopacz began his service in Mississippi by traveling to the 101 parishes and missions throughout the state. On weekends, he has gone out to celebrate what he calls “regular” Mass. It is the only way he can be among the people, “regularly and often,” a tenet he learned from the leadership of Pope Francis. 

There is a lot of ground to cover, as the Diocese of Jackson encompasses 65 counties and 37,629 square miles and is the largest diocese, geographically, east of the Mississippi River. It is also a diverse diocese, with a large Spanish-speaking population. (He has a facility with the language and is becoming fluent.) He has found that the best way to become truly a part of this community is to listen to the unique stories of its people. 

“I look at this diocese as my parish. I’m going out to meet my parishioners. They are all part of the vast family,” he said. “I just let people know I’m happy to be here and they’re more open to me. I think they’re starting to respond.”

He has started to feel more at home in Jackson. He swims laps at the pool at the local Catholic hospital and walks his dog, Amigo, in his neighborhood. It is during this “quiet time,” as well as hours in the office or car, that he is able to reflect and plan. Now that he is getting comfortable, he is able to look toward the future and ask: “Where is the Diocese of Jackson today? Who are we and where do we want to go?” 

Bishop Kopacz sees something else in his near future: hosting family and friends from Scranton at his new, permanent home in Jackson, where he may just serve up crawfish.

Watch the ordination of Bishop Kopacz here.

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