Draw a line from East to West starting just above Fort Lauderdale and ending just above Naples, and everything south of that line would be the territory of the Archdiocese of Miami. Since most of that area consists of the Everglades National Park, one could assume that there would be few people living in the Archdiocese. But that would be a false assumption since the Eastern Coast of Florida, the Gold Coast, is densely populated. The Archdiocese of Miami in 1970 had a total population of 2,229,030 and of that total about 25% were Catholic and there where 441 priests and 104 parishes.
The period from the day of my ordination on January 25, 1972 until the last week of May was probably the busiest time of my life. I had been relieved of duties as a pastor, but in addition to my duties as Vicar General and Treasurer in the Chancery I was assigned by Archbishop Carroll to celebrate 84 Sacraments of Confirmation and in addition celebrate Masses for all organizations and speak at all banquets and conferences. The Archbishop reserved 20 Confirmations for himself, but since he frequently was indisposed because of his heart condition it became necessary for me to substitute for him, frequently at the last minute.
In addition to my ministry inside the Archdiocese the Archbishop appointed me the Chairman of the Commission for Pro-Life Activities of the Province of Miami (the whole of the State of Florida) and Chairman of the Provincial Commission for the Charismatic Renewal. Those two chairmanships necessitated my traveling all over the state attending meetings in the other dioceses of Florida and planning statewide conferences and workshops.
The celebrations of the Sacrament of Confirmation were the hardest. Not the celebration itself, but getting to and from the parishes required a lot of driving. One night after I had celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation in Key West, the Archbishop called me at the rectory in Key West and told me that he was unable to celebrate the Mass for a meeting the next morning in Naples and for me to do it. I had to drive practically all night to get from Key West to Naples to celebrate that Mass. In four months I preached so many times that I must have preached in my sleep.
In those days bishops almost always administered the Sacrament of Confirmation while seated on a chair. Many pastors would pick the most dignified chair in their rectory for the bishop to sit on while confirming and that chair was frequently too low, closer to the floor than an ordinary straight back chair. The rite of Confirmation called for the bishop to anoint the person being confirmed on the forehead with the Oil of Chrism and to gently tap the person on the cheek to remind him or her to always be strong in defending their faith. Older brothers and sisters liked to scare their younger siblings by telling them, “The Bishop is going to punch you in the face!” So, when I would reach out to anoint the person or to tap them on the cheek he or she would pull back and I, seated, would have to double up and lean forward in order to anoint the person on the forehead or tap them on the cheek. As a result, I compressed my stomach, not quite filled with the food I had eaten at the supper provided all the priests in the rectory an hour before the Mass, I pushed the food against my diaphragm and thus I ruptured my hiatal sphincter muscle at the bottom of my esophagus.
In the end of May, 1972 I had reached a state of physical collapse. My doctor put me in Mercy Hospital in Miami and I was diagnosed as having polyps on my vocal chords from preaching so much, diverticulosis from eating all those pre-confirmation meals and the hiatal hernia on my esophagus. My doctor kept me in the hospital for a week to make sure I got much needed rest and did not have to speak much. The polyps eventually disappeared but the diverticulosis and hiatal hernia are with me to this day.
A lot of the visitors who came to see me in the hospital told me that the solution to having to travel all over the diocese and the state on short notice was to get a helicopter. I said, “No thanks, I will not pilot anything that does not have wings since I had grown accustomed to looking out of the window of my B-17 bomber at those beautiful wings that supported the airplane.” But, given the geography of the Archdiocese and the fact that the whole Province was located on a long peninsula, flying instead of driving to all of the functions I would have to go to made a lot of sense to me as I lay in that hospital bed.
After I got out of the hospital I went to the Opa Locka Airport north of Miami and spoke with the owner of the flying school there about taking flying lessons in order to get a private pilot license. The cost seemed reasonable and so I started the ground school. I passed the written exam and started flight instructions in one of the school’s Cessna 150 aircraft. By the end of the summer of 1972 I had passed all my flight tests and had become a licensed private pilot. I started renting Cessna 172 aircraft from the Opa Locka flight school and began flying to all my liturgical celebrations in the Florida Keys, the other side of the peninsula and to Provincial meetings around the State.
Florida weather was generally favorable for flying but, with the high humidity associated with Florida weather, fog and clouds were a factor I had to contend with. So it made sense for me to get an instrument rating so that I could be a pilot capable of flying IFR (instrument flight rules) at times rather than VFR (visual flight rules). After a few more months I passed the written test and the flight check and became an IFR rated pilot. It made all the difference in the world that now I was able to make instrument landings when necessary.
After living for almost a year in the bell tower of Saint Patrick Parish on Miami Beach and in Saint John Vianney Minor Seminary (I had been relieved of my assignment as Rector of Saint Mary Cathedral when I was ordained Auxiliary Bishop and as Pastor of Saint Patrick Parish), Archbishop Carroll appointed me Pastor of Saint Kieran Parish in Miami. Saint Kieran Parish at that time did not have a church so I used the beautiful stone church (the only one in the Archdiocese) that had been given to the Religious of the Assumption by Cardinal Dougherty. The Sisters were most hospitable and we had a wonderful three years of sharing the use of their chapel.
1975 was a Holy Year and Archbishop Carroll directed me to organize a pilgrimage from Miami to Rome for the Holy Year celebrations there. I did and we managed to fill a large aircraft with over a hundred people. The Archbishop joined the pilgrimage and we all flew to Rome. On arriving in Rome we stayed at a hotel halfway between the airport and the old city. Our rooms had balconies. The Archbishop went out on his balcony and sat down. He must have dozed off because when he got up to go back into his room he forgot that there was a coffee table just inside the sliding glass door to the balcony. He tripped on it and badly bruised his leg, rupturing a blood vessel. A hematoma developed in his leg. Not wishing to be treated in an Italian hospital the Archbishop immediately returned to Miami, entered Mercy Hospital and left me in charge of the pilgrimage.
This was my third visit to Rome and this time it was very different from the others. My Assistant Pastor at Saint Kieran Parish was Father Richard Castellanos. He had had studied in Rome and had been a Cuban refugee. When Cardinal Ugo Poletti, the Vicar General of Rome and Rector of the Lateran Basilica asked Archbishop Carroll for a Spanish-speaking priest to serve as a master of ceremonies for Spanish-speaking pilgrims visiting the Lateran Basilica, I suggested Father Castellanos. The Archbishop approved and Father Castellanos was appointed. When we were in Rome Father Castellanos was able to open all kinds of doors for us.
One day as I was walking across the great Piazza of Saint Peter’s Basilica, I ran into the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Archbishop Jean Jadot. He told me that he had been looking for me and he told me that Cardinal Gantin, the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops wanted to see me. I went to the offices of the Congregation and met with Cardinal Gantin. He told me that Pope Paul VI wished to transfer me from Auxiliary Bishop of Miami to Bishop of the new Diocese of Pennsacola-Tallahassee. I had participated in meetings of the Province where we had discussed the creation of a new diocese, but we had never discussed who might be its first Bishop and I had no idea that I would be picked to be its Bishop.
On returning to Miami, I found that Archbishop Carroll and Archbishop Jadot had decided that the new Diocese would be erected on November 6, 1975 and that I would be installed as Bishop in Pensacola on that day. The next two months were frantically spent in preparing for the move. I knew that I would be traveling back and forth between Pensacola and Miami a lot and to make the trip by car very often was crazy and yet to fly from Pensacola to Miami one had to fly first to Atlanta, change planes and then fly to Miami and do the reverse on returning to Pensacola. That also was crazy. So I decided that I needed to buy my own little single engine airplane for those frequent trips and also to use it to make the frequent trips I would have to make between Pensacola and Tallahassee. The distance between the two cities is 200 miles and the driving time is 3 hours. So, with my savings plus gifts that the people of the Archdiocese were giving me in appreciation for my eleven years of service in the Archdiocese, I made a down payment on a Cessna 182 Skylane. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.