Friends of Justice mourns the passing of Bishop Leroy Matthiesen

Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen

This eulogy was written by Charles Kiker.  It is followed by a press release from Pax Christi and the text of Bishop Matthiesen’s last article in The U.S. Catholic.

A Fine Fellow

Friends of Justice, and all friends of justice and peace, lost a good friend on Monday, March 22, when retired Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen passed away at his home in Amarillo at the age of 88.

Bishop Matt, as he was affectionately known by his friends, gained fame, and infamy, by his opposition to nuclear weapons. For him it was a personal rather than simply theoretical issue. In 1981, when he was the active Bishop in Amarillo, he called upon Catholic workers at the Pantex plant to consider the morality of working in the production of nuclear weapons. At least one worker came into the Bishop’s office where they discussed the matter, and the worker quit his job and earned his living elsewhere. But Pantex was (and is) a major economic engine in the Amarillo area. Not everyone greeted the Bishop’s stance affirmatively. As his position became known nationwide, he gained the not so affectionate moniker of “the Red Bishop.”

Bishop Matt was a genuinely humble man, but his humility did not overrule his sense of humor. On one occasion in the airport at Dallas, a fellow traveler (no pun intended), asked him where he was going. “To Amarillo,” Bishop Matt responded. “Oh, do you know the Red Bishop up there?” “Yes, I know him very well. He’s a fine fellow.” 

Bishop Matt was not a one issue Christian activist. He was a justice advocate for all peoples across the lines of ethnicity, sexual orientation, and economic standing. He was a true Vatican II Catholic Christian with open lines of communication to Christians of other persuasions, and indeed to all people regardless of religious conviction. He received the Teacher of Peace Award last year from Pax Christi, a Catholic organization that promotes nonviolence, disarmament, and human rights.

Bishop Matt was the driving force behind The Peace Farm, a Panhandle organization opposed to nuclear armaments. When Friends of Justice was organized in response to the Tulia Drug Sting, a close relationship developed between the two organizations. For several years I have been associated with the Board of Directors of The Peace Farm, and have come to know the “Red Bishop” very well. And I agree. He was a fine fellow.

Rest in peace, Bishop Matt, rest in peace.

Charles Kiker

March 24, 2010

Pax Christi USA mourns the passing of Bishop Leroy Matthiesen


Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace was outspoken in his hope for a nuclear-free world

Washington, D.C.—Pax Christi USA mourns the loss of one of its most outspoken and prophetic bishops, Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen, retired bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Amarillo, Texas. Bishop Matthiesen died on Monday, March 22 after a brief illness. In the summer of 2009, Pax Christi USA honored him as the recipient of the Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace Award.

“Bishop Matthiesen was an incredible witness and an inspiration to all of us in Pax Christi USA,” stated Dave Robinson, Pax Christi USA Executive Director. “We have lost one of the great voices in the movement to rid the world of nuclear weapons.”

In the 1980s, Bishop Matthiesen received what he has said was his own “personal wake-up call” when the Reagan administration announced that Pantex, the factory outside of Amarillo that is the final assembly point of all nuclear weapons in the U.S., would begin assembling neutron bombs. Bishop Matthiesen wrote a column in his diocesan newspaper, asking the people of his diocese to reconsider their continuation at the plant and to seek employment in peaceful pursuits. Because of his stance, he suffered personal attacks and angry denunciations locally and nationally. But his stand for peace also energized the Catholic peace movement and garnered support from the Texas bishops, who ultimately influenced the U.S. bishops in writing their watershed pastoral letter on the nuclear arms race, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.”

“We are all grateful for how Bishop Matthiesen raised fundamental questions regarding the morality of nuclear weapons,” stated Sr. Kathleen Pritty, RSM, interim chair of the National Council of Pax Christi USA. “Bishop Matthiesen led by example, demonstrating in word and deed the force of his convictions and his belief in the gospel.”

Bishop Matthiesen’s work for justice began in his years as a young parish priest. In the 1950s, he saw first-hand the injustice of racism when a waitress refused to serve one of the young girls with whom he was celebrating a victory following their basketball game because she was black. Fr. Matthiesen decided that the entire group would leave. Later, as editor of the diocesan newspaper, he initiated a series of articles on the racial situation in the Texas Panhandle. The series won an award from the Catholic Press Association, but also engendered the resentment of some white Catholics in the diocese.

A funeral mass is scheduled for 11am at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Amarillo. A second service is planned at St. Boniface Church in Olfen, at 10am on Monday.

“He was a great man, rooted in his belief that it was the responsibility of people of faith and conscience to change the world in which we live,” stated Robinson.

We invite you to read Bishop Mattiesen’s final article, published just days before his death.

 Let’s drop the bomb

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The U.S. bishops issued their 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace without a total condemnation of nuclear arms but planned to revisit the issue after the Cold War. More than 25 years later, the question is still on the table.

A native Texan, I was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Amarillo in 1946. For all but three of the following years my assignments as a priest were within 17 miles of the Pantex facility, located northeast of Amarillo.

Pantex, I learned in time, was the final assembly and disassembly plant for all nuclear warheads produced in the United States. The plant lies within the territory of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, where I was pastor from 1971 until 1980.

Generally supportive of President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” concept, I was unconcerned about what was going on at Pantex. When parishioners approached me with qualms about the morality of working there, I tried to reassure them and referred them to the bishop of Amarillo.

On May 30, 1980, I became the bishop.

That summer Sister Regina Foppe, a Victory Noll Missionary Sister, challenged me to condemn the assembly of nuclear weapons in our own backyard as a theft from the poor. A resolution by the diocesan presbyteral council seconded her challenge.

Still, I hesitated. That Christmas I preached a bland sermon on peace and good will and urged an end to the Cold War between our country and the Soviet Union.

Then the year 1981 arrived with more wake-up calls, the first a subtle one as I was praying Psalm 33 in the liturgy of the hours: “A vain hope for safety is the horse; despite its power it cannot save.” Something, someone-the Spirit of God?-tricked me. I found myself praying, “A vain hope for safety is the nuclear bomb; despite its power it cannot save.”

I shook that off, but then a barrage of other voices followed. On February 15 Pope John Paul II visited the Peace Park in Hiroshima, Japan, the first city to experience the utter devastation of an atomic bomb.

“I bow my head,” the pope said, “as I recall the memory of the thousands of men, women, and children who lost their lives in that one terrible moment, or who for long years carried in their bodies and minds those terrible seeds of death which inexorably pursued their process of destruction. . . . To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war. To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace.”

That same February a story on the front page of Amarillo’s newspaper reported how Oblate Father Larry Rosebaugh and five others had scaled the outer security fence around Pantex, been arrested, and were being held in the Potter County Detention Center to await trial. Stunned, I went to see him and found a saintly man.

After that, a permanent deacon and his wife came to see me, asking if it was morally acceptable for him to be working at Pantex.

In June Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle denounced the Trident submarine base near Seattle as “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound.” The nuclear warheads atop the submarines’ intercontinental ballistic missiles were assembled at Pantex and delivered by train in heavily guarded, white, heat-reflecting railroad cars. If Hunthausen judged the possession of nuclear weapons immoral, what was my judgment to be about their assembly at Pantex?

Finally, in August the White House approved the assembly at Pantex of the enhanced radiation warhead, the so-called neutron bomb. The bomb was specifically designed for “enhanced” destruction of all biological life-including men, women, children, and infants in the womb-while leaving material infrastructure intact.

It was just one more step in the implementation of the immoral policy of “Mutual Assured Destruction,” which the two superpowers had adopted to deter each other from launching a nuclear attack. The Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union resulted in each country possessing 25,000 nuclear warheads, more than enough to destroy the earth many times over. The policy, dubbed MAD, remains in force today.

Convinced at last that we had lost our moral moorings, I issued a statement urging workers engaged in the production, assembly, and deployment of nuclear weapons to consider the implications of what they were doing, to resign from such activities, and to seek employment in peaceful pursuits.

The call ignited controversy, condemnation, and praise, and it brought state, national, and international media to the Texas Panhandle. At their next meeting, the bishops of Texas unanimously expressed their support and issued a statement of their own condemning nuclear weapons.

This action of the Texas bishops was later credited by some with moving the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in its November 1981 general assembly to appoint a committee of five bishops, headed by the late Cardinal Joseph A. Bernardin, to undertake a nationwide consultation on the issue.

A year and a half later, in May 1983, the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Chicago to finalize the pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.

The debate was heated. Because nuclear bombs are so indiscriminately destructive and leave a legacy of radiation so sickening, the majority was convinced that we had no choice but to condemn them lock, stock, and barrel.

On the second day the majority voted in a provisional ballot for a total moral condemnation of nuclear weapons. In the final vote on the third day, however, to get in line with the more nuanced position of the Vatican, we voted-many of us reluctantly-for a strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear weapons as a temporary deterrent to aggression.

We emphasized that such a policy could not be “a long-time basis for peace” and stipulated that the acceptance was to change to condemnation once the Cold War ended. We agreed to review the situation every five years.

But even though the Cold War ended in 1989, the issue has never been put back on the agenda of the bishops’ general assembly.

Why have we not kept the promise we made? Why have we not issued an unconditional moral condemnation of the production, assembly, and deployment of nuclear weapons? Why have we not formally declared ourselves to be a church of peace, a full-fledged pro-life church?

“What can be said . . . about those governments which count on nuclear arms as a means of ensuring the security of their countries?” Pope Benedict XVI asked in his 2006 World Day of Peace message. His answer: “This point of view is not only baneful but also completely fallacious. In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.”

More than a quarter century after the peace pastoral, it is time for us bishops-and all U.S. Catholics-to act on this conviction, to speak out more forcefully, and take on a moral leadership role in the current efforts to completely eliminate nuclear weapons.

Despite disagreements on other issues, the pope has gone out of his way to praise President Barack Obama for actively pursuing nuclear disarmament, a significant departure from previous U.S. policy. Last September Obama convened and chaired a meeting of the United Nations Security Council that unanimously approved a resolution on nuclear disarmament that commits the international community “to work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

Sixty-five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the specter of giant mushroom clouds rising in the skies above our crowded cities that leaves children, women, and men evaporated, cremated, and lifeless, haunts us as nuclear weapons continue to proliferate.

The hour of decision is here for the Catholic Church in the United States, led by our bishops, to join the growing secular and religious chorus of voices demanding the abolition of nuclear weapons.

If not now, when? 

2 thoughts on “Friends of Justice mourns the passing of Bishop Leroy Matthiesen

  1. I attended the vigil for Bishop Matt in Amarillo last night. A very moving service. Encomia continue to pour in to Amarillo Globe News regarding Bishop Matt. This morning from a Church of Christ preacher who writes a regular Saturday column for AGN.

  2. Nuclear weapons are a scandal in our time. They destroy human beings,the earth and deaden the conscience of thinking human beings.

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