by John Mark Willcox
The first thing you noticed about William Benedict Friend was his height. Put an elongated miter on an already tall Bishop and you have an arresting sight. “He just looks like a bishop,” my father used to say, and despite his size, Bishop Friend had the softest hands you ever took into your own. “It is the result of years of confirmations,” he used to say. “That oil is good for the skin and I have the softest thumbs in town.” With his gentle, yet strong leadership, Bishop William B. Friend oversaw the birth of our diocesan faith community, our struggle to succeed in our early days of ministry and outreach, and he was with us to celebrate our marvelous anniversary of 25 years of existence as the Diocese of Shreveport. While his soul reclines at table with the Lord, his mortal remains returned to the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans on April 14, where we celebrated his Mass of Christian Burial and laid him to rest in the Cathedral’s Memorial Garden where we will honor him into the future.
Growing up in Miami was the perfect heat training for a bishop to be sent to a climate as warm as the Diocese of Shreveport. One may have noticed during his many years among us that Bishop Friend never popped a sweat despite being draped in the many layers of Church vestments that he wore during our liturgical celebrations. Cool, calm and straightforward was the way he celebrated our worship together, and that is also the way he ran his Chancery.
A true coffee lover, Bishop Friend even drank it with his meals where he enjoyed visiting with his table guests and especially, laughing with them. William B. Friend always insisted that God has a sense of humor, and his laugh was very distinct, and you knew it was him somewhere in the building when you heard that laugh. Staff parties that featured skits and video parodies were a favorite pastime, even if he was the butt of half the jokes. He would release that patented belly laugh and the celebration began. Also known for his quips, Bishop Friend had a cadre of sayings that we among his Curia all came to know well, “The things we do for Jesus,” or his favorite wise crack as the work day was just minutes from finishing, “Just take the rest of the day off.”
Like the true German decedent he was, Bishop Friend had amazing abilities when it came to creating structure. When he erected our diocese at the urging of St. John Paul II, he had a plan for what he wanted and he set about executing it in those formative years of the mid 1980’s. With the help of his late Vicar General, Msgr. Walter Walsh, and a dedicated group of faithful donors, he secured the first Catholic Center on Shreveport’s Line Avenue. He established offices for the chancery, schools, finances, development and public relations, canonical services, Greco Institute, catechetics and social outreach. Bishop Friend had specific people in mind for those offices and he sought them out and inspired them to join his team.
With an intellect honed by years of education and ministerial experience, Bishop Friend’s presence on governing boards and as a presenter was sought after by a host of organizations and his brother bishops in America and abroad. His list of published works, selected papers and speeches presented for the good of the Church, is beyond impressive. Bishop Friend spent ample time away from our diocese sharing his keen knowledge with others for the sake of the gospel. Educational institutions, seminaries, research laboratories, social outreach programs and many other entities both in America and across the globe owe a debt of gratitude for his unique input and guidance.
Before his retirement, Bishop Friend served as Secretary to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) during the apex of the clergy sex abuse scandal in 2001 and 2002. His efforts during that difficult time for Catholics helped create our Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which has become the cornerstone of the Church’s successful Safe Environment Program. We shared many conversations during that dark hour for the Catholic Church in America, and we tried to keep each other’s spirits up as we dealt with those dreadful circumstances. Bishop Friend was proud of the quick work done on that Charter by the USCCB, often saying “You give a group of Catholic bishops a tough job on a short timeline, and they will get things done!”
Ecumenism was another of Bishop Friend’s many talents. He mixed quite easily with people and ministers of other faith traditions, and I was fortunate to accompany him on many of his visits to other churches where he was constantly invited to speak. I can truthfully attest that he never left without charming those who heard him. Many times, Bishop Friend had clergy of other traditions in his home for meals and spirited conversation. He even garnered the respect of local street gangs who sought him out for advice and mediation with their rivals.
Bishop Friend was always touting the latest book resting on his nightstand, or musing over modern scientific discoveries and projections. He loved to look forward and plan for what he believed he could envision coming down the road. His work on the Human Genome Project and Bioethics at the request of Rome during the late 1990s was groundbreaking. Science absolutely fascinated the man, and he never had a problem attributing the wonders of the scientific world to the glory of our creator, always insisting that “Science and religion go hand in hand.”
William Friend was especially sensitive to the needs of the migrant, the minority and those people on the fringes of society. The genesis of these feelings was his early assignment as a parish priest in the inner city of Birmingham, AL at St. Stanislaus Church. He once told me that out of concern, he followed a young African American boy home from Church one afternoon and discovered that the child was living in a chicken coop on the edge of town. The sadness reflected in his caring, watery blue eyes while sharing that story has never left me. Bishop Friend’s 1990 pastoral document on racism entitled “That All May Be One” came at a very tense time in Louisiana’s political history and remains a true gift that he leaves behind for the people of God. He also was very aggressive in lobbying the local poultry industry to treat fairly their predominately Hispanic workforce, and he created one of the first diocesan Hispanic Ministry offices in the region.
There are those among Church leadership that are also gifted with the insight to accurately predict Catholic events and changes in leadership and direction. Bishop Friend was certainly one of those individuals. He knew so many people who worked for the Church in a vast array of ministries and education. He had a keen ability to sense a shift within the Church, and those individuals who would be the lead agents in these changes. This ultimately resulted in Bishop Friend serving for five years as Board Chair for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) in Washington, DC. His leadership helped establish CARA as one of the most respected Catholic Research organizations in the United States.
That laugh now echoes off the portals of heaven as after 83 years, Bishop William B. Friend has heard the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” He can spend his time visiting with souls who are smarter than he (there were so few here on this mortal earth) and laugh at will while consuming the best coffee and enjoying unlimited “time off” in paradise, all without breaking a sweat. Ah, the things we do for Jesus!