When I was a senior at Schlarman High School, we were visited by our new bishop, Edward W. O’Rourke. He was a friendly, energetic man … and a simple, selfless, Christ-like one.
I recently ran across a 90-page book that he wrote in 1979, titled: “Living Like a King: A Plea and a Plan for the Simple Life.” I would have read it, even if its author hadn’t spoken at our graduation.
One reviewer called it a “Franciscan manifesto.” In it, Bishop O’Rourke called upon Americans to consume less, drive less, spend less, dress simply, waste nothing … and do more to help the poor.
He began: “This little book is a protest against avarice, worship of bigness, preoccupation with material things, exaggerated use of artificial foods, and against all neglect of the poor, all exploitation of people … if a substantial number of people were to reduce their consumption of goods and services by even 10 percent, the beneficial effects would be enormous.”
Bishop O’Rourke, 1917-1999, led the sprawling Diocese of Peoria (which includes Vermilion County) from 1971 until 1990. He practiced what he preached; in fact, one of the first things he did, as bishop, was sell the bishop’s mansion and move into a one-room brick ranch. Proceeds of the sale went into a retirement fund for his priests.
O’Rourke was one of 11 children, born in the little town of Downs in McLean County. He was ordained by Bishop Joseph Schlarman in 1944, and served as an assistant chaplain at the Newman Center at the University of Illinois from 1944 until 1960. From 1948 to 1955, as diocesan director of resettlement, he found homes and jobs for hundreds of refugees who had fled the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.
From 1960 until he became bishop, he was executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and established scores of self-help programs around the world. According to his official biography, in one year he visited 19 countries and traveled more than 140,000 miles.
Self-help projects, he argued, were more effective than handouts. His worked to divorce aid to the poor from party politics. To him, the family farm — not industrialized agriculture — was the bedrock of family life and family values.
When he became bishop, he urged his people to follow him in extending “comfort to all who are lonely, broken hearted or in pain … strive to reconcile those who are alienated and restore economic dignity and security to those who are poor.”
He always lived simply, and spent many happy hours tending to his two gardens. Surplus fruit and vegetables were given to the poor, to friends and to family.
The “prime motive” of a simple lifestyle, he wrote, “is love — love for God and neighbor.”
After retirement, Bishop O’Rourke founded an organization that provided job training to the chronically unemployed in Peoria. He visited prisoners in jails and penitentiaries, and when he died, his tomb was inscribed with these words: “Friend of the Poor.”
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.