Longtime friend remembers impact of Father Bill Lion

By Joyce Duriga
Sunday, July 10, 2016

Not everyone can be blessed with a friendship in which the person becomes not just a friend, but part of the family. That was the case for Jim Serritella and Father William Lion.

The two met when Serritella was fresh out of law school in 1972 and began his longtime legal consulting career with Catholic organizations and the Archdiocese of Chicago. At that time Lion was the director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois — the political lobbying arm of the state’s bishops — and co-chancellor for ecumenism and human relations for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

While Lion passed away on Jan. 4, 2015, at 83, the impact of the pastor emeritus of St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Oak Lawn lives on in the Serritella family.

Serritella, who chairs the Religious Organizations Practice group at Burke, Warren, MacKay and Serritella, recalls not being “bowled over” by their first encounter.

“He came to a meeting with another priest. He was a relatively small guy. The other priest was very tall and pretty much in charge,” Serritella said. “Father Lion went to the washroom and I said to the other priest, ‘Can I talk in front of him?’ So we started from there.”

While they worked often together they also became friends.

“I was alone. I was single. He acknowledged that and so he started introducing me to his friends,” Serritella said. Many of those friendships have lasted to this day.

Lion was someone who prized honesty, his friend recalled.

“There have been all kinds of clients and a lot of them talk about wanting frank, honest opinions but he really did want them,” the lawyer said.

Lion was a leader in the archdiocese during the time when Cardinal John Cody was investigated for financial improprieties. Those were trying days.

“He worked a lot behind the scenes and made good things happen,” Serritella said. “He made sure the archdiocese was doing as well as it could in those difficult circumstances. A lot of people didn’t know all that he was doing because he was quiet about it.”

Serritella delivered the eulogy at Lion’s funeral and said, “Father Lion taught me a great deal about how to be a lawyer for the church. A common theme that he drummed into me over the years was that I should not confuse my personal faith with the legal work I was doing for the church.”

Serritella started his career working with Catholic groups and dioceses during the time when legal issues for religious organizations were increasing surrounding areas such as government relations, keeping schools and social service organizations open and resisting encroachment of government regulations.

“No one to my knowledge was doing any thinking about the legal problems of churches and he encouraged me to set up a think tank around the issue. That think tank became DePaul University’s School of Law Center for Church- State Studies,” Serritella said.

Lion always related to Serritella as a person.

“In some of these crises I had to work all night. I remember him letting me take a couple of hours of sleep on his couch,” Seritella said.

Lion was a caring friend to Seritella’s family too. When Seritella and his wife, Ruby, lost a child, Lion heard about it as he was being taken into surgery for a crushed ankle.

“Those were the days before cell phones, so he asked one of the nurses to bring a regular phone to the operating room, dial our home and hold the phone to his ear. Partially under some kind of anesthesia, he said he just wanted to talk to us and let us know how sorry he was,” Serritella recalled in his eulogy.

Later, when the Serritellas’ son Anthony was born, Lion rushed to the hospital to meet him.

“He pulled me aside and told me that ‘this child will be formed by what you are to him, not your career or what you do in the world.’ He then spoke to my wife and me together and said, ‘This child will be the center of your lives. Remember, the day will come when he must strike out on his own, and you have to continue your lives with each other.’ He went on to say that pastoring did not mean you had to tell people what they wanted to hear. You had to tell them what they needed to hear.”

Lion also influenced Anthony.

“He took an active interest not only my father’s life but in my own,” Anthony Serritella said. “He had a way of combining a huge amount of warmth and love with a lot of earthly knowledge and earthly wisdom.”

That earthly wisdom remains with Anthony and will remain with him for the rest of his life, he said.

“Over the years he was just very good working with both my mother and me to make sure we felt loved and gave us his advice when we needed it,” he said. “There are very few people who you meet in your life who give you good advice, who you really respect, who will become like part of your family.”


  • jim serritella
  • william lion
  • st. catherine of alexandria
  • catholic conference of illionois
  • church-state relations

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