Bishop Lombardo: Following in the footsteps of St. Francis

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Bishop Lombardo: Following in the footsteps of St. Francis

When Bishop Robert Lombardo received the call from the papal nuncio telling him he was named a bishop, he was engaged in a mundane task.
Father Bob Lombardo following his ordination on May 12, 1990, at St. Patrick Cathedral in New York. To the left of him is Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York, who presided over the ordination, John O’Mara and Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Robert Stanton. (Photo provided)
Bishop Lombardo on his birthday waiting to have cake. (Photo provided)
Bishop Lombardo pictured during a family Christmas at age 5. (Photo provided)
Then-Father Lombardo, top left, is picture with members of his community and others during the dedication of the Padre Pio Shelter in the Bronx. Also picture is New York Auxiliary Bishop Francisco Garmendia. (Franciscan Friars of the Renewal)

When Bishop Robert Lombardo received the call from the papal nuncio telling him he was named a bishop, he was engaged in a mundane task.

“I was actually on my hands and knees scrubbing the bathroom floor,” Bishop Lombardo said.

When the phone rang, he thought it was one of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago — a local religious order he founded — calling to tell him that their older German Shepherd bit the younger one for being overly playful.

“I thought ‘Oh my gosh. Someone took the dogs out to use the facilities and the big one bit the little one and we’re going to go to dog emergency room,’” Bishop Lombardo recalled. “That’s what I was thinking as I was washing my hands and running for the phone. When I answered the phone, I realized it had nothing to do with the dog.”

Bishop Lombardo is originally from Connecticut, attended the University of Notre Dame and spent several years ministering around the world and in New York City as a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, based in the Bronx.

He came to Chicago in 2005 at the request of Cardinal Francis George to minister to the poor on the West Side at the former Our Lady of the Angels Parish.

While the parish closed in 1990, the buildings remained and now are home to the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. The mission has flourished under Bishop Lombardo’s leadership: It operates food and clothing pantries; conducts afterschool, family and senior citizens’ programming; and hosts retreats, Bible camps and religious education classes.

In 2007, Bishop Lombardo founded the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago.

Before any of that happened, Bishop Lombardo answered a call from God to become a priest. That call first came during his senior year of college at the University of Notre Dame, when a student in his dorm fell ill.

Bishop Lombardo was a resident assistant and sat with the student in the infirmary at the request of the nurses to help keep him calm. It turned out the student had spinal meningitis and died.

“I thought he was basically going to sleep. I went to the nurses’ station and told them he seems to be fine. He seems to be resting comfortably,” Bishop Lombardo said. “They went in and checked him and the next thing I knew we were in an ambulance.”

By the time they made it to the hospital the student was in a coma and was put on life support.

“That just shook everybody in the dorm up quite a bit. And that’s when you start thinking about life and the purpose of life,” he said. “That’s how the whole search started to begin.”

The inner calling to priesthood didn’t go away, and after working for a year after graduation in public accountancy at Price Waterhouse, he joined the Capuchins.

“I said if I want to do this I would want to live in a community. The Franciscans are always really down to earth and that appealed to me,” Bishop Lombardo said. “They also have a very big outreach to the poor and that’s something I was very drawn to.”

Bishop Lombardo is one of the eight founding fathers of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a community started in 1987. The eight founders were Franciscan priests who had made their final professions and wanted “to work more definitively for personal and communal reform within the Catholic Church,” according to the community’s website.

They established themselves in the South Bronx of New York City and began outreach ministries to the poor around them. The community has grown to over 140 members and friaries in five countries.

Working with the poor is very important to the new bishop.

“It’s been life-giving to be able to give back to people who are in great need, especially now during the pandemic,” Bishop Lombardo said.

People from the neighborhood where the mission is located frequently stop the Franciscans on the street to say they wouldn’t know where they would turn if the mission weren’t there.

“The outreach of the church they see as very important,” Bishop Lombardo said. “I think that that gives good witness and that’s what should be a very important part of our outreach. That’s why I say what we do complements the good things that are done in our parishes and schools, because we rely heavily on them for volunteers.”

He sees his new role as a bishop as a way of supporting the church’s ministry in his vicariate.

“The way that I look at it is it is a different way of serving the church. I look at my newer responsibilities as a way of serving the wonderful people who are working in our parishes, our schools, our hospitals and the different Catholic forms of outreach here in Vicariate III,” Bishop Lombardo said. “Out here, one of our challenges is financial. We just don’t have the resources that a different demographic area of the archdiocese might have.”

Bishop Lombardo will continue to live at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels with the other Franciscans, which is important to him, he said.

“I’ll always be a Franciscan at heart in my approach to life and my approach to spirituality and my relationship to God,” he said. “That hopefully will always come across in a jovial spirit.”

Franciscan Friar of the Renewal John Paul Ouellette, general servant of the CFRs, believes Bishop Lombardo will maintain that spirit in his new ministry.

“His gifts are really incredible. When I found out [about his appointment] I was not really surprised. It’s almost kind of expected because he’s got abilities I think that fit a bishop,” Ouellette said.

For example, Bishop Lombardo is a good administrator but he also prioritizes people over paperwork, Ouellette said.

He had an idea before the announcement came that then-Father Lombardo would be named a bishop.

“I had the clue when the archdiocese called up and asked for all of this clearance, so in the back of my head I knew what they were going to do, but that was two years ago,” Ouellette said.

The actual news took some time reaching Ouellette.

“They couldn’t get a hold of me for a couple of days because he [Bishop Lombardo] gave [Apostolic nuncio Archbishop] Christophe Pierre the wrong number to call me,” he said laughing. “So when they finally got a hold of me it was good.”

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal became an official pontifical community in 2016 and Bishop Lombardo is the first bishop to come from their ranks, which is a validation of their community, Ouellette said.

“That’s one of the first things Archbishop Christophe Pierre said on the phone, that this is very important for your community. It’s good because our formation is ratified in a certain sense that we’ve been able to produce someone who is then able to go and serve the church in a bigger way,” he said.

As with many efforts of renewal within religious communities, it wasn’t always easy for the friars.

“When they first started there were not many people who were happy with the community. They really trailblazed for us and I think it’s just perseverance, perseverance, perseverance, and he’s one that does that,” Ouellette said.

Members of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago learned their founder was named a bishop when he sent them a group text message around 5:15 a.m. on Sept. 11, after the news was announced in Rome, said Franciscan Sister Alicia Torres.

“It was a very grammatically wonderful text message. Complete sentences,” Sister Alicia said laughing. “I was already awake, of course, and I texted back saying, ‘Is this real?’ Sister Stephanie was of course already awake and she texted, ‘Are you serious?’ He texted and he said yes.”

The community is very happy for Bishop Lombardo, she said.

“The bottom line about Bishop Bob is he loves Christ and he loves the church. Hands down. I don’t believe that there is a sacrifice that he’s not willing to make for the good of the church to bring people to Jesus,” she said.

She noted that Bishop Lombardo’s down-to-earth nature will help him in his ministry as a bishop and to help people re-evangelize the world.

“He’s got this perspective on reality that I think is very helpful in the church right now,” Sister Alicia said. “Jesus has not and will never abandon his church, but it’s not a secret that there’s a lot of division in the church, there’s a lot of struggle within the Body of Christ herself and the Lord Jesus certainly desires unity.”

That perspective is something Sister Alicia has heard Bishop Lombardo talk about before he became a bishop and in the days following his ordination.

“He says, ‘You know, we’re called to be peacemakers,’” she said. “It’s true. If we’re not peacemakers, we cannot help others along that road to heaven. I think that he sees that.”

As a priest, Bishop Lombardo dedicated a significant portion of his ministry to traveling the world doing large youth retreats. He was also part of several World Youth Day planning committees.

He understands how the sacraments can change the lives of young people and how important it is to help young people encounter them. He preaches about that to adults on parish missions too, Sister Alicia said.

“We’re in the season in our church where we have everything we need,” she said. “Jesus has given us all of it. I think that Bishop Bob has a gift of keeping things practical and relatable so that we can actually be open to receive the gifts of grace that come to us through prayer and through the sacraments.”

Sister Alicia was one of the first young people who entered the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago and has known Bishop Lombardo for 11 years.

“I can say from my experience having seen it that he really strives every day to follow Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis,” she said. “Like any of us, he’s not perfect. He knows his weaknesses, but I think that is also a great strength. When you’re aware of your humanity, you are more able to allow Christ to work through you.”



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