Bishop Milone remembered for his kindness, compassion

Remembered as a successor to the apostles and for his kindness, compassion and humility, Bishop Anthony M. Milone was laid to rest in Omaha May 24 shortly after a funeral Mass that drew 10 bishops, dozens of priests, family and friends, filling St. Cecilia Cathedral.

A native of Omaha, Bishop Milone served as auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Omaha from 1982 to 1988, and as bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings in Montana from 1988 to 2006. He died May 17 in Omaha at age 85.

Basing his homily on the Gospel chosen for the funeral – the beatitudes that Jesus shared on a mountaintop with his disciples – Father Ralph O’Donnell, a priest of the archdiocese, said Pope Francis’ latest exhortation, “Rejoice and Be Glad,” reflects on those teachings as tools for holiness.  

Father O’Donnell, now serving with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., wondered aloud how many times Bishop Milone climbed the mountain to the “great sanctuary in his cathedral in Great Falls-Billings.

“And how many times he came as an auxiliary bishop to this mountaintop, to this sanctuary, where again and again the Lord instructs his disciples,” said Father O’Donnell, whose family is connected to the Milone’s by marriage.

Bishop Michael W. Warfel of Great Falls-Billings presided at the Mass. He was joined by Archbishop George J. Lucas, Archbishop Emeritus Elden Francis Curtiss and Benedictine Abbott Michael Liebl in the Omaha archdiocese. Retired Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Grand Island Bishop Joseph G. Hanefeldt and retired Grand Island Bishop William J. Dendinger also concelebrated, among other bishops.

Before the prayer of commendation, Bishop Warfel noted Bishop Milone’s pride in his Sicilian heritage, and his simple lifestyle. One luxury was a satellite dish at his home in Montana so he could watch his favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees, Bishop Warfel said.

“More important, he was always a caring, kind and compassionate servant of the Lord, a disciple of the Lord,” Bishop Warfel said. “That is how we’ll remember him most.”

The funeral and a reception were preceded by the receiving of Bishop Milone’s body at the cathedral May 23 at 3 p.m., with Archbishop Lucas presiding. Hourly prayer vigils followed, led by various apostolates and organizations in the archdiocese and ending at midnight. Archbishop Lucas also presided over the “Office of the Dead” from the Liturgy of the Hours.

Entombment was in Calvary Cemetery in Omaha, with Archbishop Curtiss presiding, right after the funeral Mass.

“Bishop Milone gave me a warm welcome when I came to Omaha nine years ago,” Archbishop Lucas said before the funeral. “I will miss him, and I join his many friends, his family and his former parishioners in thanking God for his long and faithful ministry.”

“He was always a pastor, concerned about the welfare of the people, spiritual and otherwise,” said Father Harold Buse, pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Bellevue, where the bishop lived during a portion of his retirement, maintaining a regular schedule of weekday and weekend Masses until his move to the St. John Vianney Residence.

During his final weeks, in hospice care, Bishop Milone’s thoughts continued to be with the people, telling Father Buse during a recent visit, “Tell the people to pray when they’re well, because when you’re sick it’s harder to pray, and thank the people for their continued prayers.”

Father Buse, who had served with Bishop Milone when the bishop was pastor of St. Bernadette, said he connected well with people of all ages, “He was a simple, humble priest and bishop, and willingly sacrificed for the people of God throughout his life,” he said.

Bishop Milone grew up in St. Philomena (now St. Frances Cabrini) Parish and attended Creighton Preparatory School, both in Omaha. He attended Conception Seminary in Conception, Mo., and Gregorian University in Rome.

He was ordained a priest in 1957 and served as assistant pastor and pastor of several parishes around the archdiocese, including as pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Bellevue. He lived and continued to serve there in his retirement, celebrating Mass at the parish and confirmations in the archdiocese.

He was ordained bishop in Rome by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and was assigned as an auxiliary bishop to assist the late Archbishop Daniel E. Sheehan, who was experiencing health issues at the time.

During his time as auxiliary bishop, he continued serving at St. Bernadette Parish where he was pastor, said Father Michael Gutgsell, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Springfield. As auxiliary bishop, he performed confirmations around the archdiocese and served on archdiocesan committees.

“Bishop Milone was very much beloved, especially in the rural areas as people got to know him,” Father Gutgsell said. “He was a good pastor and bishop.”

In 1987, Bishop Milone was named the sixth bishop of the Great Falls-Billings diocese, and was installed in 1988 to lead nearly 58,000 faithful in 66 parishes, 44 missions and five Native American reservations, throughout an area spanning nearly 95,000 square miles.

His retirement in 2006 was prompted by health issues that made traveling throughout such a large geographic area difficult.

 “My biggest satisfaction was getting out to the parishes and being with all the wonderful people,” Bishop Milone told the Catholic Voice in 2006. “One of the painful things is to not be able to travel around the diocese to see the people.”

Bishop Milone led the Great Falls-Billings diocese during a time of transition, said Father Jay Peterson, who was appointed vicar general of the diocese by Bishop Milone in 1998.

“We had to make a lot of hard decisions in terms of merging and closing some parishes, not only for financial reasons, but also because of dwindling population, especially in the agricultural areas,” he said.

To address these issues, Bishop Milone led the implementation of a strategic planning process actively involving the laity, including development of a 167-page report titled “One Vine … Many Branches.”

It summarized the state of the diocese and addressed challenges such as a shortage of priests and viability of parishes. It also made recommendations for improvements to youth ministry, vocations promotion, education, religious formation and evangelization.

A mission statement and five-year plan were developed, and although not all recommendations proved practical, the process led to greater lay involvement in parish life and improvements in several priority areas.

Bishop Milone also helped establish a community of Poor Clare sisters in the Great Falls-Billings diocese, Father Peterson said. “He wanted a contemplative community to provide a deeper spiritual dimension to the people in eastern Montana.”

“He was a very gentle, kindly man, and a good listener, and was really well liked because of his personality,” Father Peterson said. “He also was very supportive of his pastors, he didn’t interfere, and was very encouraging and positive.”

Bishop Warfel, who succeeded Bishop Milone as prelate of the Great Falls-Billings diocese, said he left the diocese in good order when he retired and kept in touch, occasionally returning for priest retreats and helping with confirmations.

“We talked regularly, and I kept him up to date on happenings, but he never wanted to interfere and was very respectful and sensitive to the importance of allowing the new person to implement whatever programs he wanted,” Bishop Warfel said.

Bishop Milone served as a member of the administrative board of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Bishops’ Committee on Native American Catholics. He also was director of the Bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities for the Omaha archdiocese, and served as co-chaplain of the Newman Club at Wayne State College in Nebraska.

A humble man with a self-effacing sense of humor, Bishop Milone “never put himself out front to seek attention,” Father Gutgsell said. “He was always mindful of who he was and mindful of the people. I think that’s what made him a good pastor and a good bishop.”

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