Bishop John T. Steinbock of Fresno, California died in the early morning of Dec. 5, in the company of his friends, family and his pastor. He was 73.
In August 2010, the bishop announced his diagnosis of stage three cancer in his lungs and lymph nodes, and began receiving radiation treatment and chemotherapy. Although he responded well to the initial treatments, he complained of breathing difficulties and was subsequently diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and legs in November.
During the previous month, he had written and distributed a letter in which he reflected on his disease and the theological meaning of suffering. “The Affliction of Cancer: An Essay on a Christian Perspective” is available through the Diocese of Fresno's website at www.dioceseoffresno.org.
“Faith in God's love is more important than life itself,” the late bishop wrote, in the essay published eight weeks before his death. “Only in Christian revelation does suffering take on a positive meaning … When one person unites his or her suffering with that of Jesus, everyone throughout the world benefits.”
To that end, he spoke of embracing the suffering of cancer “so that Jesus may continue his passion in me,” and so that all would know “that a greater life awaits us.”
John T. Steinbock was born July 16, 1937, in Los Angeles. He entered the seminary at age 20, following the same path as his brother Leo, who also became a priest. After his ordination in May of 1963, he served as an associate pastor in some of the most difficult and dangerous sections of East Los Angeles for 10 years.
Monsignor Raymond Dreiling, who worked closely with Bishop Steinbock during his years in the Fresno diocese, shared his memories of the bishop with CNA the day after his passing. He said that the bishop never forgot the lessons in Christian discipleship that he had learned on the streets of LA.
“He was very dedicated to the poor, because of his own experience down in Skid Row in Los Angeles,” Msgr. Dreiling explained. “He got to know 'the street' very, very well … He said the people on the street helped him to become a better Christian, and a better priest. He thought he was going to go minister to the people, and the people ministered more to him.”
In July of 1984, he was consecrated as a bishop, serving first as an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Orange, and later as the Bishop of Santa Rosa. In 1991, he received his final and longest appointment as the Bishop of Fresno.
Msgr. Dreiling remembered Bishop Steinbock approaching that position of leadership with the same attitude of deep humility that he had learned on the streets of Los Angeles. However, he also had to take charge on a number of urgent challenges, including a large financial deficit that he successfully worked to eliminate during his episcopate.
“He was the bishop, and everybody knew it,” the former chancellor reflected. Yet at the same time, “he was very consultative,” listening extensively to his priests and the lay faithful before making his decisions.
But he also insisted on responsible stewardship of the diocese's resources – and above all, according to
Msgr. Dreiling, he worked to ensure that “every initiative always was for the praise and glory of God.”
Many of Bishop Steinbock's initiatives placed a heavy emphasis on the fair and just treatment of immigrants. Because of a large influx of immigrants, Fresno has become the 14th largest U.S. diocese in terms of the number of Catholics. Bishop Steinbock viewed the Church's treatment of these persons as an important expression of faith in the Gospel.
“He was very concerned about how we were going to minister to all those people,” Monsignor Dreiling commented. “I think he was very, very committed to making sure that the immigrant population was protected, and received the rights and dignity that they deserve.” He hoped that Bishop Steinbock's successor would continue his attitude of mercy and hospitality toward immigrants settling in Fresno.
On a more personal level, Monsignor Dreiling poignantly recalled the late bishop's favorite song: the Christmas hymn “Joy to the World.”
“He could be in the throes of incredible problems, and he would be singing 'Joy to the World'.” He indulged this habit regardless of the season, “in the middle of the summertime, or whenever. He never lost that sense of joy in serving the Lord.”
The Diocese of Fresno has requested that any gifts in remembrance of Bishop Steinbock be sent as donations to Catholic Charities of Fresno (http://www.ccdof.org/). Funeral arrangements will be finalized soon, and announced on the diocesan website.