As I write my final column before entering into retirement, I think back to how it all began. According to my mother, when I was five years old, I played with little statues of saints. My grandmother emptied a kitchen cupboard, where I stored the little statues on a shelf. I would take out the statues, rearrange them on an altar made from a wooden milk box, and I would pray every day. I guess at that tender age, the Lord began calling me.
A few years later, when I was in the fifth grade, I was pushed ahead two years for confirmation because I knew my Catechism so well. At that young age, I was excelling in my understanding of Christian doctrine.
Then came a defining moment. As a Boy Scout, I took a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France and Rome with other Scouts. It was a life-changing experience, especially the baths. I felt that calling once again.
I answered the Lord’s call to the priesthood in 1966, entering the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, New Jersey. On May 30, 1970, I was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Newark, which was the start of pastoral ministry that has given me many opportunities to help build the City of God.
Now, as I reflect on these past 18 years as Bishop of Brooklyn, I think of the many blessings that have been bestowed on me during this time of servant leadership. Truly, I have sought to serve the people, priests, deacons, and religious of Brooklyn and Queens to the best of my ability.
At my Mass of Installation as your Bishop on October 3, 2003, I spoke about the New Evangelization. In regional Masses celebrated in the first several months of my episcopacy in Brooklyn and Queens, I preached my homily based on the Gospel of Luke where Jesus asks His disciples to Put out into the Deep, to keep fishing, for at His command a great catch of fish would result. After the miraculous catch of fish, the Apostles were surely thankful for the economic benefit, which they had received. However, they were more inspired in the recognition of the extraordinary leadership of Jesus.
Today, leadership in our world is not easy to exercise. As we can see, we live in a City and Nation divided. Our culture today has made it difficult to lead when everyone expects “their leader” to do everything they want them to do. The job of a leader is not to satisfy everyone, yet I am grateful for the accomplishments made possible by leadership and cooperation. Being able to lead as your Bishop here in Brooklyn and Queens has truly been a blessing to me, albeit difficult at times.
I came to the Diocese as New York City was recovering from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Then in 2012, our city was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Following that storm, I traveled to our affected nine parishes. It was not just the churches that sustained water damage, but the homes of the parishioners and pastoral staff. What I witnessed was the work of our Lord, a faith-filled community led by the priests and the people of God, coming together to tend to the needs of each other, while sharing in each other’s suffering.
New Yorkers are a resilient people. We have seen that again in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, where Brooklyn and Queens were especially hard hit, the epicenter of sickness and death, in the Spring of 2020. We changed how we experienced Mass for the first time in history. We prayed together and allowed the Lord to guide us in these unprecedented times. New Yorkers are survivors and will continue to be with the help of God.
Coming together is what defines the Church. I have often preached that I see the Church more as a mother and less as an institution. The Church indeed is a family, with a father, mother, and children. In the family of the Church, the bishop often takes the role of father – guiding, protecting, and giving direction, clearly reminding the people of what Jesus taught.
However, I have also seen the role of the bishop as mirroring the maternal aspects of what the Church is all about. Mothers point out our shortcomings, but always for our own good and from a place of love.
With the Church as Mother, I have sought to be a voice on behalf of migrants and immigrants, causes I have worked to advance throughout most of my priestly ministry. I plan to continue to work in this policy area during retirement.
I have preached against the ills of racism and established a Commission on Racism and Social Justice to take an honest look at racism in our Diocese. We continue to work to build a Kingdom of God that fosters respect for all. This academic year, as a result of the work of this Diocesan Commission, our schools and academies have adopted a social justice curriculum. It is important these lessons be taught, if we truly are committed to improving relationships for the future.
Having arrived here shortly after the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was established, I focused on correcting the wrongs of clergy sexual abuse. I immediately set up an independent toll-free Reporting line, (1-888-634-4499) which automatically reports accusations of clergy sexual abuse to the appropriate county district attorney.
Our Diocese established a robust child protection ministry that includes sexual abuse awareness training for children, our priests, deacons, diocesan employees, teachers, and all volunteers, a code of conduct, and criminal background screenings of all who minister in the Church.
I regularly met with victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse and have offered a sincere apology to them on behalf of the Church. An annual Mass of Hope and Healing was instituted to pray for victims of clergy sexual abuse. Our Office of Victim Assistance Ministry attends to their needs, providing initial supportive counseling, referrals for therapy, and pastoral resources.
As part of the New Evangelization, I have sought to revitalize parish life by invigorating parishes, schools, and faith formation programs. Vibrant parish communities provide a beacon of light to those who are seeking God.
Catholic education was also an important priority of mine because it serves as our best opportunity to pass the faith on to our children and form them in the image of the Lord. I implemented a regionalization plan for Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens, instituting an academy model with boards governed by laypersons, as a key component of my “Preserving the Vision” plan designed around ensuring that every parish in the Diocese maintained an affiliation with a Catholic school.
This connection is so important for the life of the Church. I established independent boards to govern the schools because I believe the involvement of lay persons is vital to the success of our faith. Further, through our Futures in Education program, we ensure that any student or family who wants a Catholic school education gets that chance despite financial barriers.
The future of the Church was also a priority of mine, so we put resources toward the recruitment of men to the priesthood and established the Pope John Paul II House of Discernment, a place for men to turn to as they pray and discern, and consider God’s calling. This has been instrumental to the plan of increasing the number of men entering the seminary.
I am most proud to have ordained 104 priests to serve in the Diocese since 2003. Our Permanent Diaconate has also seen tremendous growth.
We also focused on the recruitment of women and men to religious life, those who may be called to a life of ministry as a woman or man religious.
Social media was born during my time as your Bishop. For better or for worse, it is the modern way of communicating, especially to a younger generation of Catholics. Another priority for the New Evangelization was communications, so we streamlined all of our media operations with the formation of DeSales Media Group in 2011.
Anchored by The Tablet, which is more than 100 years old, its mission is to lead Catholics in Brooklyn and Queens to a deeper faith in Jesus Christ and to use all forms of media and technology to create an encounter with people on their journey.
As my journey comes to an end as the Seventh Bishop of Brooklyn I am filled with thankfulness in all we have accomplished together during these past 18 years. Still, we need to continue to put out into the deep and not be afraid. Continue fishing for that encounter with Jesus, despite day-to-day routine as well as our sufferings. We should continue to focus our lives around Him, use our God-given gifts in service to others, and live the Gospel. In doing so, He will never abandon us.
Please know that I will remember each and every one of you in daily prayer and in the celebration of the Eucharist.