Diocesan News

Bishop from Brooklyn Wanted to Be Cardinal

By Frank DeRosa

The story goes that someone asked Bishop John Snyder, bishop emeritus of the St. Augustine Diocese, Florida, and a popular one-time Brooklyn auxiliary bishop, if he ever wanted to be the pope. “No,” he replied, breaking out his trademark smile, “I wanted to be a cardinal, but I couldn’t hit a curveball.”

Bishop Snyder came to mind last week as I watched the St. Louis Cardinals’ season come to an end in Boston at the hands of the Red Sox after a six-game World Series, as curveballs and an assortment of sliders, cutters and fastballs silenced the Cardinals’ bats. I wondered how it was that someone who grew up in Elmhurst and Flushing, with subway access to the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants, wound up rooting for a team a thousand miles away.

“My family, they were all Giants fans,” Bishop Snyder explained, “and in 1934, they took me to the Polo Grounds to see the Giants play the Cardinals.” But instead of joining on to the family’s baseball allegiance, “I fell in love with the Gashouse Gang – the Dean brothers, Dizzy and Paul, and the others. “The family had to accept it, and I’ve never wavered since.”

So it’s no surprise then that the bishop, whose 88th birthday fell in the middle of the recent series, stayed up late at night to watch his beloved Redbirds. The season didn’t end to his liking – “I would have taken it,” meaning a 12th series title – pointing out that “they didn’t have the hitting.”

But he tempered his disappointment and wishes as a Cardinals fan with his heartfelt appreciation for what the World Series victory meant to Boston, “what with all that the people went through” from the Boston Marathon bombing. Something positive happened for them, “something they needed so much.”

He lamented as well another blow to the people around that city with the murder in nearby Danvers of a young high school teacher, an honors graduate of Assumption College. “Just a tragedy,” he said. Because a young extended family member is a freshman there, he felt it personally.

His reactions are no surprise to those who know him in Brooklyn and in Florida as a priest with a compassionate heart. The word was often used to describe him during his 21 years as St. Augustine’s spiritual leader, and it remains with him today as he continues to carry out his priestly ministry in his retirement years. And what is he up to?

Key dates on his monthly schedule are those when he visits prisoners at four correctional institutions. Among the many he sees and to whom he brings the Eucharist are several sentenced to the death penalty, which he firmly opposes. One, Tommy Ziegler, whose murder case is well known in Florida, has been on death row for 37 years. Bishop Snyder is among many advocates who are convinced he’s innocent, the victim of a frame-up. “There’s no question,” he says.

Sunday mornings find him hearing confession, celebrating Mass and counseling when asked at a local unit of Comunita Cenacolo, an international ministry begun by an Italian nun that helps young people “living in desperation” caused by drugs, alcohol and other vices. He’s there at nine for the girls and two hours later for the boys, times that he finds fulfilling because their spiritual needs are real.

Frequent weekdays during the school year, he visits the teenagers and staff at Bishop John Snyder H.S. in Jacksonville, where the sports colors are Cardinal red – “from ping-pong to soccer,” he quips – whose exploits are covered in “The Cardinal Chronicles” and whose mascot is, of course, a cardinal. He joins the students at lunch and shows his support for the teams at many games.

With the baseball season now history, Bishop Snyder will spend nights turning pages of his personally autographed copy of John Grisham’s latest thriller, “Sycamore Row.” The legal novel is among several books Grisham, himself a devout Cardinals fan, has sent him, though they’ve never met. A mutual friend connected them because of their parallel rooting interest, and they’ve become acquaintances from a distance ever since.

The pace of this active retired transplant from the Brooklyn Diocese is energized by 30 minutes on the treadmill every morning, by celebrating the Eucharist, by personal prayer and by the faithful who respond to his warm persona – powerful ingredients for a healthy life.

Not a pope, not a cardinal, but a bishop: one with the title of priest for 62 years. There’s no better recognition – better even than a World Series trophy.

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