by Kate Blain
ALBANY, N.Y. (CNS) – A bishop’s daily schedule is packed with Masses and meetings, phone calls and confirmation ceremonies, answering correspondence and dealing with crises. But Catholics in the Albany Diocese may also glimpse their new bishop dishing up dinner at a soup kitchen.
“I like to be out with the people as much as possible,” explained Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, who was ordained and installed as bishop of the diocese April 10 at Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. “I’m not looking for attention; if I would leave my residence and go down to a soup kitchen, it’s what I want to do.”
It’s also tied to his interest in promoting vocations to religious life: Bishop Scharfenberger believes young Catholics need to see priests, women religious, deacons and brothers in action in order to emulate them.
“It may well be that someone’s being called to do this, but unless they see what we do, how are they going to know?” he said in an interview with The Evangelist, Albany’s diocesan newspaper. “We have to show young people what we do. It’s important for me to set an example.” His own vocation grew “organically” from seeing priests: “I just felt drawn to it.”
Equally, he said, marriage and living one’s Christian faith as a single person need to be respected as vocations.
As he was growing up, the Ridgewood native developed a facility for languages and can now claim fluency in Italian, Spanish and German; he can celebrate Mass in Polish, has completed online courses in Hebrew and knows a bit of Russian and Portuguese. He’d like to learn an Asian language, as well.
The Albany Diocese is “a very large geographic area, with a lot of rural areas. I want to be certain I can be present to people” outside Albany, he noted. “When I can get out with people, that’s where I want to be.”
The diocese covers more than 13 counties and part of two others over a 10,400-square-mile area. There are 330,000 Catholics out of a total population of 1.4 million.
In the interview, Bishop Scharfenberger noted that the Vatican has raised the issue of the Catholic Church needing to find a way to help those Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried but want to participate fully in the life of the Church. Currently these remarried Catholics are prohibited from receiving the Eucharist.
The bishop is certified as both a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer and also worked for the Brooklyn Diocese’s marriage tribunal, so he’s familiar with their situation.
“It’s very difficult for a Catholic not to be able to receive Communion,” he said. The burden is put on the individual to refrain from receiving, rather than on the priest distributing the Eucharist to police it, but “you just don’t know what’s in someone’s conscience.”
“I have no idea what may emerge” from the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops on the family, scheduled for October, added Bishop Scharfenberger, 65. “I don’t think there will be doctrinal change, but there are different pastoral solutions. We have that concern about people who are remarried (outside the Church) and would like to receive Communion.”
He studied theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome right after the Second Vatican Council. The young priests had free rein in traveling around the city, going out for dinner and exploring churches; if it weren’t for a good foundation in the faith, Bishop Scharfenberger said, the temptation to become worldly might have triumphed over a vocation. Instead, he’s the seventh of his 30 Roman classmates to become a bishop.
The new bishop likes people in general. “I’m far more comfortable sitting down with people one-on-one: counseling, confessions, (visiting) parishes, engaging in discussion groups with people, doing little retreats.”
Being in a diocese based in the state capital means “the bishop does have a presence” in discussions of public policy issues, and Bishop Scharfenberger will take on that responsibility.
He plans to advocate for “respect for life in all its stages, respect for people regardless of classes or categories and the protection of vulnerable populations,” from the poor to immigrants to persons with mental illnesses or disabilities.
Other than that, “I’m not coming in with an agenda,” he added. “This (diocese) is a community of faith that has deep roots and connections that go back 150 years.”