Former Brooklyn priest reflects on his first year
WINDSOR TERRACE — Father Kevin Sweeney, the Queens-born son of Irish immigrants, went from being a parish priest to becoming the prelate of a diocese that encompasses three northwest New Jersey counties and serves 430,000 Catholics in 108 parishes.
A year into the job, Bishop Sweeney, who is the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, has comfortably settled in and is looking forward to the future.
“It’s not a surprise every day, but there have been a few surprises every week,” he said. “Realizing the responsibilities that the bishop has, there have been a lot of pleasant surprises, like the vibrancy of the churches in the diocese, the different ministries, and certainly the diocesan leadership.
“It’s not necessarily that I should be surprised that there is good leadership, but it is important to see that and to get to know the leaders.”
The Diocese of Paterson includes rural areas along with cities and suburbs.
“The geography of the three counties of Passaic, Morris, and Sussex that make up the diocese, is a little different from the makeup of Brooklyn and Queens,” he said. “I’m a little more used to [the cities] than some of the rural places in Sussex County. Those rural places are very beautiful. It has been nice getting to know them.”
“But in terms of the people? People of faith are people of faith,” the bishop added.
Bishop Sweeney assumed his role at a difficult time. COVID-19 was raging and the government-mandated lockdown forced the closing of churches and in-person ministries. The pandemic also affected the bishop’s ordination. Attendance at his installation Mass, which took place July 1, 2020, at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, was restricted to fewer than 200 people.
As he settled into his post, Bishop Sweeney was impressed by how the diocese handled the coronavirus crisis.
“Catholic Charities of Paterson was very active throughout, trying to meet the needs of people,” he said. “I saw the health care facilities here in Paterson, especially St. Joseph’s Hospital, doing what they could do to care for the sick and keep us safe.”
In some ways, COVID-19 brought people together and strengthened their faith, the bishop noted.
“It was something the whole human family was going through. We never know what God has in store for us,” he said. “Yes, there were challenges, but as we learn through the Cross, God can bring blessings even during the most difficult moments.”
One of the most important tasks ahead of him is increasing vocations to the priesthood. It’s familiar territory to him since he served as director of vocations for the Diocese of Brooklyn from 2004 to 2010.
The Diocese of Paterson has 280 diocesan priests, 95 religious order priests, and 581 religious women, according to a document provided by the diocese. On May 29, Bishop Sweeney ordained two new priests in a Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
Finding young men for the priesthood has been a challenge.
Vocational retreats were out of the question in 2020 and much of 2021, along with other events, like college campus ministries and youth ministries in parishes, where church officials could have in-person talks with prospective priests.
“When you look at some of the things — like getting people together — we haven’t been able to do those things during the pandemic,” the bishop said.
With restrictions easing, he hopes to jumpstart vocations.
“Bishop (Arthur) Seratelli, who I followed here in Paterson, has established a very, very good foundation of promoting priestly vocations,” he said. “And having been vocations director in the Diocese of Brooklyn for six years, it’s close to my heart.”
Bishop Kevin Sweeney smiles when he remembers his reaction to the phone call he received in March of 2020 from a Vatican official, calling to say Pope Francis was naming him the new bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey.
“I didn’t recognize the number so I let it go to voicemail,” he said, recalling how the caller ID from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s Papal Nuncio to the U.S., didn’t ring a bell.
It took another phone call before the life-changing news sunk in for then-Father Sweeney, who had been serving as pastor of St. Michael’s Church in Sunset Park for 10 years.
“I checked my messages and there was a message from Archbishop Pierre that he wanted to speak to me about something. What came to mind was, ‘Why would the Papal Nuncio be calling me?’ I dialed the number and he picked up right away. He got right to the point — that the Holy Father was appointing me the next bishop of Paterson,” he said.
Bishop Sweeney has fond memories of his ordination Mass.
“When we walked in as the ceremony began, I really felt the presence of my parents. There was a feeling that they were there,” he said.
His father, James Sweeney, passed away in 1980. His mother, Agnes, passed away in 2017.
Bishop Sweeney was born in 1970, grew up in Queens, and attended St. Luke’s Church in Whitestone. A graduate of Cathedral Prep School and Seminary, where he was the star of the baseball team, he went on to Cathedral Seminary House of Formation and earned a degree in philosophy from St. John’s University. He entered the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception and was ordained a priest in 1997.
Although he’s been gone nearly a year, the Bishop said he’s maintained close ties to the Diocese of Brooklyn: “I’ve been back to St. Michael’s a few times.” And, on June 20, Bishop Sweeney returned to his home parish, St. Luke’s, to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving.