As moderator of the curia, vicar for higher education and vicar for evangelization, Father James Massa wears many hats in the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens. Next week, he will officially assume another hat – a miter to be exact – as he is ordained one of the diocese’s newest auxiliary bishops.
For now, that miter sits upon a small table in his second-floor office at the diocesan chancery in Park Slope, where this bishop-to-be moves from his desktop to his laptop computer – keeping his smartphone within reach – as he attends to reports, emails and schedules with the utmost care.
A nearby image of St. Therese of Lisieux, who accomplished even the smallest of tasks with great love, brings it all into perspective. The bishop says she has been “a great companion on the journey.”
His journey to Brooklyn began just over the river in New Jersey, with requisite stops in Upstate New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Born Sept. 3, 1960 in Jersey City, N.J., he grew up in nearby Cranford, where the Massas were active at St. Michael Church.
“We were a close-knit, church-going family, regular in the practice of the faith,” the bishop said.
Faith was tied to culture for his late parents, Andrew and Irene Gilbert, both first-generation Americans who wed in 1949. His father was the son of immigrants from Abruzzi, Italy, and his mother’s parents hailed from Ireland.
The future bishop was the baby of the family with three older siblings, Kathleen, Jack and Robert, now deceased, watching out for him. They learned the value of hard work from their parents. Their father labored in a public service bus business and as a clerk in the food industry, and their mother, held various jobs before running the household.
A proud product of Catholic education throughout all of his schooling, Bishop Massa attended his parish school and Union Catholic H.S., Scotch Plains, N.J., the colors of which, blue and white, are reflected in his episcopal shield.
It was during these years that he grew in his faith and developed a love of history.
“American history – the explorers, the American Revolution. All of that fascinated me,” said the bishop, who admits he “pestered” his parents to take him to historic sites in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Virginia and Massachusetts.
“I knew I wanted to be a history teacher. Though the vocation (to the priesthood) was also there, and I wondered whether I could do both,” he said.
He discerned that question in his first year of college as a postulant with the Irish Christian Brothers, while studying at Iona College, New Rochelle.
By sophomore year he transferred to Jesuit-run Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass., where he earned his bachelor’s degree with a double major in theology and history.
“I was still discerning, unsure and very seriously considering the Jesuits,” he said. “I admired their combination of priestly vocation and scholarship.”
But then a partial scholarship to Yale Divinity School steered his path toward New Haven, Conn., where he earned a master of divinity degree.
“Being a lay Catholic student at an interdenominational theology school meant that you needed to know your own tradition very well. Studying there really confirmed me in my Catholic beliefs,” the bishop said.
Finding the Path
Not only did he find affirmation in his faith, but he also found the path to which God was calling him with the help of Msgr. William Granger Ryan, a New Jersey-born priest of the Brooklyn Diocese, teaching at Yale. He told the young man about an urban diocese in New York headed by his former classmate.
“Conversations with him (Msgr. Ryan) led me to Brooklyn,” Bishop Massa said.
“A lot had to do with the reputation of Bishop (Francis J.) Mugavero as a bishop who had great pastoral gifts, and a love for immigrants and the poor.”
As part of his discernment process, he met then-Fathers John McGuirl and Fernando Ferrarese, who were directing the diocesan vocation office. He was impressed by how honest, cultured and pastoral they were.
“Slowly I began to realize there must be something to this diocese if there are such good men serving there,” the bishop said.
Bishop Mugavero must have recognized the good man he had found as well because in June, 1995, he admitted the Yale graduate into priestly formation for the diocese. He served a pastoral year at St. Teresa’s Church in Woodside, while commuting to the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, L.I., to complete classes in canon law and liturgy.
“Within two years, I was ordained,” he said.
In the chapel of the bishop’s residence, Clinton Hill, he became a transitional deacon on his 26th birthday. A few weeks later, on Oct. 25, 1986, he was ordained a priest at St. Teresa’s Church.
Our Lady Queen of Martyrs parish, Forest Hills, was his first assignment, which he described as “dynamic, wonderful and busy … with a very vibrant school and two city hospitals to be covered.”
Amid fulfilling responsibilities around the parish and community, he embraced the sense of fraternity he found among the parish priests, particularly retired Auxiliary Bishop Joseph P. Denning.
“He was a father of the Second Vatican Council,” the bishop explained, awe in his voice as he held the late bishop’s ring in his hands on a recent morning.
“This ring was given to him by Pope Paul VI in 1965. It’s an original. Pope Paul gave one to all of the bishops who participated in the council,” he said.
Conversations about that historic gathering and about priesthood in general bonded the retired and future auxiliary bishops of Brooklyn. And as the young priest’s time in Forest Hills drew to a close, so too did Bishop Denning’s earthly journey.
When he is invested with the signs of his new office, Bishop Massa will formally receive the late auxiliary’s ring, and hopes to serve as Bishop Denning did, with “the gift of pastoral charity.”
Father Massa is flanked by Msgrs. Peter Vaccari, Joseph Grimaldi (partially blocked) and Ronald Marino in procession for ordinations to the priesthood, 2013.
Father Massa with Msgr. Joseph Grimaldi and Father Thomas Pettei participating in RCIA Rite of Initiation earlier this year.
Curate to Chaplain
Building upon the knowledge he gained at the parish level, he served as a chaplain at Queens College, Flushing, 1990-93, and later Newman University, Wichita, Kan., 1993-96, at the invitation of Wichita Bishop Eugene Gerber.
His ministry in Kansas had a life-changing impact on Father Jason Borkenhagen.
“He was our father – in the spiritual sense,” recalled the Newman University alumnus, who spoke to The Tablet via telephone in early July. “He was intelligent and faithful and helped all of us to grow in our faith.”
Now pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Parsons, Kan., Father Borkenhagen says he wouldn’t be a priest if not for Bishop Massa, who was the first person to ask him to seriously consider a priestly vocation.
He admits he tried to dismiss the idea, but Father Massa told him, “Sometimes people see things in you that you don’t see in yourself.”
And this priest looks forward to seeing the man he considers “a big brother” elevated to the episcopacy on July 20.
“His (Bishop Massa’s) capabilities are vast,” Father Borkenhagen said, and he believes the bishop’s “keen intellect, easy way with people, hard working nature and efficiency” will serve him well in this new role.
While serving as college chaplain, the future bishop also completed his doctoral studies at Fordham University, Rose Hill, the Bronx. That was where he met the late Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., who would direct then-Father Massa’s doctoral thesis on the concept of communion and the writings of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
“More than any other person, (Cardinal) Avery Dulles helped me negotiate the challenges facing the Catholic Church in today’s world,” he said. “He had a tremendous gift for clarity of expression and creative fidelity to the Catholic tradition.”
Passing on that Catholic tradition in the seminary setting was the next step for Bishop Massa, who taught on the faculty of Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary, Weston, Mass.; Immaculate Conception Seminary; and St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie.
When the seminaries for the Archdiocese of New York, the Diocese of Rockville Centre and the Diocese of Brooklyn merged in 2011, he was called upon to coordinate that effort.
“The single greatest joy of my priesthood has been teaching and forming seminarians for the priesthood,” Bishop Massa said.
Close behind that has been his ministry in ecumenical and interreligious relations, specifically serving six years as executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in Washington, D.C. Since 2008, he has also been a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
Additionally, he has served as a member of the Joint Working Group between the Holy See and the World Council of Churches, the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers.
For Bishop Massa, working to foster connections among Catholic and Christian leaders, as well as representatives of major religious traditions, has been ”a wonderful opportunity.”
Dialogue among people of all faiths is vital to the new evangelization and the mission of the Catholic Church in today’s world, he said. That is particularly true “in America as we try to address new social and political challenges.”
“The very last thing Jesus prayed for at the Last Supper was, ‘Father, may they be one as we are one.’ (John 17:21),” the bishop said. In recognition of his efforts toward that goal, he has selected as his episcopal motto: “Ut Omnes Unum Sint (May they all be one).”
“That expresses the great joy I had in … dialogue with other Christians” to achieve unity within the body of Christ, he said, “and dialogue with other religions for the sake of fostering mutual understanding and a common witness to peace.”
These interests are rooted in the bishop’s youth and young adulthood. “I grew up living with a Jewish step-grandfather” on his mother’s side, he noted. “It was a window into the world of Jewish culture and practice.”
That window widened in high school when he met a minister from a Congregational church who gave him his first Bible.
“That’s when I became fascinated by the doctrinal and liturgical differences between Christian communities,” the bishop said. “It raised a lot of questions, like ‘Why am I Catholic?’ And always I found answers, very good answers.”
He said that he counts the friendships formed with representatives of other religions as “a singular blessing.”
To this day, he maintains many of those friendships. In fact, on a recent July evening, he was a guest of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at a performance given by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Carnegie Hall.
Prior to his episcopal appointment he was invited by the Archdiocese of New York to serve as content coordinator for the interreligious gathering Pope Francis will have at Ground Zero when he visits New York in late September. Though it is a complicated project, the bishop said, “It’s a joy to be involved.”
Most recently, he has been serving as the temporary coordinator of Ecclesia Dei, the ministry through which the Tridentine Mass is offered in the diocese, and as administrator of Holy Name of Jesus Church, Park Slope, which has been a site for the Latin Mass.
Although they knew him only a short time, the people of Holy Name of Jesus parish are delighted about the bishop’s appointment.
“Good choice,” said Philip Lehpamer, parish trustee and member of the parish finance council. “He seems like a good blend of intelligence and humanness.”
Noting that the bishop is orderly and structured in his approach to things, Lehpamer said he speaks well, is straightforward and easy to follow. His “sharp mind” was evident as he pored over documents with the finance committee.
A chance meeting on the subway also gave him a more personal perspective of the future bishop as they chatted about dinner plans and discovered their mutual enjoyment of chess.
“He’s a very pleasant person and a good conversationalist,” he said.
Fellow parish trustee Ann Dolan added, “He is a kind and gentle soul.
“He was very hard working but he also attentive” to the parishioners. “He always had time to talk to everyone,” she said.
In his role as auxiliary bishop, he hopes to help Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio in any way he can while fulfilling his current duties – which he assumed early last year – overseeing the diocesan pastoral offices, fostering collaboration and communication among department and promoting the new evangelization on every level of education.
As for what his episcopacy will hold, Bishop Massa is open to whatever lays ahead.
“I’ve lived my priesthood always in response to what I’ve been asked to do,” he said. “It seems I keep getting drawn back into ecumenical and interreligious work, but if there’s a need to move in a different direction, I would certainly be open to that.”