My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The anniversary of my appointment to the Diocese of Brooklyn is on the horizon. On August 1, 2003, the then Nuncio, Gabriel Montalvo, called me when I was serving as Bishop of Camden in New Jersey and told me that the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, appointed me to be the Seventh Bishop of Brooklyn. Within a few months, on the third of October, I was installed as Bishop of Brooklyn at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Reflecting on these almost 18 years, I recognize how fast time has gone and try to recall some of the accomplishments during this time.
When I came to this Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens, I knew only two priests, Monsignor Peter Zendzian who has passed, who worked with me when I served in the U.S. Bishops’ Conference as director of its migration office and quickly became my friend, and Monsignor Ronald Marino, who I also came to know through my work with migration. As I began to grasp the vast network of parishes, associations, and institutions in this wonderful diocese, both were my stalwarts. But now, as I near retirement sometime in the future, not knowing when a new bishop will be appointed and installed, I thought as we near this anniversary I might reflect on some of my accomplishments over these past years.
One of the daunting challenges I found when I came to the Diocese of Brooklyn was that of the Vocation Apostolate. In Camden, which is a much smaller diocese, I had more seminarians than I found here in Brooklyn. I knew something had to be done to recruit more to serve in the priesthood for Brooklyn and Queens. At that time, the vocation director was terminally ill, so I immediately looked to identify a priest to fill that position; namely, the now Bishop Kevin Sweeney. Father Sweeney was assigned to live at the Bishop’s Residence so we could work closely together on this important ministry.
For the first three years, before we established the House of Discernment where he would live, we were in constant daily contact, and, as you can see, this good work has been a blessing for this diocese. The youthful zeal and enthusiasm of the then Father Sweeney, as well as my experience and commitment, enabled us to bring the number of seminarians from 29 to 60 during his time as Vocation Director.
With the successes of subsequent Vocation Directors, Father Kevin Abels, Father Sean Suckiel, and now Father Chris Bethge, we continue to work hard to recruit men ready for priestly vocations. To date, I am grateful to have ordained 104 men to the priesthood, to minister to the faithful of Brooklyn and Queens.
It is important to note as well that vocations for women to religious life have not been ignored. Sister Maryann Seton Lopiccolo, Episcopal Delegate for Religious, has worked with the various religious communities and has identified young women who feel they wish to give themselves to the Church ecclesial or religious vocation. Our success there, however, has been limited.
During a survey recently conducted for the priests of the diocese to gauge priestly satisfaction and happiness, one commentator criticized me as Bishop as having ordained those rejected by Seminary faculties. I believe I have not done that. Having consulted with former Vocation Directors, they confirmed that we never ordained anyone rejected by Seminary faculty. There were those who were asked to leave a seminary and enrolled in another where they seemed to be successful, or were eventually rejected. The increase in vocations during my episcopacy, for me, is one of my major accomplishments.
Two other issues needed to be urgently addressed within the diocese when I came in 2003. Namely, the number of parishes in relation to the number of priests able to serve as pastors and staff parishes, as well as the number of Catholic schools and attending students. When I came to the diocese there were approximately 126 schools, now we have 69 grammar schools and 16 high schools, and they seem to be holding strong.
The new model implemented is a regionalization of Catholic schools, the affiliation of every parish in the diocese with a Catholic school, and the establishment of lay boards to govern the schools. Many of the parishes were teetering on bankruptcy because they had the responsibility of supporting schools that perhaps should have been closed due to low enrollment. With the new model, we were able to consolidate schools and free the parishes of that direct responsibility.
However, we did implement an assessment for every parish to support Catholic education. While at the same time, those who wish to rent out their schools to the New York City Board of Education, or other institutions, would be required to contribute to the newly established Elizabeth Ann Seton Fund so that all Catholic school students may receive support in their Catholic education. I have to thank Bishop Frank Caggiano, the current Bishop of Bridgeport, who spearheaded this project. He worked diligently for the successful regionalization of our Catholic schools, as well as the consolidation of parishes in Brooklyn and Queens.
In 2003, we had 226 churches on 180 square miles, more than perhaps we needed given the population shift that is constantly taking place in the Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens. We developed a parish-based program to evaluate individual parishes to see if they could merge with a next-door neighbor so that the number of parishes could be matched by the number of priests able to serve as pastors.
For the most part, the process was a smooth one. One or two instances of resistance were met; however, I believe we accomplished this consolidation in a peaceful and productive way. We now have the number of parishes needed, while we constantly look at future consolidations when necessary. The by-word in that process was always a consultation with parishioners before we began a top-down approach.
Those living in these parishes were asked how the Diocese could better accomplish our mission. Do we need all the buildings currently on parish property? Can we work together with another parish? The positive results of this process, I believe, have been another great accomplishment.
On the spiritual side, I began my ministry here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, with a sermon that ended with the words, “Put Out Into the Deep.” Each week, I write my weekly column and end with that same injunction that Jesus had told His disciples on the Sea of Galilee after they had tired of fishing all night. Jesus told them, “Put out into the deep” so that they would have a catch, not of fish, but of men. Sometimes we get tired of fishing for souls. We need to be reminded to put out into the deep again, to try harder, and to find new ways and methods.
I took my cue from the wonderful leadership of St. John Paul II, as we entered the new millennium with the New Evangelization and his motto Duc In Altum. The work of evangelization is constant, as we have entered into a new age where new methods are always necessary. I also see as an accomplishment the consolidation of our weekly diocesan newspaper, The Tablet newspaper, and the Prayer Channel, now NET-TV, into the DeSales Media Group where all the communications systems of our diocese have one structure which has enabled them to be much more effective for the good of all. This was accomplished with the collaboration of Msgr. Kieran Harrington, now National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies.
The establishment of our new Co-Cathedral of Saint Joseph is another project of which I am proud. The renovation produced for us a beautiful Church from one that was deteriorating and would have had to be demolished. Now the Diocese has a cathedral large enough so that major functions of the diocese may be witnessed by a large number of the faithful.
The spiritual heritage of our Diocese will rest also on the saints we have produced. The Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens, and this great Catholic culture that we share, has always produced saints. Hopefully, someday, Monsignor Bernard Quinn, a beloved priest of the diocese who died in 1940, and gave his life for the Apostolate to the Black Catholics, will be raised to the Altar along with Bishop Francis X. Ford, educated at our Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, who died as a prisoner in China after having accomplished much for the Church in China.
Both of these men are a testament to the Catholic culture in which we live and the ability of a Church community to form and sometimes support and minister to a turbulent community as is the case of Monsignor Quinn. He faced opposition time and time again, but Monsignor Quinn never gave up and was always positive in his outlook. These two holy men lived their lives in a way to give testimony to what the Church of Brooklyn and Queens can produce by way of saints.
As I put out into the deep recesses of my memory, 18 years is a short period of time, and yet a long period of time. Perhaps I might have forgotten some other accomplishments that were important. What I write here today, however, is what comes to my mind and what I wanted to share with you. We recognize that history can become a prologue, and, hopefully, some of these accomplishments, done, never alone, but with the collaboration of so many, can provide a future foundation from which to build the Kingdom of God here in Brooklyn and Queens.