Rochester Memories

It was interesting to return from retreat and see a ten-month-old thread revitalized. I confess and own getting rankled about criticism of others I perceive to be unfair or needlessly insulting. I also see I promised future reflections on my encounters with and my sense of Bishop Clark.

During my year of discernment for the diocesan priesthood, I must have met him. Though I don’t remember it. That experience might say something about the optimal role of a bishop in the discernment of candidates for seminary. That said, I don’t remember the diocesan vocations director or my spiritual director (a diocesan priest) leaning hard on me in those days either. They asked me if I was willing to have my name shared with religious orders. I remember getting a lot of mail from the Jesuits. And there were brochures from other religious orders about which I had no clue.

If someone jovial and outgoing like Timothy Dolan had been my bishop, would it have made a difference? I doubt it. More influential would have been someone like James Martin. Someone who could inspire.

When I was in my twenties, three people affirmed that I explore the ordained priesthood–all were lay women. Based on my subjective experience, could I argue against putting lay women in charge of recruiting and discerning seminarians? Maybe a Jesuit too.

The lack of priest numbers is cited by many of Matthew Clark’s detractors. And perhaps Bishop Clark has not done as well as bishops like Donald Trautman (who, per capita, has been near the top for years). He certainly hasn’t done as well as some dioceses like Los Angeles who import seminarians. Or Kansas City, where one or two are picked up from the rejection pile of other sees.

Is extroversion a necessary quality of a post-conciliar bishop? It doesn’t seem to hurt. I’m looking more for inspiration. But not everybody can be Pope Francis.

I remember my first Confirmation as a parish music director in 1984. Bishop Clark’s guidelines asked that parents and sponsor present the candidate. He spent much longer than it takes to anoint, pronounce the formula, and shake a hand. It wasn’t an inordinate amount of time. But it wasn’t perfunctory. I had a powerful sense of prayerfulness about the man. I don’t remember any of his homilies. I don’t think he was a particularly good speaker–though he must have been experienced. But I remember his sense of prayerfulness as a bishop.

Is liturgical prayerfulness, and attending to ars celebrandi a necessary quality of a post-conciliar bishop? It may be that my experiences of the 80’s were colored by my closer attention to liturgy as a person in formation, but I don’t recall any bishop who matched Matthew Clark’s presence. And some have been below the median I’ve seen in parish clergy.

In my parish during my grad school days, Bishop Clark also came to celebrate Confirmation. The staff and approach there was progressive to the point of radical. I found antagonism and indifference toward the bishop at this event. I noticed that the sacrament was celebrated far differently than in that rural parish I served. I was surprised it was only sponsor and candidate. And I overheard a staff member remark with relief when the bishop left the reception.

I absorbed this experience and others, and measured it against what I knew of Bishop Clark from his interactions with me, at diocesan events I served as a musician, and from what I read in his pastoral letters to the diocese. I was disinclined to follow and form my opinion either with my liberal friends or with the small cadre of traditionalist detractors in the diocese. My sense of the politics of the diocese was that Matthew Clark hewed to the center and the extreme ideologues disliked him … though for different reasons.

Is it a mark of a fruitful bishop to have some balance in the vocal opposition from conservatives and liberals both? Or if one fringe rarely to never voices concern, does that mean the leader is off kilter?

Bishop Clark listened to people respectfully. I think his first pastoral letter, “Fire in the Thornbush,” on women in the Church was conducted with wide input from many people. I participated in one listening session for the ill-fated NCCB’s national letter on women. Bishop Clark took a lot of criticism from women. And as the institutional representative of the hierarchy, he took a lot on behalf of the pope, his brother bishops, and Catholic tradition.

My recollection was that people were free to be angry and still he would listen and respond appropriately. Some critics of bishops are not appropriate. Rocco Palmo and I once shared a laugh over the person who would approach the new bishop at the welcome reception and the first thing out of the person’s mouth was “I think the Church should ordain women. Don’t you?” or “So, are you going to celebrate the Tridentine Mass?” And the instant that preaching starts (I hesitate to call it a conversation.) the only thing on the new prelate’s mind is getting to the snack table, the booze cabinet, or the guest bedroom of the rectory.

Is a good bishop ever going to be unpopular with otherwise well-intentioned and passionate Catholics?

When some of my bishop-disapproving friends were in mourning in 1998 (later going into schism), I had a dream about Bishop Clark. I was ascending the stairwell of a parking garage. Though it was not in direct sunlight, it was daytime and the steps were well-lit. I encountered the bishop resting against the wall. He looked rather tired, and perhaps sad. I told him I was sorry that he and the parish were having so much difficulty. I wanted to say more, but I felt inarticulate–no words came at all. When I woke up, I had an urge to write him a letter, but I never followed through on that.

Is it important for a bishop to be on the front lines of the passions of lay Catholics? I tend to think not. Not all the time. Conservatives and some liberals hold Matthew Clark to blame for what they don’t like about the Church, or particularly the Diocese of Rochester.

But the truth is that if Rochester, like many eastern dioceses, is languishing in some sort of Catholic limbo bereft of ideas or plans for evangelization, parish schools, and such, is that the bishop’s fault? To a degree it is. The blame also must fall on pervasive attitudes of Catholic entitlement. Why should we reach out, many ask–people should be coming to us.

It may not be so different for disliked bishops. Why should ideologues reach out? The bishops should be coming to them.

About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to Rochester Memories

  1. LIam says:

    I just got back from a week long journey with an old friend to Montreal, then Kingston and Toronto, then Niagara and Lockport and spent the last 3 days in Mendon NY with my brother and his partner, including side trips to Geneva, Canandaigua, Naples, Letchworth, and other places in the area. It was so lush.

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