Monday, October 15, 2007

From the Rector's Office

The "Vice-Pope" may already be making his voice heard on a New York appointment of a more prominent sort, but one Gotham move that garnered a bit of attention over the summer was Cardinal Edward Egan's appointment of his well-loved auxiliary, Bishop Gerald Walsh, as rector of the archdiocesan seminary at St Joseph's, Dunwoodie.

A veteran pastor and onetime secretary to the saintly Cardinal O'Connor dubbed "St Gerry" by one of his former students, Walsh's naming to head the Stateside seminary that's produced more A-list alums than any other sparked no lack of happiness -- or, while we're at it, surprise -- in local circles.

Now the lone bishop-rector of a US seminary, and only one of two high-hat sem-heads in the English-speaking world, Walsh, 65, recently sat down with Gary Stern of the Journal-News for a profile:
Bishop Gerald Walsh is not about to mess around with one of those fancy-schmantzy electronic organizers. Instead, he uses two small notebooks to keep track of his hectic schedule for visiting parishes to administer confirmation.

Two, in case he loses one...

The straight-talking and self-effacing Walsh, among the most respected priests in the archdiocese, is the first bishop to be named to the post. It's a good thing that he has his two notebooks. He's become one of New York's most important Catholic figures with responsibilities just piling up.

In 2003, Walsh was named vicar of development - chief fundraiser - for the archdiocese. In 2004, he was made an auxiliary bishop, meaning that he must spend a lot of time traveling from parish to parish for confirmations and other things. And now he's in charge of Dunwoodie, as the seminary is affectionately known, at a time when the number of vocations to the priesthood is dropping.

But to hear Walsh tell it, he's just a simple priest, a servant of the church. The archdiocese's full-time development staff does the real fundraising, he says, while he signs thank-you notes. As rector, he'll simply help seminarians out in any way he can.

And being a bishop?

"It's very pleasant, very nice, but you have to remember why you're a bishop," he said. "You're a bishop of the people. You meet a lot more people. Being a bishop is being available to the people and teaching what the church teaches."

No big deal.

Walsh would much rather talk about serving the poor than anything having to do with himself.

"He's one of the most personable priests in the archdiocese," said Monsignor Joseph Giandurco, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Suffern. "He knows how to relate to people in a very pastoral way. The priests think very highly of him, no doubt."

Walsh, who grew up in northern Manhattan, is returning to the seminary from which he graduated in 1967. His was the last class of priests ordained by Cardinal Francis Spellman, only months before Spellman died.

Walsh's priestly experience includes a usual mix of parish work - all in Manhattan - and administrative service....

The Rev. Thomas Lynch, pastor of Our Lady of Angels Church in the Bronx, has known Walsh since he was a 14-year-old student at the archdiocese's former high school for potential seminarians and Walsh was a teacher there.

"He won't like this, but we used to call him St. Gerry because he was so even-keeled," Lynch said. "And he hasn't changed from the first day I had him in class. He has this consistency, a calmness, of one who is in love with the priesthood. Seminarians will know they're talking to someone who is authentic, who has no agenda, and is doing a job he's called to do."

Last week, Walsh started meeting his seminarians, one by one, to get to know them and offer his help.

"No two are the same," he said. "You have to listen to them."

Seminarians are prized in a day when parish priests are a dwindling breed. The archdiocese had some 1,200 priests during the 1960s, but the number of active priests is now about 500 and dropping fast.

Walsh said the main problem is that families no longer encourage vocations as they once did.

"Vocations come out of the home; that's the first church," he said. "Families are smaller, and parents want grandchildren. In the old days, if you told your parents you wanted to be a priest or a nun, they said, in many cases, 'It's your life.' Today they say, 'Don't you want to make a lot of money?'"

The sex-abuse crisis of 2002 only made things worse, he said.

"We've taken a lot of steps, as many as we can, to prevent it from happening again," he said.

An avid handball player before hurting his knee a few years ago, Walsh is an enthusiastic walker who likes to see people and be seen. It's a way for a priest to have presence in a community. For the last decade, he did a lot of walking in his largely Dominican parish in Washington Heights, talking in Spanish to the kids on the street.

He likes to talk sports, especially New York baseball. But he recently took a walk near Yankee Stadium and couldn't help wondering why New York City and New York state will contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to new stadiums for the Yankees and Mets instead of spending the money on affordable housing, soup kitchens, schools and public parks.

"Something is just not right," he said.
For the record, Dunwoodie's new chief isn't the only head of a major US major seminary to be starting his freshman year this fall: out West, the former LA Officialis and vicar for Clergy Msgr Craig Cox took the reins of St John's in Camarillo over the break, former USCCB top ecumenist Fr Arthur Kennedy did the same at Boston's St John's in Brighton, and in Baltimore's Roland Park, Sulpician Fr Thomas Hurst began his rectorate at St Mary's, the nation's first formation house, succeeding its head of 27 years, Fr Robert Leavitt.

To mark his departure from the grand edifice, Leavitt wrote an op-ed for Charmopolis' hometown Sun....
Members of the Seminary Class of 2007, recently ordained as priests, entered St. Mary's just as the clergy sex-abuse scandals hit the papers, first in Boston and then in other cities. They began their work to become priests under a huge cloud, but they were exemplary in their courage and determination to learn from this adversity and move beyond it. Moreover, they have gracefully faced the understandable suspicion they encounter nowadays. They know they have a reputation to rebuild for society at large and for those who follow them. Only time will tell if they can. But merely in entering the seminary and priesthood, they are sacrificing much more than I did.

When I came to St Mary's in the early 1960s to begin studies for the priesthood, my family and friends were bursting with pride. A unique mixture of religious awe and social prestige enveloped the priesthood. My paternal grandfather, a Protestant freemason, didn't understand Catholicism, much less like it. But he thought my calling special. His outsider vote counted more for that.

Youths pursue callings and careers because people they respect - family, teachers, friends - think those occupations are socially significant. Personal aptitude, interest, and making a good living matter. But the perception that one is engaged in work that is influential and consequential - this counts most of all.

The young don't need to guess what we respect. We tell them. Many told me. It's a small but real reason I wanted to be a priest.

A steady erosion of social admiration for the priesthood as a way of life was under way for three decades or more before the recent scandals broke. It explains why religious ministry in general, I think, suffers on the career scorecard. For Catholics, it explains more about the vocation's downturn than individual factors such as celibacy.

For now, the scandals have summoned the church and the priesthood back to some spiritual basics: wholesome human character and sacred promises. That's what's I've seen in the new men entering St. Mary's.

People naturally wonder today whether seminaries might be accepting unqualified candidates to fill the ranks. I tell them it's just the opposite. Only stronger souls will risk the new scrutiny. The strictures are tighter than ever to get into the seminary and to stay there. There's psychological screening, criminal background checks, extensive annual evaluations, tough academics, and close supervision of seminarians in parishes and schools.

Becoming a priest today is swimming upstream start to finish. Staying a priest at this time in history requires fidelity and heavy lifting. But here's the good part: That's what builds character and strong men. It's just what the priesthood needs. The church needs it, and society needs it too.

Stuart Bayer/Westchester Journal-News