Sunday, June 02, 2019

Our "Ordinary Joe"

If he hadn't become a priest and bishop, Joe Galante would've been a damn good sportswriter. Yet gratefully for us, it'd be a very different arena – an even bigger victory – that held the biggest claim on his outsize heart.

Early last Saturday – a week after South Jersey's 7th ordinary marked 55 years of priesthood – we lost Bishop Joe at 80 after a short hospitalization. The reality of it is still sinking in; for practically the entire run of Whispers, this scribe couldn't have asked for a more faithful sounding-board, wiser strategist, brilliant storyteller, fount of institutional memory and ecclesial judgment....

That list goes on and on. And I know I'm far from alone in just beginning to grasp the extent of an absence many of us will feel ever more powerfully with time. But if we're going to be an Easter people, there's a comfort in knowing that, having suffered intensely over the last several years – above all given the better part of a decade spent on dialysis three times a week – Joe carried every cross he was given to its completion, he did it with gratitude and grace... and somehow, however great the pain and sacrifice his trials entailed, he never stopped making a place – in his prayer, his life, and his living room – for the unlikely collection of folks who looked to him as our pastor, brother and friend. (Indeed, this accumulated "flock" was so eclectic it made his rows of sports memorabilia on the walls seem tame.)

Of course, there was another grace at the end – well, two. First, having been taken to his first NFL game at age 7, riding the streetcar to high-school alongside his first heroes in kelly green, if the Primate of Eagles Country hadn't lived to see his team win the Super Bowl, this loss would feel infinitely worse. Yet back on the field that mattered most, while the Philadelphian in him understood to the core that the concept of "Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia" was always far bigger than his feelings, for Bishop, watching Francis rattle the Roman china gave him a fresh shot of hope, and a new cause for which to offer up his suffering over these last years.

As both the Birds and the Boss could use all the aid from above they can get, well, they've got a new, potent linebacker up there now. But even for the depth of his understanding that a community which preserves institutions for their own sake is more empire than Church – and the immense pleasure he took in doling out papal honors less to the great donors among his fold than the unsung secretaries in the office, daily communicants and retirees who did sacristan duty in the parishes – the one overarching quality that made the man and his ministry so special lay in his ability to give a "Yes" to his people which, in turn, gave them life.

Those of you who've been around here awhile will recall how one of these folks was Danny Parrillo, who quickly became more like Bishop's little brother than his seminarian after Joe parted the Delaware River to bring him in.

Among this crowd, that part is well-known... but what isn't is this: the night we lost Parrillo in a car crash, amid the shock and horror of it, it didn't take long to realize the first call this scribe had to make.

Galante and I both had a very hard time of getting words out – in those first hours, the sobbing was simply uncontrollable. Still, there was one thing he needed to hear: "Bishop, thank you – you gave Danny the 'Yes' he waited for his whole life, and that was all he needed to be able to go in peace."

A dozen years after that brutal August night, the ways are many in which our folks seek this "Yes" for themselves – sometimes journeying long and hard to find it, sometimes giving up because the struggle becomes too great. That we've lost a great priest and good shepherd who gave this gift freely and to the end leaves a quiet yet unmistakable void in our midst... but that Bishop's departure comes right in the middle of Ordination Season almost feels like a prod to the brothers who remain: do this, do it better tomorrow than you did yesterday, and your reward will be great in Heaven – because this is what it's all about.

As if these last 12 months haven't been rough enough on the news front, they've also brought some especially difficult departures from the ranks – the kind of characters and bright lights you just can't replace here below, and especially not overnight. Thing is, though, each in our own way, it falls to us to become ever more like them for the sake of those who come next.

Such are these days that – even among those who grasp what they're saying – not a few of our own are having a tough time professing faith in "one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church." If it weren't for Joe Galante, that exercise would be much harder for a good many of us.

In his wake, may we know the grace to succeed as he did: in giving a waiting world a Church worthy of its belief.

Love you, bud – you will be missed beyond all telling.

Pray for us. And Go Birds.

*  *  *
So, that's this scribe's tribute... but to know Bishop Joe is to know how the last word belongs elsewhere.

Clearly, when someone is formed over decades to be a hyper-clericalized Philadelphia institutionalist and comes out rather differently, "something" had to happen along the way. Accordingly, two experiences accomplished this transformation in Galante – first, his early assignment as a missionary in Texas, where he was loaned as a young canonist to aid in the formation of the diocese of Brownsville: then a Borderland fold of some 200,000 souls, now comprising 1.8 million Catholics from the foundation he helped build.
The other force was equally powerful yet more enduring: as a priest along the Rio Grande, and then back home, Joe fell under the spell of the work and witness of women religious, eventually proving so adept at dealing with the sisters that he spent a five-year term at the Vatican as the #3 official at the "Congregation for Religious," a post which made him the Holy See's second-ranking American at the time.

On returning home to South Jersey in 2004, he put what some would come to call the "Galante Rule" into full effect – that is, "If you want something done, get a nun." In short order, an incoming wave of sisters were doing the Chancery desk-jobs long held by clerics so the latter might be freed up to tend the flock....

And if you think this led to complaints among the guys, well, you're onto something.

Indeed, such was sitting in Galante's living room in retirement that, in the space of an hour, there'd be enough phone calls from nuns near and far that he could've convened a general chapter (or an LCWR meeting). But the empowerment ran both ways – just as he set the sisters' talents and charisms loose in the top rung of the diocese, if it weren't for them, he never could've realized the vision he set for himself: showing a disaffected, atrophied Northeast what a missionary bishop (and by extension, a missionary church) looks like.

Fittingly, then, yesterday's funeral brought together a kaleidoscope of religious women – the closest thing to a Pentecost of nuns we'll likely ever see outside Rome: postulants, principals and retirees; Asians, Latinas and Anglos; adorers and activists...

...and, to be sure, more habit codes between them than grains of sand in downtown Wildwood.

Impossible as it would be to represent them all, one stands out – in a rarity for any cleric, let alone a bishop, Joe chose a woman religious to be his spiritual director in his last years. In that light, this scribe would be remiss if we didn't close with a word from said "first among equals" among his professed clan: Sister Peggy Devlin, a Dominican Sister of Hope who's long served the Camden church....
In the early morning hours of Saturday, May 25, 2019 we lost a “gentle giant” and I lost a very dear friend, Bishop Joseph Galante. Many accolades will be forthcoming but I have been invited to share my very special relationship with him – as his spiritual director for the past 7 years.

It all began with a tap on my shoulder when I was attending a gala diocesan celebration. Surprised to see that the tapper was none other than the Bishop of the Camden Diocese. His request stunned me: “Peggy, I’m looking for a spiritual director.” My response: “I have a whole list of references.” His response: “No, I’m wondering if you would consider this request.” And, so I did – cherishing this role as a graced invitation and privilege.

My connection with Joe actually began years before when we both served as Vicars for Religious: he in Philadelphia and I, as Associate Vicar in Camden. We often connected at regional and national meetings. One meeting remains burned in my memory. Joe, as President of the Vicars Conference, arranged that our annual meeting one year be held in Rome with the officials of the Congregation for Religious (later on he would become the Undersecretary of the Congregation!) I will never forget his passionate and eloquent representation of the important role of American Women Religious – it touches my heart even now.

Joe’s friendship with “NUNS” is legendary, so it was no surprise when in 2004 the good news of his coming to Camden as our 7th Bishop spread like wildfire – it’s hinted that the phone lines in convents went on overload. And, typical of him, one of his first official acts was a formal visit with the women religious – why would we be surprised!

Back to my connection: over these past years during our monthly visits in Somers Point I got a glimpse into this man’s soul. The depth of his faith and his spirituality knows no words. I learned over time the primary sources. In addition to his parents and his family, there were two others: His “SUPREME MENTOR” (Joe’s words) Bishop Humberto Medeiros – later to become cardinal-archbishop of Boston – along with his ministry in Texas among the poor and marginalized in the Dioceses of Brownsville, Beaumont and Dallas. These influences were profound and lasting and contributed to his conviction that listening to the Spirit through others was crucial to his role in Church leadership.
In my monthly visits to Joe in Somers Point, my eye would get fixed on a cherished icon he received from Brother Mickey McGrath, OSFS, featuring St. Joseph holding the Infant Jesus with a quote from St. Francis de Sales: “NOTHING IS SO STRONG AS GENTLENESS / NOTHING SO GENTLE AS TRUE STRENGTH.”

There could be no more perfect description of my dear friend. And so, with a hole in my heart and a tear in my eye that I say: Farewell – and well done, good and faithful servant!