November 4, 2004
Every five years each bishop who heads a diocese is required to put together a rather extensive report about the community of faith he serves in response to a list of questions sent to him from the various offices of the Holy See. He must then travel to Rome with his auxiliary bishops to answer questions about the report and to celebrate Mass at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. At the conclusion of their visit, which is known as the "Ad limina," the diocesan bishop and his auxiliary bishops are received in audience by the Holy Father, who delivers on the occasion a formal address concerning issues of pastoral importance.
In October of this year, the bishops of the State of New York journeyed together to Rome for our "Ad limina." The days in the Eternal City provide a delightful respite from the usual schedule of appointments, meetings, ceremonies and celebrations. They also allow some "down time" for a diocesan bishop to review prayerfully what he has been doing in the diocese to which he has been assigned and to plan for the future.
Thus it was that during our sojourn in the Eternal City this fall, I had an opportunity to do a good deal of thinking about what lies ahead for the Archdiocese of New York. In the course of this process, I came to the conclusion, seconded by our auxiliary bishops and by hundreds of archdiocesan priests with whom I met and prayed during three convocations in the third and fourth weeks of October, that there are two issues in the archdiocese that must be attended to with the greatest of care and urgency. They are by no means the only matters calling for our consideration, but they clearly entail a special importance that can hardly be overstated.
The first of these is the question of vocations. Here in the Archdiocese of New York we are blessed with what I consider the finest clergy anywhere in the nation. By every measure our priests are doing extraordinary work. This is a sector of the Lord’s vineyard that is growing by leaps and bounds. Immigrants, most of whom are Catholic, are pouring into the three boroughs of New York City that we serve and many of the so-called "Upper Counties" as well. We are managing to keep our schools open in the face of a troubled economy, old buildings and continually rising cost in such areas as health insurance and fuel, to mention just two. Catholic Charities of the archdiocese is the largest private social service agency in the State of New York; and despite ever-increasing demands on its resources and those of charitable programs in our parishes, immense good is being done for those in our midst who are most in need. And all of this depends first and foremost on the energy and commitment of the priests of the archdiocese and the dedicated religious and "extern" priests with whom they collaborate in their service to the People of God.
The number of priests laboring in our parishes and institutions, however, is not keeping up with demands and expectations. Accordingly, many of our priests are bearing burdens that not too many years ago were borne by two or three. Moreover, a large number of them are up in years, often well beyond the traditional time of retirement.
We need, therefore, to address the matter of vocations with all the energy and enthusiasm we can muster. To borrow the current jargon, what is required is nothing less than "a full-court press."
Accordingly, in September I asked Reverend Edwin H. Cipot to take on the responsibility of fostering vocations to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of New York, promising to do everything in my power to assist and support him. Father Cipot, whom I had the privilege of ordaining in June of 2000, assumes his new assignment with remarkable credentials. He holds a degree in philosophy from Fordham University and another in theology from St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie. He has been an actor in Hollywood and on Broadway. He played baseball in the New York Mets system. And most importantly of all, he has been an extraordinarily effective curate in two parishes in Harlem, Resurrection and St. Charles Borromeo.
Not surprisingly, Father Cipot "hit the ground running." In less than two months, he has spoken in numerous parishes, high schools, colleges and groups of young men from one end of the archdiocese to the other. He has begun to put together vocation teams of clergy and laity in all 19 of our vicariates, and he has already had considerable success. As he reported to the priests of the archdiocese at their recent convocations, he is already in contact with a significant number of candidates for the priesthood who have shown great interest and great promise as well.
There is no more excellent and valued contribution that the Catholic faithful can make to the well-being and progress of the Church here in New York than to join Father Cipot in his work, first, by their unceasing prayers for vocations and, second, by approaching likely candidates for the priesthood without hesitation in order to invite them to contact Father Cipot at St. Joseph’s Seminary, 201 Seminary Ave., Yonkers, N.Y. 10604; telephone: (914) 968-1349. Nor is there anything for which this archbishop would be more grateful. Vocations, you see, are my number one concern.
The second issue crying for attention is often summed up in the expression, "realignment." In all of the long-established, "big city" dioceses and archdioceses of the land, neighborhoods have changed radically from the time when the bulk of their parish churches and schools were built. Some of them have become commercial areas with few houses and apartments remaining, and many have attracted residents who are not members of the Catholic Church. In addition, here in the Archdiocese of New York, large numbers of our Catholic people are moving out of the city into the aforementioned "Upper Counties" for a multitude of reasons ranging from more reasonably priced housing to a better environment in which to rear their children.
All of this demands that we study the current situation carefully; try with the best of professional advice to divine what the future holds; and finally, make wise and courageous decisions about how our available personnel, facilities and resources are to be used. Half-empty churches and schools need to be brought together or even discontinued in the interest of serving the entire Catholic population as it deserves to be served. Venerable but underused buildings are not to become pointless monuments. Nor are they to be allowed to stand in the way of constructing new facilities in places where they are needed. The mission of the Church to instruct, sanctify and lead the Lord’s People must be carried out where the faithful are. Realignment is not an ideal: it is an urgent necessity.
To lead this undertaking, I have called upon one of the newly consecrated auxiliary bishops of the archdiocese, His Excellency, the Most Reverend Dennis J. Sullivan. Nor could I imagine anyone better prepared to handle it. Bishop Sullivan has earned degrees at Iona College, St. Joseph’s Seminary and the Catholic University of Ponce in Puerto Rico. He has been a curate in three parishes of the archdiocese and a pastor in two, one in the inner city of Manhattan and the other in suburban Larchmont. He speaks Spanish and even learned a good deal of Chinese so as to offer the best of spiritual care to the growing Chinese population during his inner-city pastorate. He enjoys the admiration and support of the clergy and religious of the archdiocese; and happily, he is anxious to do what needs to be done – planning, meeting, discussing, praying and seeing to it that appropriate decisions are made.
This is a daunting assignment. In every diocese and archdiocese where it has been carried forward, there have been negative articles in local news media and upset among people of both good and ill will. Nonetheless, if the Archdiocese of New York is to do what clearly needs to be done to ensure the best possible service to the faithful, realigning is inevitable and, indeed, inescapable.
As Archbishop of New York, I will be working with Bishop Sullivan and his various committees of clergy and laity at every step along the way. In fact, for the year 2005 my office is already reducing the number of celebrations and ceremonies in which I will be participating to make me as available as possible to share in the work of realignment. We need to move ahead with this task, taking the time to think through what we are doing but avoiding all unnecessary waiting for final decisions.
Again, I would emphasize that what we are undertaking will not be easily achieved. Still, I am consoled and encouraged by an experience of mine earlier this year.
Less than two decades ago, Edmund Cardinal Szoka, then the Archbishop of Detroit, addressed the realignment of his archdiocese with extraordinary vigor. The opposition from certain quarters was, to say the least, intense. All the same, he maintained his commitment and saw the task to completion.
Early this past June I flew to Detroit to participate in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the priestly ordination of the Cardinal. It was an "in-and-out" visit. Nonetheless, in the less than 24 hours in which I was in Detroit, I read in the local newspapers and heard from clergy, religious and laity that, whatever the criticism and contention it occasioned, the realignment had safeguarded the future of the archdiocese as nothing else could. In the words of Cardinal Szoka’s successor, "It was a gift from the Lord."
With Bishop Sullivan leading and all of us joining him, may the Savior grant us a similar gift. No, may he grant us two gifts – an increase in vocations to the priestly life and a proper allocation of our personnel, facilities and resources to help us all draw closer to the "Lord of the Harvest" (cf. Matthew 9:37-38) and the "Corner-stone" of the Church (cf. Mark 12:10-11).
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York