Apri1 1-7, 2004
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Bishop Thomas Costello Reflects Upon His Retirement After 26 years as Auxiliary Bishop
Humble people view the accomplishments in their lives and the impact they’ve made on others as minimal. Bishop Thomas Costello is one such individual. In a recent interview, he talked quietly of the blessings and challenges he’s encountered during nearly 50 years as a priest and bishop in the Diocese of Syracuse.
Bishop Costello, who turned 75 in February, was required by Canon Law to submit his letter of resignation. On Tuesday, the diocese announced that the bishop received confirmation from the Apostolic Nuncio that his resignation has been accepted. Bishop Costello explained that his resignation impacts the office of auxiliary bishop in that if there is an interest in finding a replacement, that process can begin. His resignation also prohibits him from voting as a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). “I will still have a voice, but no vote,” said Bishop Costello. He is unperturbed by this because, he said, in most cases, there is a consensus vote of significant issues. “One or two votes generally don’t make a difference,” he said. Other than no longer being allowed to vote, his duties will remain the same. Bishop Costello will continue to serve in many roles including Vicar General of the diocese and Vicar for Priests. When asked what changes he has seen over the last 50 years that most impacted the church and his vocation, Bishop Costello said that Vatican II had a tremendous impact on the church as a whole. “We have not yet accommodated all of the changes of Vatican II,” he said. “That’s not unusual. The impact of the council usually takes between 40 and 50 years. We are still understanding what it’s all about.”
Bishop Costello also said the role of lay people has changed. “Due to demographics and the need for lay people and the change in the world around us, the church was forced to practice what it preached,” he said. As a result, the bishop said that training people for ministry is a very significant challenge for the church. “People’s goodwill is not enough. In addition to training, theology has to be ingested. It’s not fair to ask people to work in ministry without training them.” The bishop also spoke about the real challenges still facing the church in terms of vocations. When Bishop Costello was ordained, he was one of 20 in his class. “This year there are two candidates ready to be ordained. Next year there are three. The contrast is certainly obvious,” said Bishop Costello. In addition to the drastically decreasing numbers of men entering the priesthood, another change is the length of time a priest is given before becoming a pastor. “I was a priest for 21 years before becoming a pastor,” said Bishop Costello. “Back then, 16 to 18 years was the norm.” Now, approximately one year after ordination, priests are being put in charge of parishes.
“They come with better experience than we did,” said Bishop Costello. “New priests today are more mature. Many of them have had careers before entering the seminary. Still, it’s a challenge to be in charge of one’s own organization at a young age,” he said. Bishop Costello joked about how young the men look upon completing the seminary. “They look so young now,” he said. “I probably looked that young when I started too.” When asked what he felt were some of the personal blessings of his priestly life, Bishop Costello said, “The people. They are the greatest gift you can receive.” He spoke of the difference between serving in a parish versus his role of auxiliary bishop of the diocese. “I miss the intimate and personal relationships with the people that I had in parish work. I know the names, or far more, the faces of the people I serve, but not the good and bad things that have happened in their lives. Their lives go on but I’m not aware. I miss that in this kind of service as opposed to parish work,” he said.
Bishop Costello went on to say that service to people can be both gratifying and difficult. “The ministry of being present in people’s lives during difficult times is helpful to them,” said Bishop Costello. “Pastors can get involved with people. It is both satisfying and a cross. There is no magic cure that can replace being there –– being a presence during difficult times,” he said. The bishop has always found presiding over confirmations one of his most enjoyable duties. “However, sometimes leaving here at 4 p.m., and asking, ‘Am I going north, south, east or west?’ is not so fun. But when the music starts and you see all the kids, it’s fun.” The last couple of years have understandably been the most difficult for Bishop Costello and all members of the Catholic faith who have struggled with the scandals that have been brought to light. “It is a difficult situation that we will emerge from gradually,” said Bishop Costello. “I am encouraged and hopeful by the reactions we have gotten from people. It’s been a very embarrassing and hurtful time and in retrospect, we haven’t been sensitive enough to the victims.” But, the number of people still coming to church and supporting the efforts to help others heartens Bishop Costello. “The people’s reactions have taught us some good lessons in healing and forgiveness. Despite the scandal, they still remain faithful,” he said. Bishop Costello said that he is encouraged by people’s shock over the sexual abuse taking place in society. “Apathy would be a terrible response,” he said. “The people expect better of us. I’m encouraged by that. If they weren’t scandalized, it would be a negative indication of what they thought of us.”
In addition to talking about the challenges and blessings he’s experienced during his tenure, Bishop Costello talked about individuals who impacted his life and his priesthood. “Father John Burke was the associate pastor of St. Peter’s in Rome, N.Y. when I was growing up,” said Bishop Costello. “He had a strong influence on my decision to become a priest. But the most powerful influence on my priestly life was Msgr. Charles Brady.” Bishop Costello talked about some of Msgr. Brady’s life’s work, particularly his service in World War II working alongside minority soldiers. “When he returned from World War II, he asked Bishop Forey if he could be assigned working with inner-city youth,” said Bishop Costello. “Any claim that we have for our concern for the minority in Syracuse is born of Msgr. Brady. He inspired whatever fire I have for peace, justice and social issues. Burke got me into the priesthood. Brady inspired me while I was here,” he said.
Bishop Costello’s hope for the future is that there will be a great influx to the religious life and to priesthood. “I hope families will once again urge their children to consider religious life or the priesthood,” he said. Prior to Vatican II, in some sense at least, the church was considered to be the priest, explained Bishop Costello. “Now we are all considered to be the church.” In his retirement, Bishop Costello plans to take one day off each week –– maybe. “My house in Skaneateles needs my care,” he said. “It’s past due for a spring cleaning. There will always be household chores to do.”