Remembering Father Angelo Libera
By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor
Strong, straight-talking and athletic, Father Angelo Libera was remembered as a priest who was as devoted to his faith and his country as he was to his family and the people of the Syracuse Diocese. He died on Aug. 25 at the age of 81.
His funeral Mass was celebrated by Bishop Thomas Costello at St. Cecilia’s Church in Solvay on Monday, Aug. 30.
Msgr. Ronald Bill, a longtime friend of Father Libera’s, delivered the homily. “Today we say goodbye to a great man, a wonderful priest, a true citizen of Solvay. St. Cecilia’s was always his church. Solvay was always his town,” Msgr. Bill said. “He was the people’s hero, their priest.”
Born March 10, 1929 to Giuseppe and Cattarina Libera, Father Libera grew up in Solvay and attended Solvay High School. It was here that his ability as an athlete became apparent. Msgr. Bill said his friend made all-county and could have gone on to become a professional athlete.
“He was ready to play in the big leagues, but instead he chose to stay in God’s league,” Msgr. Bill said.
After high school Father Libera went on to attend St. Bernard’s Seminary and was ordained in 1957.
His first assignment was as assistant pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Rome. “He did well as an associate pastor. Everyone loved him and his quiet style of leadership,” Msgr. Bill said.
But Father Libera felt another calling in his priesthood, and in 1963 he entered the U.S. Navy as a military chaplain.
“Ange was a great chaplain,” Msgr. Bill said. “He loved the marine corps and he served them with enthusiasm and honor.”
During his tour, Father Libera was transferred to the first of what would be many Marine commands, including the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa, Japan; the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines in Vietnam; the 2nd Marine Division with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, and later the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines; the 2nd Field Artillery Group at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C.
Father Libera’s ministry brought him back overseas to Okinawa and to the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune. After a Naval assignment at the Coast Guard Academy in Conn., Father Libera returned to the Marines one final time in 1987 where he was assigned to his final tour of active service as the Command Chaplain, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune.
After more than 25 years of service, Father Libera was a captain in the navy and a full colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps when he retired in 1989.
He returned to the Syracuse Diocese after his retirement, and Msgr. Bill said Father Libera gave up the opportunity to be a pastor so that he could serve wherever he was needed. He earned the same respect with the people of this diocese as he earned during his military service.
“Ange was an honest man. He told you the way it was,” Msgr. Bill said. “He was a humble man. A man of few words, some I cannot mention here,” Msgr. Bill said to the laughter of those gathered.
Msgr. Bill also got the congregation chuckling when he recalled how Father Libera would often end a visit after a few minutes with the words, “You can go now.”
Father Libera faced even illness with the characteristic strength which he learned in the military.
Msgr. Bill remembered a time when the two of them were golfing and Father Libera began speaking about athletes and how they can often seem indestructible. But Father Libera said that his time in the military had made him more aware of his own mortality.
“I asked him if he was frightened of death. And he said, ‘No. Death is scary, I admit, but my faith pushes me to view death with promise,’” Msgr. Bill said.
Father Libera then went on to say that he came to realize that the fear of death need not infect the time one is given on earth and should instead inspire everyone to savor their years and keep expressing both the faith and the love that defines a life well-lived.
“A few years ago, Ange’s health began to decline,” Msgr. Bill said. Father Libera was put on dialysis three times a week. “It was a difficult time for a man so athletic, so strong.”
When Msgr. Bill and some friends went to visit Father Libera for the final time, he was so weak he struggled to lift his arm to shake hands. But as Msgr. Bill walked away, Father Libera’s hand stayed up in a farewell salute.
“Today on behalf of all the priests, our bishop, the people of St. Cecilia’s and this diocese,” Msgr. Bill said, “I salute you for all you have done for the church, your country and all of us.”