Bishop James M. Moynihan celebrates 50 years of priesthood

By connie Cissell / SUN editor

Like so many priests, Bishop James M. Moynihan noted that it was a parish priest and a woman religious who encouraged his vocation. As he reflected on the past 50 years as he celebrates his jubilee, Bishop Moynihan said it was Father John Morgan at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Rochester who really made an impact.

“He taught me how to be an altar boy,” Bishop Moynihan said. “I remember my very first time was during the Forty Hours and the Blessed Sacrament was exposed at the side altar. Well, I didn’t know anything about the side altar because my training was at the main altar. The older altar boy didn’t show up. I didn’t know where to get the wine and water, when to bring the book up. Of course my mother told me I did very well.”

Because Father Morgan was the youngest of the parish priests, Bishop Moynihan said it was he who was most involved with the young members of the parish.

“He was a great athlete,” Bishop Moynihan remembered. “He’d play ball with us and I still remember the first altar server picnic we had because I got a terrible sunburn — but we had a ball. We loved Father Morgan.”

Then it was a sister at Nazareth Hall School for Boys who influenced his spiritual life. She was a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet with ties to St. Paul’s Parish in Oswego. “So I heard about St. Paul’s before I ever came to the Syracuse Diocese,” Bishop Moynihan said.

Although much of Bishop Moynihan’s life as a youngster involved the church, he was still apt to get into some mischief. He grew up in Rochester with his parents, Michael and Carolyn, and his sister Carole Anne. His father was chief of police in Rochester and his mother ran a large lumber company, a tall order for a woman administrator in those days.

Bishop Moynihan said he was guilty of the usual offenses growing up: staying out past curfew to keep playing ball and once getting caught with cigarettes. Of course, smoking was very popular back in the 1940s so young Jim Moynihan was not alone in that pastime. Most homes had cigarettes and lighters sitting out on cocktail tables in the living room. But Bishop Moynihan’s father made him promise his mother he’d never smoke again until he had his mother’s permission.

“My father was a wonderful man,” Bishop Moynihan said. “He made me take my mother’s hands and make that promise and you know I think of him every time I take the hands of our priests during ordination.”

Even though there were a few childhood escapades, Bishop Moynihan said he was serious about his vocation and his future. “I didn’t want to take a chance with my vocation. I valued it very highly even as a kid,” he said.

By the time he was in fifth or sixth grade he was considering the priesthood. His education began at his parish school followed by Nazareth Hall and then St. Andrew’s Seminary High School where he graduated in the class of 1950. Bishop Moynihan then attended St. Andrew and St. Bernard Seminary graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 1954. He was ordained a priest Dec. 15, 1957 in the North American College Chapel, Rome, Italy by the rector of the college, Archbishop Martin J. O’Connor. His theological studies were completed at the North American College and Gregorian University in Rome where he earned his degree in canon law.

Edward Cardinal Egan of the Archdiocese of New York was a passenger on the ship across the Atlantic when Bishop Moynihan first went to Rome more than 50 years ago. The two have been friends ever since.

“It has been my privilege to be a friend of Bishop Moynihan for well over 50 years,” Cardinal Egan said. “The bishop is a great priest and a great bishop. In Rochester, in his work with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and in Syracuse, he has served the Lord and His Church with extraordinary ability and total dedication.”

There were 50 in the bishop’s ordination class. He said about 25 remain, some having left the priesthood and others having passed away. Five members eventually became bishops or cardinals.

“We still have reunions every year,” Bishop Moynihan said. “They love to come here [to Syracuse].”
Bishop Moynihan remembers how wonderful it was to celebrate his first Mass at his home parish in Rochester and how proud his father was of him. “He put a big tent up in the yard for the party afterwards. It was a beautiful day,” the bishop said.

Only a couple of months later Bishop Moynihan went back to Rome to study canon law. His time in Rome proved to be a wonderful experience. He was asked to pursue further studies involving the diplomatic corps at the Vatican, but Bishop Moynihan said, he really wanted to serve his diocese and his bishop so he chose not to take that path. “I have always been at peace with that decision. I became a priest to serve my diocese,” he said.

And service to his diocese filled the decades after his ordination. Bishop Moynihan was associate pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Rochester from 1961 to 1963; Defender of the Bond and Promoter of Justice in the Diocesan Tribunal, from 1961 to 1966; Secretary to Bishop James Kearney from 1963 to1966; Vice Chancellor of the Diocese of Rochester from 1965 to 1967; Chancellor of the Diocese of Rochester from 1967 to 1974 under Bishop Fulton Sheen and Bishop Joseph Hogan. He was chaplain with  the Rochester Police Department from 1962 to 1973 and chaplain at Highland Hospital from 1974 to 1976. Bishop Moynihan was pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Penfield from 1976 to 1991. He served as the director of the Bishop’s Annual Catholic Thanksgiving Appeal from 1985 to 1989 under Bishop Matthew Clark. Bishop Moynihan was associate secretary general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in New York City from 1991 to 1995. He was ordained and installed as the ninth bishop of Syracuse on May 29, 1995.

The bishop’s appointments and personal accomplishments include a vast list of everything from implementing a family ministry program, renovating church worship space, implementing a retirement benefit program for priests and lay employees, serving as a founding member of the Bishop Sheen Housing Foundation, and being appointed a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre and a Chaplain to His Holiness.

The vocation of priest, then monsignor and then bishop has brought Bishop Moynihan all over the country and also to Rome. He remembers being at St. Peter’s Square when the smoke announced the selection of Pope John XXIII. “There was a little elderly lady standing next to me and she was jumping up and down, cheering. And then she turned to me and said in Italian, ‘Who is he?’” Bishop Moynihan remembered with a chuckle.

As for his own spiritual life, the bishop is a faithful observer of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, having filled notebooks with his own spiritual writing. Bishop Moynihan said that as he has gotten older, his favorite book is the Bible. He noted that The Little Prince and The Human Adventure are two books that he often rereads.

Bishop Moynihan said if he hadn’t become a priest, he would have succeeded his mother in the lumber business. It was his mother’s “savvy, intuitiveness, brains and prayerfulness” that Bishop Moynihan admired growing up. He pointed out that she was in charge of a business at a time when most women stayed at home. The pride Bishop Moynihan induced in his father was a source of joy to him as well. “He’s the only one who called me ‘Jimmy’ and it was ‘James’ when I was in trouble,” the bishop said.

The bishop’s fate would not be found in the lumber business, but in the church where he grew up and where his parents lived out their faith. It was apparent to Bishop Moynihan very early on that God was indeed calling him. “I knew I fit,” he said. “And I knew if I didn’t do it [become a priest] I’d have a coward looking back at me in the mirror. I never doubted my decision. It was incontrovertible that it was what I was going to do. And I’ve loved every single minute of it.”

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