Bishop James Moynihan reflects on his 14 years of service
By Connie Berry
It was a miserably rainy day in New York City when then-Msgr. James Moynihan headed to Syracuse to begin his journey as bishop of the diocese. He remembers that day — April 4, 1995 — like it was yesterday.
“We approached upstate New York and the sun came out. I saw the lakes and hills and I thought, ‘I know this country,’” Bishop Moynihan remembered. “It was just beautiful. I really felt like I was coming home.”
Fourteen years have gone by since then and they have been productive, challenging and most of all, enjoyable years according to the retiring bishop. He sat in his home office recently thinking back on his tenure as bishop. Now that Bishop Robert Cunningham will be installed next week, Bishop Moynihan can finally retire in earnest.
The bishop cannot look back without addressing the clergy sex abuse scandal that took the world stage in the early 2000s. The Syracuse Diocese was affected by the scandal and attempted to heal the brokenness caused by the betrayal of those guilty and the sorrow their actions caused the individuals, families and members of the diocese.
“I had to be a bishop for the people of the diocese and the priests of the diocese at the same time,” Bishop Moynihan said. “It was a challenging role, but on the other hand I am pleased that God saw fit for me to be here to fill that role. There was pain on every side but in the end it is a good and gracious God that sees us through.”
Bishop Moynihan is the first to admit that he needed and sought the counsel of others throughout his time as bishop.
Danielle Cummings served first as director of communications and then later was also appointed assistant chancellor of the diocese by Bishop Moynihan.
“I was hired eight months into his tenure,” Cummings said. “He gave me additional responsibilities as assistant chancellor in 2005. He was here during the clergy sex abuse crisis and parish reconfiguration, among other challenging times. I have to say in each case he brought together a group of advisors who represent clergy, laity and religious and sought their advice and expertise on how to best respond to each situation.”
These were not easy times, Cummings said, but more often than not, Bishop Moynihan followed through with the recommendations offered.
“Certainly these recommendations did not always please the general public, but they were decisions that were made to strengthen our local church,” Cummings said.
“When I would have a conversation with the bishop during these difficult times he would always say to me, ‘I know they’re angry with me and that’s okay. That’s my job as bishop. In the long run I pray that they will realize these decisions were for the good of the church,’” Cummings said.
Bishop Moynihan said he often reflected on the words of his motto, “Support One Another in Love,” during the course of his time as ordinary of the diocese. “It’s from Ephesians,” Bishop Moynihan said. “Why do I like St. Paul? Because he was a great sinner and then he became a great saint. He’s a role model for all of us. We priests should be Pauline in living our lives.”
A great love of Scripture and St. Paul served the bishop well as he treaded the previously uncharted landscape of consolidating schools and parishes across the diocese. He weathered not only the sex abuse scandal, but also school and parish closings. He introduced a sex education program, Growing In Love, into the Catholic school curriculum that faced critical opposition. Bishop Moynihan also spearheaded one of the largest fund raising campaigns in the history of the diocese with the Heritage Campaign. The success of the annual HOPE Appeal was unparalleled under his tenure. He increased the salary of the Catholic school teachers providing them with more just wages. He stood on the steps of the court house in downtown Syracuse in protest of the death penalty.
“The death penalty is not the answer,” Bishop Moynihan said. “Our popes and our church have tried to make us see that the killing of another for whatever reason is not the answer. That was not the way of Jesus nor should it be our way.”
A strong supporter of pro-life activities, Bishop Moynihan began leading prayerful protests against abortion almost from the day he arrived. He was scheduled to take part in another event in the Eastern Region of the diocese within days of his last interview as bishop.
Along with Bishop Moynihan’s ability to administer the diocese effectively during what can only be called difficult circumstances, he also chose to elevate women to some of the highest positions within the diocese. There are not many women chancellors or assistant chancellors in the U.S. Some of the most significant positions within the diocese are held by women.
“My mom was a businesswoman long before women had a place in the business world. I’ve always understood that women play an important role in the life of men, from birth till death,” Bishop Moynihan said. “My mom played an important role in all our lives, especially my dad’s. He was a very tough Irish cop but he would never have thought to argue with my mother.”
Bishop Moynihan often talked about his family during his tenure. His sister Caroline visited the diocese from her home in Washington, D.C., regularly. It was during some of the most significant moments in the lives of staff that the bishop took the time to let them know he was there for them.
He and Bishop Thomas Costello presided at Danielle Cummings’ wedding and Bishop Moynihan visited her in the hospital after the birth of both of her children.
“We still say the simple prayer he prayed over our kids when they were first born,” Cummings said. “‘May an army of angels be with you to protect you and guide you.’ We say it all the time. Bishop has been a part of some of the most significant times of my life.”
While overseeing a diocese that covers seven counties might be viewed as daunting, it is the everyday giftedness of the people around him that sees Bishop Moynihan through.
Kate Anderson has been secretary to the bishops of the diocese for 45 years and she spent countless hours working with Bishop Moynihan. The business of running the diocese kept Bishop Moynihan busy, she said, but there was also ample opportunity for lightheartedness.
“You know how they say, ‘Time flies when you’re having fun?’” Anderson said. “Well we must’ve had fun because the time just flew.”
Another point Anderson made was that she doubts people realize how prayerful the bishop is. “Maybe it is my driving, she said, but he is constantly praying, even in the car.”
His health and in particular, his knees, gave Bishop Moynihan one of his most difficult challenges late in his tenure. With optimism, he noted that the prayers of the people of the diocese are what really mean the most to him these days.
“I doubt the people realize how good they are,” Bishop Moynihan said. “But I know how good they are and Bishop Cunningham will soon know how good they are.
“What advice would I give him [Bishop Cunningham]? Be yourself. Be yourself and you will be loved to pieces by the people of this diocese.”