On the occasions of his 70th birthday, the 44th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood and the fourth anniversary of his installation as Bishop of Syracuse, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham recently sat down with the Sun to talk about the past and look toward the future.
As told to Katherine Long, Sun editor
Q In your first “My Place in the Sun” column (August 13, 2009), you wrote about the call to the priesthood. Can you share your vocation story?
A “I grew up in what I would consider a typical Catholic family, in which the parish was the center of much of our lives, educational and social. My brother, my sister and I all went to Catholic grammar school. We had a pastor [Msgr. Charles Klauder] who, it turned out, ended up being pastor for 45 years. He was a big influence on my life…. In eighth grade, [Msgr. Klauder] asked me where I was going to high school. I told him where I thought I was going to go and he told me he thought I should go to the prep seminary, which was a high school seminary. It was an ordinary high school, but the idea would be that young men who were there would be thinking about the priesthood….
I would say that I [first] started thinking about the priesthood in fourth or fifth grade. I seemed to like what I thought the priest did, which was say Mass and go out on the playground at noontime. I didn’t know [then] what else they did.
Well, I went home and told my parents the Monsignor thought I should go to the prep seminary for high school and it was the end of my discernment process! I went and… at the time, there were over 300 students in the high school and about 12 or 14 people from my parish were students there. It wasn’t uncommon.
You go through the different steps — high school, junior college, philosophy and theology studies — and all along the way, you continue to think about ‘Is this what God wants you to do?’ And while you question it, at the same time I always felt that this was where I should be and this was the right decision for me.”
Q You were ordained to the priesthood May 24, 1969 in the Diocese of Buffalo. Since then, you’ve served as a parish pastor, vice chancellor and vicar general of the Diocese of Buffalo, bishop of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, bishop of the Diocese of Syracuse and, a recent addition, as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Rochester. How have those assignments shaped you as a priest? What was your favorite assignment? What assignment has been the most challenging?
A “That’s a very, very hard question to answer. I think that every assignment I had was my favorite assignment when I had it.
The first five years of my life [as a priest], I was an assistant pastor — parochial vicar — where there was a lot of work with young people, teaching in the school, visiting the sick in the hospital, visiting people in their homes, all of the usual things an assistant does. And I was happy to try to put the things I had learned in the seminary into practice.
When I was a newly ordained priest, Bishop [Bernard] McLaughlin — who ordained me and is still living at 100 — I was his assistant for the first five years. I remember one Sunday early on I was preaching and he was celebrating Mass and afterward he said to me gently, ‘You know, Father Cunningham, I know you have all that knowledge, but you don’t have to give it to the people all at one time.’ The first pastor a priest has is very important, [for] training him and showing him the ropes, helping him adjust to a new way of life.
After about five years, I was asked if I would go to the chancery office to be the secretary for Bishop [Edward] Head. I was there for about two years, and then he asked me to go on for higher studies in canon law. I did that for two years, and then I went back and worked at the chancery for, all together, 30 years. During that time, I continued to help out at parishes as needed and was pastor of St. Louis in downtown Buffalo. It was a downtown parish, in an area where no one really lived but about 450 families belonged. There was a broad spectrum of people who went there — ethnicities, means, everything…. That was a very rewarding experience, because I think every priest wants to be a pastor of his own parish.
I was ordained 35 years when I went up to Ogdensburg…. It was a Monday morning [when I was told]. I had been to the dentist and had had a root canal that day. I came home and I was told I had to call the nuncio. I was at that time the administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo. The nuncio informed me that it was the Holy Father’s wish that I go to Ogdensburg…. That was a wonderful experience, something totally different from downtown Buffalo. It was a very rural area, and the people were very warm and friendly. It’s a big adjustment though, moving from a large metropolitan area to a city of 13,000 people roughly. That’s an area with much natural beauty — the Adirondack Mountains, the Thousand Islands, the Champlain Valley. And while people are the same everywhere, there’s a special quality to small town life….
I left Ogdensburg to come [to Syracuse] on the day of my fortieth anniversary as a priest; I was installed two days later. This would be more like Buffalo, more like the community in which I grew up.
The bottom line is that no matter where I’ve been, I’ve been with a group of people committed to the Church, who love the Church and who want to grow closer to the Lord. So wherever you are as a priest, you have that same core of people that lift you up and strengthen you for the journey of life.”
Q How have you seen the Church change since your childhood? Since your ordination?
A “Many things have happened during the course of my priesthood that I never would have dreamt about…. The sexual abuse crisis, the declining number of not only priests and sisters but also the declining number of people who practice their faith, the need for looking at parish and diocesan structures…. The Church is in some ways very different from the Church that I grew up in, but yet we hang on to the same teachings, the same desires, the same willingness to try to come to know the Lord better.
Even though I grew up in a suburban community, I grew up in a Catholic culture. That culture isn’t as present as it was. We’ve lost a certain sense of a Catholic culture. By that I mean things like people wouldn’t miss Mass on Sunday. They would not eat meat on Friday all year. Those were things that, in a sense, when you were with people, reinforced your Catholic faith. Some of those things have been taken away or aren’t practiced anymore.
I grew up in a parish where there would be a pastor and two or three assistants, where there would be 25 sisters teaching in the elementary school. Buffalo would have been a pretty Catholic community — more than half the population would have been Catholic when I was growing up…. I think today, unfortunately, a number of people don’t see the Church as an institution as valuable as I think it should be.
In every age the Church is different, and it survives, responds to changing times. People talk about reading the signs of the times — well, the signs of the times in 2013 are different than they were in the 1950s or 60s. Maybe there has to be more adjustment….
I think for the committed Catholics, they’ve adjusted to the concept that through baptism, they all have certain rights and responsibilities in the Church — duties, obligations, privileges — and the person who is committed to the Church then steps up to the plate and becomes involved on the parish level and also on a wider level. For instance today, there’s a much greater appreciation of people leading others closer to Christ through the witness of their lives. And that’s what the New Evangelization is about.”
Q Since your installation as Bishop of Syracuse on May 26, 2009, you’ve seen some joyous occasions, such as the canonizations of St. Marianne Cope and St. Kateri Tekakwitha and the celebration of the diocese’s 125th anniversary. You’ve also dealt with difficult times, such as the closing of churches and schools. Can you talk about your experience as bishop over the last four years? What’s been most memorable?
A “The canonizations of St. Marianne Cope and St. Kateri Tekakwitha were very important. More than 400 people from the diocese were able to be in Rome for that wonderful occasion. The 125th anniversary of the diocese was a great day. [Also,] the institution of the Immaculata Medallion, with which we honor each year a number of lay people who are involved in grassroots efforts at their parish to serve the church and to serve God’s people.
Some of the configurations, while painful, are necessary. While there is sadness, there is also new life and joy. A few weeks ago, I was at a parish which resulted from the merger of three distinct parishes into one. A man said to me, ‘You know, Bishop, we lost our church, but we gained a parish. This was the right thing.’ I think that we can all mourn what was — and everyone mourns differently — and we can come through that and find new life, new happiness. We have to face the fact that the population here is not what it was a number of years ago. We have to use the resources with which we’ve been blessed responsibly. That does require, at times, some tough decisions. But we believe that in the end, we’ll be stronger.”
Q You were named apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Rochester last September following the retirement of Bishop Matthew Clark. What has that experience been like? Do you know when a new bishop of Rochester may be installed?
A “Rochester faces many of the same challenges that we face. The process has been going on to find a successor. I’ve been asked to help out for a number of months while that process goes on…. I think [there will be] a bishop coming down the pike, but I don’t know how far away he is right now!”
Q The election of Pope Francis captured the world’s attention, and our new Holy Father continues to engage Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Where do you see the Holy Father leading the universal Church in the coming years?
A “Hopefully to holiness. He has talked about the need to be a Church of the poor and for the poor. He has a different style, and obviously it’s a style with which he’s comfortable. I think it’s wrong to think of the Holy Father as fitting into a certain mold. Each one brings different gifts and talents and chooses to emphasize different things. At the same time, I was always amazed [by], and I miss somewhat now, the writings of Pope Benedict, who I thought was a clear teacher and had wonderful insights. I think that Pope Benedict made a tremendous contribution to the Church and I hope that God gives him a certain period of time to enjoy his retirement, but I do hope he’ll continue to do some writing. Pope Francis, obviously, is very much a people-oriented person and I think he will do great things. He’ll perhaps have a different flavor, a different way of looking at things — that’s good too. I suppose there’s always a balancing act, just as one pastor might have particular strengths, his successor might have other strengths. So it’s true with the Holy Father.”
Q What do you see ahead for the Church in the U.S.? What challenges and opportunities are in the future?
A “I think the Church in the U.S. is facing challenging times, and that’s brought about, I think, in large measure by a change in culture. I think many of the difficulties that the Church, and really everyone in the United States, [are] facing [stem from] a breakdown in family life and a change in the structure of family life. I think that many of the values that we hold sacred are being challenged by the government and I think that that’s going to create difficulties. I think that the reverence and respect due to all human life, from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, is being challenged by expansion of abortion laws and by the ‘right to die’ legislation that’s present or making its way through different state governments…. And yet I think we can’t lose sight of our goal. We have to move forward. We have to be convinced of the truth of our faith, convinced of the truths of our moral teachings and we have to be witnesses to what we believe.”
Q What’s ahead for the Diocese of Syracuse?
A “Our challenges will continue to be the issue of the reconfiguration of schools and churches so that we can best serve our people, the challenge of inviting young men to the priesthood and young men and women to religious and consecrated life, and the challenge to other young people to live out their marital commitment faithfully….
I think we have to work together as a diocese to grow in holiness and grow closer to the Lord. Good news is happening in every one of our parishes on a daily basis. The poor are being fed, people are being educated, God is being praised…. I do keep in mind the statement of Pope Benedict in his first encyclical [Deus Caritas Est]. He talked about the constitutive elements of the Church being the proclamation of the Gospel, the celebration of the sacraments, and the need to reach out in service to brothers and sisters. And I think that’s who the Diocese of Syracuse is, who we try to be. I think that’s both our vision and our mission statement for the future.”
Q What’s your best memory from all your years as a priest?
A “I think the opportunity to be with people at meaningful moments in their lives: when they’re celebrating a marriage, when they’re welcoming a new baby, when they’re bidding farewell to a favorite family member, when a person is in need…. I think that the way a priest is, by and large, welcomed into every home, but especially at those times — it’s a very fulfilling and meaningful vocation. And it’s out there for anybody who feels inclined.
One of the high points of my life was concelebrating with the Holy Father at St. Marianne’s canonization. It’s not something you get to do very often!”
Q Do you have any words of wisdom to offer after 70 years?
A “I hope that God gives us many more years to work together and that, hopefully, together we can grow in holiness and be faithful to God’s plan, God’s will for us.
The psalmist says that ‘Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong’ [Ps 90:10]. I’m praying for strength now, but I hope that if God doesn’t give me that strength, He helps prepare me to meet Him.”