By Katherine Long | Editor
Nine years ago, following his appointment as the tenth bishop of the Diocese Syracuse, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham sat down for what would be the first of many interviews with the Catholic Sun. Among other questions, he was asked, “What is the number-one message you want the people of the Syracuse Diocese to hear as you begin this journey?”
“I would like them to know that we’re in this together and that we need to be effective and sincere witnesses to the faith in order to bring others along,” he answered. “I’d like to renew the appreciation of all that the church does in pastoral, education, charitable works, to serve the needs of the people of this area.”
June 18 marks Bishop Cunningham’s 75th birthday, the day on which canon law requires him to submit a letter of resignation to the Holy Father. As he approaches the end of his journey as the shepherd of Syracuse, Bishop Cunningham again sat with the Sun, offering a look back and a look ahead.
Born and raised in Buffalo, Bishop Cunningham was ordained a priest of that diocese on May 24, 1969. Over more than 30 years, he served his home diocese in numerous capacities, ranging from pastoral to administrative: associate pastor, pastor, secretary to Bishop Edward D. Head, assistant chancellor, vice-chancellor, chancellor, vicar general, and diocesan administrator.
He remembers well the phone call that changed his ministry forever.
“I came home from the dentist and was told that I was asked to call the apostolic nunciature in Washington,” he said, smiling.
“I was the administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo at the time and I thought [Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, then the apostolic nuncio to the United States] was calling to tell me that there’d be a new bishop of Buffalo…. The nuncio told me that the Holy Father had named me the bishop of Ogdensburg. I was kind of speechless.”
He was ordained and installed as the bishop of Ogdensburg on May 18, 2004.
Bishop Cunningham said that though leaving Buffalo, “which had been my home for my whole life and I never thought I’d be anywhere else,” was hard in some ways, he was happy to minister in a new part of his home state and that he “came to know and love the Diocese of Ogdensburg very much.”
Five years later, he received yet another “totally unexpected” call. On May 26, 2009, he was installed as bishop of the Diocese of Syracuse. He has made Central New York his home ever since.
Bishop Cunningham said he never really pictured himself ministering as a bishop before he was called upon to do so. “I didn’t really think about it too much,” he said. “I think probably as a priest…. I said at times, ‘If I were the bishop, I’d do it this way. Why’s he doing it that way?’ As I’m sure there are priests in the Diocese of Syracuse saying that about me right now! But I never seriously considered it, and I was surprised when it happened.”
In his time as the leader of this local Church, Bishop Cunningham has experienced both highs and lows.
Among the highs, he counts “our ability to continue the education of so many people in the faith in our schools and religious education programs.”
He also cites the ordinations of priests as happy moments — he’s ordained ten men for the Diocese of Syracuse — and says, “I’m very proud of our seminarians. While we would like many more, I’m very pleased with those we have.”
He is grateful to have completed the $12 million restoration of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and to have instituted the Immaculata Awards, which have honored parish volunteers from across the diocese since 2011.
Bishop Cunningham has authored two pastoral letters while in Syracuse. “Faith: A Gift Received, A Treasure to be Shared” was released in 2013; “Enriching the Church: The Role of the Family in the Life of the Church of Syracuse and Beyond” was released in December 2017 and coincided with the declaration of a Year of the Family in the diocese; it is being celebrated through the Feast of Christ the King, Nov. 25, 2018.
“I’m hoping that the present Year of the Family will encourage families to pray for vocations, but more importantly to become more active in the Church,” Bishop Cunningham said. “As the family goes, so goes the Church, so goes the country — so we need strong families.”
The lowest point “would be the tragedy of sexual abuse and the many circumstances that surround it,” Bishop Cunningham said. “Certainly we continue to do our best to make sure that nothing like that happens again, and we’re deeply concerned for victims of child sexual abuse.”
Bishop Cunningham announced in February the launch of an Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program in the diocese. Through the program, independent administrators will determine monetary settlements for victim-survivors who have previously notified the diocese of their abuse by diocesan clergy. Claims to the voluntary program are being accepted through June 18.
An ongoing challenge in Bishop Cunningham’s time has been the reconfiguration of parishes, a process that began in the diocese some 30 years ago. “The closing and consolidation of parishes and schools is never an easy task,” the bishop said. “But we have to recognize that our population has changed and financial resources and ability [are] limited.”
The press release announcing Bishop Cunningham’s appointment in 2009 cited more than 250,000 Catholics residing in the diocese along with 142 parishes, 11 devotional missions, 3 devotional chapels, and 29 Catholic schools. Current diocesan statistics cite 237,546 Catholics residing in the diocese, with 127 parishes, 8 missions, 7 oratories, and 22 Catholic schools.
“I understand people who are angry when their parish church closes. We’ve done a wonderful job of building up parish loyalty. These have been sacred places in the lives of people. But we can also think that a parish has served its mission, which is to bring people closer to Christ, and by circumstance we have to do it in different ways now. I’m hoping that these consolidations will produce vibrant parishes,” he said.
Though the bishop’s resignation letter will be dated June 18, it will likely be several months before Bishop Cunningham’s successor is appointed. Until then, the work of the Church goes on as it always does, the bishop said — Mass and the sacraments are celebrated, the sick are served in our hospitals and institutions, young people are educated in our schools and religious education programs, the poor and needy are fed.
What’s on the bishop’s to-do list until his successor is named? Continuing to assess and deliver faith formation, youth ministry, and Catholic education programs that will allow the diocese to best serve young people and their families.
“I do think we have to continue to welcome the stranger in our midst,” Bishop Cunningham also noted. “Some of the new communities of immigrants have enriched us immensely and I hope that we will always be a warm and welcoming group to receive other immigrants into our community.”
As for what might be waiting on his successor’s desk, Bishop Cunningham is quick to say he has no intentions of establishing the priorities for the next bishop. Nor does he have any guesses on who that bishop might be — though he does have some ideas on what qualities make for a good diocesan shepherd.
“You look for a person who’s striving for holiness. It doesn’t mean he’s there, it means he’s working at it — he’s praying, he’s been a good priest, he’s available for people, he’s humble, he recognizes that other people in the church have other ideas. You look for a person, it seems to me, [who] recognizing his own limitations, he still tries to be a true disciple of the Lord, to grow in holiness,” the bishop said. Humility is required, along with “an availability to and an understanding of people,” he added. “A well-rounded individual that has a lot of interests, but his primary interest is growing closer to the Lord and leading others with him.”
Bishop Cunningham plans to stay in Syracuse following his retirement. He looks forward to attending fewer meetings and having some more time for traveling and reading. “I enjoy historical biographies. I enjoy the history of the Church. I’d like to study the scriptures a little bit more fully. There’s always advances in scriptural studies,” he said.
And will he play the role of the retired Pope Benedict XVI to the new bishop’s Pope Francis, offering counsel and insight?
“I plan to help the new bishop, whoever he is,” Bishop Cunningham said. “When he’s named bishop, he becomes my bishop too. So I want to be helpful to him.”