Bishop Cunningham talks to students about vocations
By Connie Berry
SUN editor

EAST SYRACUSE — “Why do you wear that ring?” “Do you ever wear casual clothes?” “Is being a bishop fun?”

Bishop Robert Cunningham opened the floor to questions from St. Daniel-St. Matthew Academy third, fourth, fifth and sixth graders on Wednesday, Feb. 3. The visit was part of the Catholic Schools Week celebration. Bishop Cunningham wasn’t the only special guest that day. Brother Joe Frietag, OFM Conv., Debbie Commins, a young woman on the eve of entering the convent, and Father Kevin Maloney, parochial vicar at Blessed Sacrament Church in the Eastwood neighborhood of Syracuse also visited students to talk about their vocations. They experienced a captive and interested audience.

Brother Joe told the students about living in community with the other Franciscan friars and Debbie Commins told them her story about discerning her vocation. Brother Joe said he wanted to be sure to let the children
know the great joy that comes from sharing life with others in the community when you become a religious brother or sister.

“We’re all the same. There is no rank,” Brother Joe said. “There are things an older friar does that help the younger friars and things the younger friars do to help the older ones.”

As far as discovering their vocation, Brother Joe said, “Every choice you make eliminates something else. Every time you say ‘no’ you are saying ‘yes’ to something else.”

Bishop Cunningham was first to address the students before they were divided into groups to listen to their other guests. The bishop even wore his more elaborate black cassock with red trime so that he could explain what he was wearing.

“Do you wear that every day?” one student asked. “No. Sometimes I wear my suit,” Bishop Cunningham said. “But I thought since I was coming here to see you today I would wear something special.”

The conversation wasn’t completely taken over by the bishop’s wardrobe. He explained to the students many aspects  of his life, including the fact that he went to a Catholic grammar school just like they do.

“I went to Catholic schools all my life,” Bishop Cunningham said. “From first grade up. I know how important a Catholic school education is. I know the first lesson you learn is that you want to come to know God and why God made  you.”

At that point he asked the students if they understood why God had made them and he received some very good answers including “because he loves me” and “because he wants me to carry on in his footsteps.”

The bishop reminded the students that they were each made for a purpose and that they should remember as they are  growing up that God has a special purpose in mind for them. “But whatever we do,” the bishop said, “we have to remember that God wants us to do it the best that we can.”

Bishop Cunningham told the students that many of them would go on to a vocation to Christian marriage and would someday be loving husbands and wives. “And for some of us, God asks us to be priests and sisters,” he said.

The students wanted to know how a person knows what God wants him or her to do. “The best way is if we spend  time each day praying and asking God for his help telling him about our difficulties and what causes us joy,” he told them.

Conversation with God, he said, is a two-way thing. “So you have to have quiet times so that God can talk to you,” the bishop said. When he was in grammar school there was a pastor who had been at the school for 45 years so he knew many people and many families there. There were many more sisters working at his school, as well as lay people. Sometimes, he explained, one of them or some of them might ask a young person if they ever considered being a priest or a sister. “Some of us took their advice,” he said.

The bishop told the students that he went through several years of study before he was ordained. He told them  he first was a priest in Buffalo where he worked in a parish just like theirs, and then he worked in offices for the diocese.

“The most important thing for a priest is to spend time in prayer, to celebrate Mass and to help the people any way he can,” Bishop Cunningham said. “He baptizes them, confirms them, anoints them when they are sick, he marries them and he’s there sometimes when they die.”

He told the students that he got a call six years ago telling him to go to Ogdensburg so he could become the bishop there and then about a year ago he got another call asking him to come to Syracuse to be the bishop here. “I look forward to being your bishop for a long time,” he said.

There were many questions about how far away Ogdensburg is, whether  the bishop has been to Rome — (yes, on several occasions and he has met both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI), and what type of sports he likes. One student asked, “Would you want to be Pope someday?”

“Probably not,” Bishop Cunningham told the student. “I’m just happy to be bishop of Syracuse.”

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