Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Costello stands outside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse in this file photo. (Sun photo | Matt Coulter)
Editor’s note: This story comes from the Catholic Sun’s archives; it was originally published in the May 6 – 12, 2004, edition. That edition highlighted diocesan priests celebrating milestone ordination anniversaries, including Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Costello, who was marking 50 years as a priest and 26 years as auxiliary of the diocese. Catholic Sun Editor Connie Cissell’s Q&A with Bishop Costello on that occasion follows.
By Connie Cissell | Editor
Q: How old were you when you first thought of becoming a priest?
A: Sporadically in high school, seriously during first two years of college at Niagara.
Q: Was there any one person who influenced your decision more than anyone else?
A: Rev. John J. Burke in regards to becoming a priest. Msgr. Martin J. Watley, Msgr. Charles J. Brady in regards to BEING a priest.
Q: What was your parents’ reaction when you told them you wanted to become a priest? What did they say?
A: I think my parents were NOT surprised — I mean how else could they interpret my choosing to study Latin and Greek as a college freshman? With tears in his eyes, my dad said, “Go for it, but be a good one.” I have tried not to disappoint him.
Q: What is one thing your parents said to you that has stuck with you throughout your life?
A: To your own self be true.
Q: What was your immediate reaction to the changes brought about by Vatican II?
A: In retrospect I think I did not realize the magnitude of the change wrought by the Council in the perception of so many people. We really did little to prepare folks for what they would experience; I guess we just thought they would “go with the flow” — not so!
Q: Some feel you were a driving force implementing those changes. Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do in rolling out the changes within the diocese?
A: I was Superintendent of Schools during the conciliar and early post-conciliar years. We did try to implement liturgical changes. Those who think I was a “mover and shaker” exaggerate my role. I was — I never knew why — the first priest of the diocese to celebrate the “new” “Vatican II” Mass. It was a series of demonstrations for our clergy, actually celebrating that they might witness what they would be doing at the altar. Bishop Cunningham, who had attended every session of the Council, was the real leader in our adapting to the spirit of Vatican II. Msgr. John McGraw who accompanied Bishop Cunningham to Rome, who was conciliar “peritus” (expert) and one of those who daily translated the Latin dialog into English, was also a driving force in our accommodating change.
Q: Your priesthood coincided with the civil rights movement. You marched in Alabama. Describe those days and your experience with Msgr. Charles Brady.
A: We young priests — John McGraw, Charlie Fahey, Ed Hayes, myself, among others — who were privileged to live with Msgr. Brady caught the urgency of his concern for people whose civil and human rights were denied and violated. (Brady would correct that statement: “Little Thomas it is Jesus’ concern, not mine — Christ’s, not Brady’s.”) He was a model, a mentor, an example, a teacher — we, his housemates, are different people because of our association with the man Mario Rossi styled “the Saint of Syracuse.” We caught his passion — it WAS contagious.
Q: What would you consider marching for today?
A: Peace, justice, equality of opportunity, non-violence, human and civil rights.
Q: As a Roman Catholic activist for social justice and non-violence over the years, what are the issues facing us today that you feel Catholics should be paying attention to?
A: War, the dignity of EVERY human, economic justice, life issues.
Q: The passionate realization of putting your faith into action is at the core of what the people of the diocese associate with your priesthood and your time as auxiliary bishop. It is what the diocese and the country recognizes in you. Where does this come from?
A: Msgr. Charles J. Brady.
Q: What was your reaction when Bishop Frank Harrison asked you to become auxiliary bishop?
A: It was Christmas Day, 1977. I asked for time to pray. It was granted, but I was gently admonished that Bishop Harrison had plans for an early January Florida sojourn.
Q: Who is your favorite homilist, living or dead?
A: Rev. Walter Burghardt, SJ (living).
Q: Who is the individual you most admire, living or dead?
A: Jesus Christ IS awesome. Francis of Assisi is a close #2.
Q: What was it like to serve with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the communications committee? How long did you serve? What was going on at the time and what issues did you work on?
A: Chair elect, one year. Chair, one term (three years). Committee member, now in my fourth year. During my tenure as chair we designed and gained approval for a Communications Plan for the Bishop’s Conference which is still pretty much in place.
Q: What do you love most about the Roman Catholic Church? What do you like least?
A: Most — her message: God so loved the world that God gave the Son; the Son so loved us that He gave His life for our salvation. (cf. John 3:16) Least — the ideological differences which pit us against one another at the expense of unity.
Q: How do young people in parishes inspire you?
A: Who of us does not make mistakes, but kids are intrinsically good, capable of such spectacular achievement.
Q: What is the most common question that young people ask you?
A: Like you, their first question is “when or how did you decide to become a priest…or a bishop?” But quickly they get to abortion, pre-marital sex, birth control, capital punishment, the war in Iraq, terrorism, AIDS, celibacy and married clergy, women in the church, you name it! Do you follow SU basketball?
Q: If you could go back 50 years in time and redo any event during your priesthood, what would it be?
A: On the night of Good Friday, 1965, there was a lengthy meeting at the Foery Foundation. We were fresh back from the conclusion of the March from Selma to Montgomery. The local issue was Niagara Mohawk; given NIMO’s non-competitive status as a public utility it was argued that this company had both a unique responsibility and a unique opportunity to incorporate minority applicants into its work force. The Catholic Interracial Council until now had not collectively involved itself in direct actions like picketing or civil disobedience. The question posed was whether the CIC should do a picket line at Niagara Mohawk “tomorrow” — Holy Saturday. The discussion was animated, even tense. Opinion was divided. Finally Msgr. Brady spoke up: “We must stand up for what we believe now. We will be outside the Niagara Mohawk building tomorrow morning under the sponsorship of the Catholic Interracial Council. Those that can come, please join us.”
There were about 50 CIC members/supporters at NIMO Holy Saturday morning. Other than Father Don Bauer, none of the several priests present the evening before showed up to affirm Brady and to challenge NIMO. I wish I had had the courage to put myself on the line. It had been easy in Montgomery among strangers; it is more difficult to be a prophet in your home town.
Q: What book or author made the most impact on your views or the way you live your life?
A: It is only indirectly a “spiritual book,” but Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” initiated for me some fascinating pondering about the church of the 21st century. The “greatest” impact? How about the Bible?
Q: Taking a walk down memory lane with you, we find you outside the federal building in 1984 praying for peace when the anti-nuclear activists, the Plowshares 7, were being tried inside. We see you with workers at Solvay’s Landis Plastics plant in the mid 1990s as they fought for just treatment. You haven’t exactly been a “quiet” presence within the diocese. There are those who would say you lost any opportunity to rise within the hierarchy of the church when you spoke out against nuclear weapons, unjust treatment of workers and the poor. Obviously, you did what you felt compelled to do. Ultimately, are you still satisfied with your decision to speak out?
A: “The Challenge of Peace” and “Economic Justice for All,” the 1983 and 1985 pastoral documents from our National Conference of Catholic Bishops are the two finest achievements of that august body. In all humility I think I did as much as any bishop in the country (apart from the chairpersons of the respective writing committees — Cardinal Bernadin and Archbishop Weakland) in trying to make these documents known. My efforts generated some hostility and animosity. But I really believe the Holy Spirit is in charge of what you characterize as the “opportunity to rise within the hierarchy of the church.” I have tried to hear what mom and dad taught me: “to your own self be true.”
Q: How do you feel when you hear people speak of “liberal” or “conservative” Catholics?
A: As indicated above, I regret the divisiveness we experience within the church. I don’t think the “labels” enjoy a very precise definition, and I think bandying them about is counter-productive.
Q: Do you feel there is any hope of overcoming labels and being one united Roman Catholic Church with one voice in this country?
A: Jesus prayed for unity. It continues to be the goal.
Q: What do you make of all the media attention about our presidential candidates and the apparent push for Catholics to vote based on the issues that are relevant to the church?
A: Would that Catholics would vote. Would that they would become knowledgeable about the whole host of issues in the public debate and evaluate the positions of the various candidates against the values and principles Catholic voters cherish and hold dear. Apathy is a concern for me.
Q: Who do you consider the pioneers of this diocese during your priesthood?
A: The last 50 years — so many, probably unwise to specify any lest others feel overlooked: Leonard Markert Sr., Sister Patricia Ann, Frank T. Dolan, Marcus Crahan, Leroy Scheidleman, Rhea Eckel Clark, Bill Fitzpatrick, Delores Morgan Brule, Robert McAuliffe, Nelson Ellis, Leo Coupe, Tina Dyer, William Chiles, C. Walter Driscoll, Pete Gallagher, Dr. Robert Collins — this is mission impossible, they are LEGION.
Q: If you hadn’t been ordained 50 years ago, where do you think you’d be right now?
A; Right here, anticipating my up-coming 49th ordination anniversary.
Q: What is the one thing you want to do now that you didn’t have time for before your resignation as auxiliary bishop?
A: Find time to mow my lawn.
Q: Looking back over the past 50 years, can you sum up your feelings for the people of the Syracuse Diocese? What would you like to say to them?
A: You are the Church! Let’s continue to pray for each other.