Msgr. Yennock inspired vocations with his life
By Dc. Tom Cuskey
There is a song that says you “don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.” Not necessarily true in this story about the slice of a man’s legacy that is devoted to his reason for living: Holy Orders, most especially the priesthood.
That man is Monsignor Eugene Michael Yennock who died last month at the age of 97, who devoted 73 years of his life to ordained service of God’s people. During the recent observance of liturgies and in the days afterward, The Catholic Sun had the opportunity to speak with those men he inspired to themselves seek ordination. They know very well what they’ve got in the man they followed in their own calling.
‘A faithful priest’
Fr. Christopher Celentano’s ties to St Daniel’s are long and deep; his mother grew up as a member of the parish. She married her husband Joseph (now Deacon Joseph) and the new family would become parish members. Fr. Chris, a parishioner since birth, remembers Monsignor from a very early age. How did he influence Fr. Chris in his own vocation? The answer is simple and subtle.
“When I was growing up, he said the Mass with passion and reverence. He was diligent in his duties as a priest.” That included visiting the sick, lending an ear to those in need, visiting the school. “He stood and spoke on matters that were important, even if it was against the prevailing winds.”
Father Chris shared that other priests would ask Monsignor what he did differently to inspire so many vocations. In his reply, Monsignor could not identify a process or strategy because there was none. He simply lived as a priest and taught by example.
“What was happening here was a faithful priest who loved the Church, loved the people of God. And he served him. And he did it until his dying breath,” Father Chris observed. What lesson did he impart to this young priest?
“What I learned from him was to do what the Lord is asking and be faithful to it. He was always present.” He also told the Sun that Monsignor never brought up the subject of a priestly vocation in conversation.
“When he spoke to me about a vocation was when I spoke to him about a vocation.” That was the process for Monsignor in many ways, and Father Chris added that other priests would ask how he inspired so many altar servers and men in seminary.
“And Monsignor laughed … ‘I’m not doing anything.’ Of course, he was doing something, but he wasn’t doing programs. He wasn’t doing speeches. He didn’t need a Vocation Committee. He was just being a faithful priest.”
A family affair
Deacon Joseph Celentano is Fr. Chris’s dad, and, like his son, the deacon was similarly influenced to seek his vocation.
“It’s not what he said or what he did, it’s who he was,” Deacon Joe shared. “And in his prayerfulness as a priest, as I said the weekend that he died, he was definitely a man of the Eucharist.” Deacon Celentano added that the Eucharistc was always central in the life of his pastor.
Also like his son, Dc. Joe was never directly asked by Monsignor to consider a call to the Holy Order of Diaconate.
“He never said to me ‘do you think you have a call to be a deacon?’ But when I talked with him about applying he was very, very supportive of it and was a strong advocate for me. He did everything that he could to make sure I had a successful formation.”
Dc. Joe shared that Monsignor instilled in him a love and reverence for the proper form of the liturgy. Monsignor also made sure that the deacon had his priorities in order.
“Family first, jobs second. And third was the diaconate. He was always very sensitive to that.”
Similar to Father Celentano, Fr. Cliff Auth was raised at St. Daniel and has kindergarten memories of Monsignor.
“He had a significant impact on my life in the very beginning. He was always a presence.”
Fr. Auth shared, though, that his vocational experience with Monsignor was more direct. He said, with a hearty laugh, that it probably “points to the fact that I was going slower than that other guy and he had to be more explicit with me.”
During Father’s vocational journey, he was struck by reading the work of St. John Cardinal Henry Newman and his description of a “Catholic gentleman.”
“If you read that, that’s Msgr. Yennock,” he said. “When I was ordained, I talked to him about that. He said, ‘That’s who we are called to be. We don’t need to tell people, This is who we are, we just need to live it.’ It’s him to a T.”
Fr. Daniel Caruso is also from the St. Daniel family tree, but he was a high school student when Monsignor arrived.
“Bishop (Thomas J.) Costello announced at my Confirmation that we no longer had a pastor. That was in March of 1981 and in June was when Monsignor arrived, so I was 15 when he got there.”
It did not take long for Msgr. Yennock to have a profound influence on Fr. Caruso, though.
“He came in in June and Father (Edmund) Castronovo came in July,” he shared. “And it was the first time I had ever seen priests happy and enjoying what they did, being with the people.”
He nudged young Caruso to become involved as an altar server in junior high school.
“And I would just talk to him about priestly life. Then I was at Le Moyne, and I would often talk to him about what I was learning in class,” Father added.
“He was very intelligent, but also very pastoral,” he recalled, adding that his faith knowledge was always applied “to the practical living of the Christian life.”
Like others, Father feels Monsignor’s influence was more subtle than direct, and his influence channels through him in his ministries.
“I wish there were more like him, and I wish I was more like him. I try but there’s so many areas I know I fall short from how he did it. So, he still inspires me to try harder.”
Visit your people
Fr. Richard Prior was in his late 20s when he finished his service with the U.S. Army and took a job that resulted in his move to Syracuse, living not far from St. Daniel’s.
“I was starting my vocation,” he said. “You had to get a recommendation from your pastor, and it was Monsignor Yennock.” He met with Monsignor who was very supportive of his desire to enter seminary.
“They wanted me to go visit, and he said he’d come along,“ he added. “So, we took this trip to Baltimore together, because Cliff (Auth) was there, and he wanted to see the seminary. Since that time, we’ve just been good friends.”
Even though he didn’t know Monsignor from early on, Fr. Prior quickly understood the influence his pastor had on him and his call.
“He was a good homilist; I always enjoyed his preaching. There was great music, so I really enjoyed coming here.” Father added that Monsignor was also a superb role model, leading or participating in adult education classes. “It was adult catechism, and it was the first time that I really became a student of my faith.”
What’s the best example Monsignor demonstrated?
“Taking the time to go to the homes to visit the people. Visit your people that you know, where they are at. I’ve tried to do that, in some way, over the years.”
A deep awareness of God’s love
We end this vocational tribute about where we started, with another young boy beginning his Catholic education at St. Daniel’s kindergarten.
“He was this figure that everybody knew; everyone knew he was the pastor. He was Monsignor Yennock!” Father Christopher Seibt remembers well from the beginning of his experience at St. Daniel. “In those days, people loved and cherished the priesthood. We used to be in the (parish) hall and sing Happy Birthday every year to him, and on his anniversary, give gifts. He loved that.”
Father credits his mother’s conversion to the faith to Monsignor’s presence in their lives. He and his sister were baptized the same day as his mother.
“From that moment on, he taught our classes regularly at St. Daniel school, and he became a person we grew to know and love.”
Father said his relationship with Monsignor grew through high school, even taking a Saturday maintenance job he offered the young teen. “We were both of the same personality: Type A, OCD!” he added with a laugh. ”So, we got along very, very well.”
Like others, Monsignor’s vocational impact on the young man was mostly unspoken, yet deeply profound.
“I always kind of remember looking at him from a distance, and thinking, ‘I want to do that. I want to be like him.’” Father came to realize his call to the priesthood. “I was so happy to realize that I have this person who can show me the ropes, who can lead me through that discernment. And he did. Like the others, Father realized “it wasn’t anything profound in particular, other than his daily living of the priesthood.”
Father likens Monsignor to the shepherd who leaves his flock to find the one lost sheep, who visited the sick late at night and never missed an opportunity to invite someone to the faith.
“He did pastoral accompaniment before it became the word of the day. He did the smell of a sheep before it was a big thing.” While Monsignor will be missed by many, Father clearly sees the legacy .
“I’m very grateful. We’re sorry. It’s true, it is a loss for everybody. But at the same time, we can only look back on it and say how grateful we are for it.”
Editor’s note: In the July 20 issue of The Catholic Sun, read more about the immensely successful ministry of the late Msgr. Eugene M. Yennock. Commenting will be family members, a deacon who admired him, lay people who loved him, and Msgr. Yennock himself in a chat with Sun staffers 18 days before he died.