Asked to describe his first year as leader of the Diocese of Syracuse, Bishop Douglas J. Lucia laughed. It’s been “a roller coaster ride,” he said. “I like roller coasters, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
In a year of twists and turns, Bishop Lucia faced the steepest curve in early March, as Central New Yorkers began confronting the many ways the novel coronavirus pandemic would disrupt routines. In a matter of days, Bishop Lucia suspended public worship, canceled events, and postponed ordinations to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. The diocese’s 11th bishop, ordained and installed Aug. 8, 2019, had been in office about seven months.
Bishop Lucia grew up in Altona, in the Diocese of Ogdensburg in northern New York and was ordained a priest in 1989. Pope Francis named him June 4, 2019, to succeed Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, who had led the diocese since 2009. At the time, Father Lucia was pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Waddington and St. John the Baptist Church in Madrid, as well as the judicial vicar, vocation director, and director of seminarians for the Diocese of Ogdensburg.
“I am here to serve the people of the Diocese of Syracuse, Catholic and non-Catholic alike,” the bishop-elect said at the press conference announcing his appointment. “I look forward to getting to know you and you getting to know me.”
In a far-ranging anniversary interview with the Catholic Sun, Bishop Lucia discussed the highs and lows of his first year as spiritual leader of the seven-county diocese. Here are excerpts of that interview, condensed and edited for clarity.
How would you describe your experience over the last 12 months?
The day of ordination and installation was a very special one. Certainly a high point for me has been visiting the parishes. I’ve had a great time. The low point would be that I haven’t done as many as I want to because of COVID. I think I got to do one Confirmation and then everything stopped. I’ve been appreciative that we’ve been able to make progress with the parishes in Oswego and trying to help out that pastoral situation.
But now I find myself realizing — I have a personnel board meeting tomorrow — I don’t have enough priests to go around. I think right now the figure is we have 57 priests who I can assign and I have 119 parishes. So, my creative juices are flowing.
At the press conference announcing your appointment, you said one of your priorities would be getting to know the people of the diocese and visiting them in their parishes. Have you gotten to know the people of the diocese?
I think I’ve gotten to know the people. I’ve gone to town hall meetings; I’ve gone to parish council meetings; I’ve done Masses in parishes, spent weekends; I’ve sat down with leadership. Again, the sad part for me is that, since March, that personal, one-on-one meeting has been stymied a bit.
What have you learned about us here in the diocese?
The Diocese of Ogdensburg is certainly more rural. I’m much more conscious of the social issues, I’m much more conscious of urban living and some of the challenges. I’m becoming more conscious of poverty. I’m seeing through different eyes now Indigenous people and how they speak of this particular territory. The same thing with race relations.
The global coronavirus pandemic hit Central New York in March. When you suspended public Masses that month, you wrote, “Never did I think or ever imagine I would have to ask people not to gather for the Holy Eucharist. Nonetheless, I recognize my own obligation to ensure the health of the faithful, including our clergy, both spiritually and physically.” How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your ministry?
The one thing I can honestly say is that — except for the night I had food poisoning — I have slept every night. And the Lord’s been good to me in that I’ve felt all along the way that I’ve been accompanied by the Lord. So even when it’s come to some of the major decisions I’ve had to make, there was a peace when I had to do it. I just knew I was doing the right thing.
Some of these decisions have been polarizing. How should Catholics approach these issues of balancing faith and public health and religious liberty and the responsibility for the common good?
A guiding principle for me has always been love of neighbor. One of the themes of Catholic theology is certainly faith and reason. So as a man of faith, I’m also called to use reason. I have to take what’s out there [including advice from medical professionals and resources provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] and try to walk that balance. Wearing a mask: For me, that’s love of neighbor. Now I know people disagree with that, but to me, there’s enough reason for us to wear a mask that I think we have to do it. Same thing with social distancing.
[On reopening] it got to a point where even I wrote the governor and said, ‘Governor, this is not working.’ We had complete plans that had been reviewed by local officials. We’ve tried to balance between what we believe to be reasonable and trying to avoid both extremes.
What is your sense of how well people believed you were making decisions for the best of the diocese and you weren’t ‘caving to the secular government’?
I think at the beginning people were skeptical. [Over time] I do think there was maybe some concern that the bishops were just allowing the governor to lead them. I think as time went on and [in the reopening guidelines] you couldn’t find the churches that’s what sort of raised the alarm. The local reaction was basically supportive of what we had done and I think most people understood why we had to do what we had to do. There was a segment of the population saying that we weren’t having enough faith. There are still people who write to me, ‘we don’t need masks.’ There are some people who are still very legitimately concerned about COVID. That’s why the Mass obligation is still suspended.
You recently met with Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh. Who initiated it? What was on the agenda?
It was a mutual outreach. We finally had a chance to sit down to discuss some stuff regarding the city, regarding where the church is at. For me, I wanted to discuss with him what COVID had done to the city. I wanted to share with him what I was seeing, particularly with the diocese itself having to declare Chapter 11. I also wanted to have a chance to talk to him about the issues of the day that are facing us regarding relations within the community, especially the African American community, and the relationship with the police. I wanted us to see where our common ground was.
After George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer you wrote, “My next year as Bishop of Syracuse must be devoted to working with others in eradicating the sin of racism and its inequity from our society.” How have you come to see that pledge?
I have become even more sensitive. I’ve found myself trying to put myself in people’s shoes. I was having a conversation with different members of the community, including some African American members of the community — I’d never thought of it before, but sometimes, even when you’re stopped by the police, you can be treated differently just because of what color you are.
One of the pledges I did make when I did my first news conference was that I wanted our parishes to be welcoming parishes. I have to ask myself: Are we that welcoming? Are we that open to people who are different?
What are you going to do as bishop to address racism?
With COVID around, I feel stymied about what we can do [in terms of] concrete plans. For myself it’s really paying more attention to people, it’s trying to be more sensitive to people.
Your first letter to the people of the diocese, issued on the third day of your episcopate, addressed the New York State Child Victims Act. [The CVA would open four days later a one-year “look-back” window during which adults who were abused as children could file claims, no matter how long ago the abuse allegedly occurred. On Aug. 3, Gov. Cuomo signed into law legislation extending the window to Aug. 14, 2021.] In that letter, you apologized to victims and renewed your offer “to meet with victims, if there is any way I can assist them in their search for healing and peace.” How have you accompanied victims and survivors over the past year?
I’ve had people talk to me. When they’ve approached me, I’ve had an opportunity to talk to them, to communicate. Again, my big thing is just to try to keep the doors open. I don’t want people to think they have to jump through hoops to talk to me.
In June of this year, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 reorganization, citing the financial impact of more than 100 lawsuits filed under the CVA alleging past child sexual abuse by clergy and laypeople. What do the Chapter 11 proceedings mean for victims and survivors? For the diocese?
It means there is a fund that will be established and from there they will receive reparation for the harm. It can never make up for the harm but it can be a way of helping them on the journey.
For me, on a personal level, each day it’s a renewal of my act of faith, hope, and love, but also an act of contrition. Somehow we need to show our sorrow for the sins of the past.
What is your vision for the next 12 months? What are your priorities? What are your hopes?
To help [the diocese] rediscover a vision of church. In rediscovering that, I want us to rediscover leadership, what leadership roles in the church are.
It’s more than pastoral planning. I want to call it pastoral action.
We’re all called to lead. There has to be a certain amount of ownership. It can’t be, I just go to Mass on Sunday and I say my prayers and OK, I’m good with God. What we’re being called to more than ever is discipleship. Discipleship is — in the Acts of the Apostles we hear the term — “followers of the Way.” It’s a certain way of life. And I think that’s the biggest challenge for church today. Even for the priest — there was a time when priests wanted to look at themselves as professionals, like doctors and lawyers. Yes, we’re called to be professional, but who we are is we are called to be disciples.
I’m talking more than buildings. How do we come alive as church today? In a sense, COVID-19 has allowed us to go back into our little corners. We discovered we can worship from home. The problem with that is it doesn’t build church. It’s the house church. How do the house churches, like in the early days of the church, become the building blocks for the church?
You start your day working out. Sometimes you go into the office early in the morning in your workout clothes and you brought your kayak to the company picnic. What does that say about who you are and the Doug Lucia people in the diocese might not know?
It’s not even the title of bishop that matters to me. I feel I am called to be a disciple. I can be a disciple when I’m dressed in workout clothes or having fun at a party as much as I can in church.
I just want people to love life. I know life can be hard for people at times, there is illness we face. But I enjoy life. I want people to know I’m happy to be here. If there’s anything that can make me cringe it’s when I’m called ‘Your Excellency.’ In one way, I want to tell them I’m nobody special; and yet I know I’m special because I’m a child of God.