Ordained a priest in 1967 and serving for 16 years as a pastor in a largely Hispanic section of New York City, Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Walsh of New York was surprised when he was recently appointed rector of the major seminary of the Archdiocese of New York.
St. Joseph’s Seminary is known to local priests and laity as Dunwoodie, for the section of Yonkers, N.Y., where it’s located. One of the premier seminaries in the country, it was visited in 1995 by Pope John Paul II.
In addition to serving as pastor, Bishop Walsh was priest-secretary to Cardinal John O’Connor and worked in Catholic Charities. Register correspondent Stephen Vincent spoke to him about the challenges ahead.
Did you ever expect to be rector of Dunwoodie?
The assignment came out of the blue. I went down to see Cardinal [Edward] Egan, and he told me what he would like, and I said: I’d be happy to do what you ask, but I must remind you that I don’t have the academic degrees that usually go with this position. And he said he knew that, but I have an MA from Dunwoodie and an MSW [from Fordham University], and I have experience in the parish. And he thought that was enough.
I’ve been a pastor for 16 years and a parochial vicar for 13, and have almost 12 years on the administration side, sort of a balance.
I did teach for a time at Cathedral Prep Seminary High School, a general religion course, concurrently while I was serving in a parish and at Catholic Charities. The fact that I speak Spanish is a plus, given the demographics of the archdiocese.
Dunwoodie has a reputation for teaching what the Church teaches.
Definitely. If we weren’t doing that, we should be closed. We’re preparing young men to serve the people of God. We do this according to the Gospels and the teaching of the Church and the pope. We can’t be guided by opinion polls, most of which are skewed by the media.
What are your thoughts on the decline in vocations?
This country is very much a missionary country. Its values are not very much in keeping with the teachings of the Church. For example, we are in the richest city in the world, but we have people going to bed at night hungry, we have people looking for a place to sleep, we have hero worship of people who are really not heroes.
Family life is weak. How many children live in one-parent homes? Marriages are breaking up for less serious reasons now than in the past. Maybe they’re not being prepared well for marriage. The fact is, vocations come from a society where the home is healthy. If the home is not healthy, the vocations are few.
How will you serve as rector?
Given my background, I will approach everything I do from the perspective of a pastor: How would a parish priest handle a situation like this? How would a parish priest talk to a young man in second or third theology?
Our job in the seminary is mainly to prepare young men to be good and holy priests: holy in thought, holy in word, holy in deed. And that holiness will be lived primarily in a parish setting. We have to take each individual as they are, and guide him to be the best possible person he can be, in spiritual, social and psychological areas.
What impact have the clerical sex scandals had on vocations?
They haven’t helped. At the same time, I still see young men, young women, coming and talking to the priest. They like to be with the priest, they like to say what they think and hear what the priest has to say.
The fact is, we’re sorry these incidents happened and we hope the victims get the help they need. But I don’t see any permanent damage.
There are so many good priests doing good things, and young people have the sense that some mistakes have been made, but there are still so many good things about the priesthood and about priests that the young people respond to in a positive way.
The faith is not just the person of the priest. The faith is the Lord, and the Lord works in his people.
Does celibacy discourage vocations?
In a culture where sex is worshipped, you have to explain what celibacy is. That is, to dedicate yourself on a full-time basis to God and his people. It’s not hiding from anybody, and it’s not the end of the world.
Celibacy gives you the freedom to dedicate yourself to the things of God in a way you would not be able to do if you were married to one woman with a family. It is a sign of the Lord being free to be with his people in all their circumstances of life. It is an eschatological sign of the Kingdom.
So here on earth there are people set apart to serve other people as a witness to the Kingdom of God’s love. Celibacy should not be seen as a negative. It’s a positive.
What messages will you give men preparing for the priesthood?
The first year I was secretary to Cardinal O’Connor, we went up to Dunwoodie the day before he was to ordain the graduating class, and we met with the men. After the cardinal spoke with the candidates and asked them about themselves, he asked the rector to speak with them, and then he asked me to say something. I said to them that I wished to leave them with three things. First, the most important thing you will do every day is Mass. Almost everything else you do someone else can do, but only a priest can offer the Mass, so please do it with reverence. If you’re going to give a homily, please prepare it, don’t go in thinking you’ll wing it.
Second, with all due respect to what is called the theology of presence, I would like to convey to you the practice of “hanging out.” Be in front of the church on Sundays and other days after you offer the Mass and even when you’re not the main celebrant. Be in front of the school, if your parish has a school. Meet the children, meet their parents. You can get your ideas across better there than you could in a homily from the pulpit, by one to one contact.
Third, the rectory is your home. Don’t make someone’s apartment or someone’s restaurant your primary place of spending time. When that starts, you have a problem. The rectory is your home, make it your home. Make yourself available to the priests you live with; talk with them; eat with them.
If you follow these three points, I told the candidates, you will have a very fulfilling and effective priesthood.
Stephen Vincent writes from