At one point during the Diocesan Youth Convention, Becky Peterson noticed a tall adult taking a seat behind her among all the teenagers. Although his summer attire didn’t initially surprise Becky, she did a big double-take once she saw his name tag.
The person was Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
“I didn’t expect him to be in shorts and T-shirt. It was like a whole other side of him,” said Becky, 16, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Church in Seneca Falls.
Such attire is typical for Bishop Clark when he participates each summer at the convention. While he might not pass for a teenager, the bishop does place a high priority on identifying with today’s teens.
“It just does my heart good to be around these people. I just receive tremendous life and energy,” Bishop Clark remarked. “If you can communicate a sense that you like to be with them, and that it’s not an onus or burden, it means a whole lot to folks.
“I happen to like relating to young people. And even if I didn’t, I would certainly want to try it,” the bishop added.
Bishop Clark related with the young conventioneers not only through his choice of clothing, but also by celebrating a Mass and leading two open forums during the weekend. The convention took place Aug. 1-3 at SUNY College at Geneseo.
During one forum, Bishop Clark reminisced about his teen years and noted that young people then did not enjoy such casual relationships with their bishop; instead, they addressed the bishop as “Your Excellency.” Bishop Clark then knelt down and kissed a teen’s ring, vividly portraying the expected form of reverence for a bishop.
“It was a very, very formal, ritualistic experience,” Bishop Clark said.
The bishop noted that such actions in the Catholic Church, as well as society, were more prevalent in the early 1950s.
“Life was much more structured. My memory of church and culture was that there was a strong emphasis on discipline and uniformity,” said Bishop Clark, who turned 60 on July 15. “Our lives were defined more by laws and rules than by relationships.”
Options for leisure time were also different in the 1950s, he added. For instance, Bishop Clark’s family did not own a television set and instead watched Milton Berle’s weekly comedy show at a neighbor’s house.
“These young people today couldn’t imagine television with one or two or three channels, tops – in black-and-white, and with much smaller screens,” Bishop Clark remarked.
Along with TV, rock-and-roll music was another emerging part of American culture when Bishop Clark was a teen. The bishop said he was fond of such pioneering rock artists as Bill Haley and Buddy Holly
“Some days I can’t remember my middle name, but I can remember the words to some of the songs we sang in high school,” he commented. (His middle name, by the way, is Harvey.)
Although he has risen to the rank of bishop, Bishop Clark did not enter the seminary until after his second year in college. Instead, sports were a big part of his high-school experience while growing up near Albany. He participated in basketball, baseball and football, and was a member of the Varsity Club at Catholic Central High School in Troy.
“The sports dimension of things was very important,” recalled Bishop Clark, who graduated from Catholic Central in 1955.
Bishop Clark also continued as an altar server into his high-school years at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Troy. He said his rapport with the parish priests influenced his decision to eventually pursue the priesthood.
“I remember how deeply important it was for me to have the encouragement, support and affection of adults,” Bishop Clark said. “They made the time to show their regard for us.”
He added that today’s adults should provide similar affirmation for teens to help guide them through their faith journey.
“If they’re introduced appropriately and encouraged appropriately, they will have a life of prayer, church and service,” Bishop Clark said. “Stopping at the rules and regulations doesn’t cut it. We have to start at building a relationship with Christ.”
Bishop Clark observed that teens of the 1990s are faced with greater obstacles to faith and in other parts of their life.
“These people are forced to make choices earlier, and have less societal and cultural support,” he commented. He explained that the growing number of working mothers and single parents have provided teens with different challenges than his generation faced.
“Family life is changed and less stable,” Bishop Clark said.
After hearing the bishop’s observations, Becky said she was beginning to consider the bishop a trusted friend – even though she had never met him before.
“He was so carefree and opened himself up to everybody,” Becky said. “It doesn’t make him seem like he’s older. It brings him closer to younger people. He’s someone we can trust and talk to.”
“He knows what it’s like to be a teenager. He remembers,” added Tim Donk, 15, also from St. Patrick’s in Seneca Falls. “He doesn’t come just from the adult point of view, (whereas) some adults think they’re older and smarter.”
In recent years, Bishop Clark has deepened this connection with teens by making the convention his first official event as bishop after returning from an annual month-long vacation.
“I can’t think of a better way to get my batteries charged for a new year than to spend the first two or three days of that year in your company,” Bishop Clark told the teens.Tags: Bishop Matthew H. Clark