The Advent season always is a time of hopeful waiting, but for the faithful in the Diocese of Rochester and their temporary leader, Apostolic Administrator Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, that sense of anticipation had additional meaning in the Advent just completed.
On Nov. 6 they received word that Bishop Salvatore R. Matano of the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., had been appointed the ninth Bishop of Rochester and would be installed in his new role on Jan. 3, 2014.
“This year our waiting also takes on a different aspect, not only because of the gift of Christ on the first day of Christmas, but also because there is anticipation and perhaps some anxiety about the gift of the ninth day, not nine drummers drumming, but a new bishop,” Bishop Cunningham remarked during a Dec. 13 Mass at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Gates. “I pray that he will be for all a good shepherd as he comes among you as one who serves. I trust that you will welcome him with the warmth and dedication that marked your relationship with me.”
The shepherd of the Syracuse Diocese since 2009, Bishop Cunningham also took on the additional responsibility of running the Rochester Diocese upon the Sept. 21, 2012, retirement of Bishop Emeritus Matthew H. Clark. Once Bishop Matano was installed as the new leader of the Rochester Diocese, Bishop Cunningham ceased being Rochester’s apostolic administrator.
Bishop Cunningham is a native of the Buffalo Diocese but was no stranger to this one. His parents, the late Cecil and Grace Cunningham, grew up in Rochester and attended St. Monica and Corpus Christi parishes, respectively. Although they moved to Buffalo after they were married, the family still visited Rochester frequently, noted Father Joseph A. Hart, who served as vicar general and moderator of the Pastoral Center under Bishop Clark and more recently was Bishop Cunningham’s delegate in the daily governance of the diocese.
“He’s always had a close tie with Rochester,” Father Hart explained. “One of his aunts was a Sister of St. Joseph and he was very loyal in visiting her until she died, and he’s been very loyal in visiting his aunt’s friends at the Sisters of St. Joseph’s infirmary as well.”
Father Hart, who worked closely with Bishop Cunningham during his time as apostolic administrator, said the bishop was very easy to work with and very conscious of the fact that his role was that of a transitional figure. Although church law prohibited him from implementing new initiatives in Rochester, Bishop Cunningham advanced several projects that had been started prior to his arrival, including the successful diocesanwide Day of Penance on March 26, 2013, Father Hart said.
“I just tried to kind of follow along the path Bishop Clark had set out over the past years. I was happy to do it,” Bishop Cunningham said.
Bishop Cunningham spent a great deal of time and energy on his efforts to provide the best possible care for the Rochester Diocese during its time without a bishop, and he did an excellent job, Father Hart said.
“We thank Bishop Cunningham for not just giving us his time and energy, but for really completely fulfilling his office as bishop. It’s not every bishop who would come so willingly and serve so freely,” he noted.
Bishop Cunningham said he was grateful for the opportunity to spend more time in Rochester and enjoyed developing and strengthening friendships with local Catholics. During his time in Rochester, which he described as a “grace-filled mission,” Bishop Cunningham was able to learn more about Rochester’s Catholics and their needs and how best to serve them, he said.
“For me the past 15 months have been a period of unanticipated graces. I had heard of your faith from others, and in God’s mysterious and gracious plan I was able to experience it personally,” Bishop Cunningham said. “When we separate we carry each other in prayer, knowing that when we pray before the Blessed Sacrament we are never really separated, but united in our common vocation, the call to holiness.”