Whenever an African bishop has visited Bishop Matthew H. Clark in Rochester, that dignitary typically has issued a reciprocal invitation.
“The first question is, ‘When are you going to come?’ I always said that I would like to, but didn’t know when. Well, you can only say that for so long,” Bishop Clark remarked.
Bishop Clark is on the verge of turning that desire into reality. He was due to embark Oct. 15 on a nearly one-month trip that will take him to Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Tanzania. The bishop will be accompanied by Father Joseph Hart, diocesan vicar general and moderator of the Pastoral Center.
“I have never set foot on African soil, and I’m very excited,” Bishop Clark said.
During their stay, Bishop Clark and Father Hart plan to visit bishops, as well as many extern priests who have served in the Rochester Diocese. They also expect to tour a number of parishes and communities.
Bishop Clark said his journey will serve to enhance an already strong relationship between the Diocese of Rochester and several African dioceses. He noted that “a steady stream” of African priests has come to study at St. John Fisher College over a 40-year period.
“Over the years, as you can expect, some very wonderful friendships have developed between them, St. John Fisher, parishioners and local priests,” Bishop Clark said, explaining that visiting priests have resided at area parishes where they also have celebrated the sacraments. He said three or four such priest-students have gone on to become bishops themselves, including Archbishop Rafael S. Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki, head of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, Kenya.
Bishop Clark said that in recent years African priests have come to this diocese not only to study, but also to serve as externs in parishes for set amounts of time — usually at least three years. Through this arrangement Bishop Clark said he also has met many African bishops who have traveled to Rochester during their priests’ assignments.
He said his African sojourn will serve to “express the gratitude from all of us” in the Rochester Diocese while also promoting cultural awareness. “The church is a very big family,” the bishop remarked.
“In the wider scope, we all realize how important Africa is on the world scene,” he continued, commenting that the Catholic faith on that continent “is flourishing in so many wonderful ways” despite limited resources. He added that he also is embarking upon the trip well aware of Africa’s struggles, such as conflicts between Christians and Muslims; genocide; the AIDS pandemic; and poverty.
“Africa has undergone a great deal of suffering,” he said. “I’m delighted personally that I can go, but I also regard it as an important aspect of ministry.”
Bishop Clark said his trip was made possible by a travel gift he received two years ago in honor of his 25th anniversary as Bishop of Rochester. The African sojourn will end Nov. 5, at which time Father Hart will return to Rochester. Meanwhile, Bishop Clark will stop in Rome for a few extra days, where he hopes to attend a papal audience at the Vatican.
Africa will mark the fifth continent Bishop Clark has visited, with only Australia and Antarctica left to go. Asked about the prospects of a visit to Antarctica, he said with a smile, “It’s unlikely — but I wouldn’t want to close down that possibility.”