Bishop Matthew H. Clark’s ministry continued in retirement - Catholic Courier
Bishop Clark speaks at a podium as part of his ministry after retirement.

Bishop Emeritus Matthew Clark speaks during an Alzheimer’s prayer service at St. Mary Church in Elmira Sept. 24, 2019. (Courier file photo)

Bishop Matthew H. Clark’s ministry continued in retirement

When he became Bishop Emeritus Matthew H. Clark upon his retirement in 2012, the ministry of the former diocesan leader became much less public but no less pastoral, according to those who knew him well.

“As his administration ended, he didn’t stop being him. He went on being his loving, caring, listening self, even when he couldn’t talk” due to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, remarked Mercy Sister Mary Ann Binsack, who served as administrator of Bishop Clark’s office for 22 years. “To the end, he always had a smile, and he was listening.”

After retirement, Bishop Clark spoke at retreats, missions

Bishop Clark retired in September 2012 at the age of 75 after shepherding the Diocese of Rochester for 33 years. He soon began speaking regularly at retreats and missions at diocesan parishes and schools, as well as outside the diocese.

In April 2013, for example, he gave a talk about paschal spirituality for a group of parishes in his home Diocese of Albany and in August 2014, he spoke at the Chautauqua Institution, near Jamestown, about Pope Francis’ example of servant leadership.

“(Pope Francis) has also been clear and insistent in his words that ordained ministry should be thought of and lived as service,” Bishop Clark told those gathered at the Chautauqua Institution that day. “The ordained one is not to consider himself first as an administrator, bureaucrat or disciplinarian but as a pastor after the model of Christ, the good shepherd.”

Bishop Clark loved to give talks on Pope Francis, Sister Binsack noted, and the spirituality of aging was another of his favorite topics.

“Bishop Clark was a good retreat leader and presenter because he was, first of all, a man of great faith and trust in God. Secondly, his approach was to share his own story, including the difficult and easy moments of his experiences, and to encourage the participants to discover God working in their own life experiences,” she said.

He did not shy away from this approach, even when he received unwelcome news about his health several years after he retired.

Bishop Clark was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2019

In 2018, Bishop Clark noticed changes in his health that concerned him, according to letters he wrote to friends and colleagues in August 2019. He noticed it was taking him longer to perform such ordinary tasks as preparing breakfast and buttoning his clothes, and he frequently had to search for words or lost his train of thought.

Bishop Clark took these concerns to his primary-care physician and was referred to a neurologist. He underwent a battery of cognitive tests twice, 12 months apart, as well as two CT scans of his brain. In July 2019, he was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

“He accepted the diagnosis with great peace,” Sister Binsack recalled, noting that Bishop Clark had questions but never expressed anger or bitterness.

Sharing Alzheimer’s diagnosis helped others face fears

Not only did Bishop Clark accept his diagnosis, but he also decided almost immediately that he wanted to share it with the people of the diocese who had journeyed with him for 40 years, Sister Binsack said. He decided the best way to share the news was by writing letters to priests, friends and family members in which he shared his diagnosis and asked for prayers and support, she said.

“I intend to remain active in ministry as long as my health allows. I look forward to your continued prayers and support in the days and months ahead. I certainly will remember you in my prayers,” Bishop Clark wrote in the letters.

By choosing to share the news of his diagnosis with the public, Bishop Clark likely made a difference in the lives of countless others, according to Teresa Galbier, executive director of the Rochester and Finger Lakes region’s chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Alzheimer’s is a disease that is often misunderstood, sometimes mistaken for normal aging, and is often not discussed within families and communities, she noted.

“When someone of Bishop Clark’s stature courageously and publicly shares his own diagnosis, others may come forward and share their own concerns with their doctor or call the Alzheimer’s Association for information and support. By sharing this news, he opened the door for others to feel more comfortable to talk openly about their own fears and concerns,” Galbier said.

Bishop Clark’s willingness to discuss his diagnosis certainly made a difference to the many people who heard him speak at Parish of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in Elmira on Sept. 24, 2019, according to parishioner Rose Carnegie. The late bishop was the guest speaker at the parish’s annual prayer service which Carnegie helped plan or people living with Alzheimer’s or dementia and their caregivers. He spoke openly about his diagnosis and his desire to learn more about the disease, and spent an hour talking with people individually after the prayer service, she said.

“He was just so open to talking. He didn’t show any fear. He spoke from the heart. We had a full church, and the people just loved him,” said Carnegie, whose husband, Bill, lived with Alzheimer’s for 13 years before passing away in 2010.

Life with Alzheimer’s was another ministry for Bishop Clark

Bishop Clark’s transparency about his Alzheimer’s diagnosis initially surprised Sister Eileen Daly, but she soon realized it likely stemmed from his characteristically humble nature. He understood that he would have to ask for help and let people help him, said Sister Daly, congregational president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester.

As he started to need more care and his health no longer allowed him to lead retreats and parish missions Bishop Clark moved into the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse in Pittsford in early 2020. However, he continued to minister to others simply by the way he chose to live, Sister Daly said. Instead of railing against his disease and being angry and miserable, Bishop Clark was grateful for anything people did for him, she said.

“He was a model of what you want to happen when you grow older and you grow infirm,” Sister Daly said. “I could see him working that out in his head and saying, ‘This is what God’s asking me to do right now. This is my next (task).‘ I think he always did look at it as another ministry.”

Bishop emeritus was faith-filled, loving until the end

The Sisters of St. Joseph, for their part, were grateful to play a part in Bishop Clark’s final ministry.

“I felt that it was a real blessing to our house to have him come here to the motherhouse and live. … We were just pleased that we could do something for him,” Sister Daly said, noting that the sisters also prayed for Bishop Clark daily.

Bishop Clark liked to greet the sisters by name and joke with them in the halls when he saw them, she said. Even after the progression of his disease robbed him of his ability to speak, he still smiled when people greeted him, she said.

“He loved having visitors. And if anybody brought a baby, he just lit up like a Christmas tree,” she recalled. “When you could get him to laugh, it just lit up a room and made you feel so good.”

Even when he could no longer communicate verbally, Bishop Clark enjoyed listening to people and seeing pictures of friends and family members. Last December, he was pleased when many diocesan priests greeted him during a luncheon the Sisters of St. Joseph hosted, she said.

“The bishop never stopped being who he was to the very end, a kind, faith-filled and loving man,” she said.

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