PHELPS — More than 30 people gathered at St. Francis Church Oct. 17 to hear two of their local politicians talk about what, if any, influence their Catholic faith has on their political actions.
Both Bill Hunter, mayor of Clifton Springs, and Jim Cheney, mayor of Phelps, belong to St. Felix Parish in Clifton Springs, which along with St. Francis Parish makes up the St. Felix/St. Francis Parish Cluster.
Hunter and Cheney spoke about their faith and their political experiences during “An Evening with our Mayors,” which was the third installment in the cluster’s Faith and Life series. John Galati, CEO of Clifton Springs Hospital, spoke at the first Faith and Life event, and Canandaigua mayor Ellen Polimeni spoke at the second. The cluster’s adult faith-formation committee planned the series, which allows parishioners to hear well-known local Catholics speak about their faith and how it relates to their personal and professional lives.
“I think it’s significant that in our two small communities both mayors belong to the Catholic Church. It’s good to know how our leaders in government feel and how their faith contributes,” said Kathy Jacobs, chairperson of the cluster’s pastoral council and a member of the adult faith-formation committee.
Cheney grew up in Clifton Springs, has been a parishioner of St. Felix since 1969 and was an altar server at the parish until he was 25. Several of his family members and neighbors were involved in politics when he was a child, so it seemed only natural for him to eventually become involved in the political arena, he said.
“This is just a different arena to serve people,” he said.
Cheney has always been active in his community. A co-founder of the House of John and the Community Action Plan for Phelps, Cheney currently serves on the board of directors for Ontario National Bank, co-owns Phelps Mercantile Inc. and runs a public accounting practice. He is also a past chairperson of the St. Felix Parish Council and was elected mayor in 2000.
“It’s just the way I was raised, (knowing) that you’re supposed to serve your community. I knew from the time I was in eighth grade that I was going to serve people. I was called a long time ago, and I knew where that calling came from,” Cheney said.
Hunter, who also grew up in Clifton Springs, was raised in a similar fashion and also credits his parents for his interest in public service. He has been mayor of Clifton Springs since 1995.
“My parents were good Christian people. They lived a Christian life and they taught me to do the same,” Hunter said. “My parents taught me that the golden rule is pretty simple, but there’s a lot to it. You just do what you have to do; you help your fellow man.”
Cheney and Hunter spent the first part of the evening answering several previously planned questions about their jobs, accomplishments, challenges and inspirations. Sister of St. Joseph Joan Sobala, pastoral administrator of the cluster, then asked the mayors for their feelings on the current national debate over the separation of church and state.
“Faith and government are two separate things. In my opinion faith should not dictate what government does,” Cheney said.
However, an elected official’s faith is a part of who he or she is, he added. Even though a Catholic official might not make decisions outright based on the Catholic Church’s position on a particular matter, each official brings his or her background and life experiences to each decision.
When John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States, many people were afraid the pope would run the country, Cheney said. Kennedy tried to assuage these fears by saying, “Yes, I am Catholic. I will make decisions based on who I am, but Rome is not going to run the United States,” Cheney noted.
“The Catholic Church does not influence decisions I make as mayor. My whole life, my whole history, that all goes into that decision,” he added.
A parishioner later asked the mayors what they thought about the pastoral-planning process, through which many churches in the diocese are clustering or joining with other parishes to eventually form one new parish. St. Felix and St. Francis clustered in 1992 and now share one staff, and the plan for the pastoral-planning group they belong to calls for them to eventually become one parish with St. Dominic’s in Shortsville.
Many parishioners are attached to the church and parish they grew up in, but need to be open to change and recognize that Catholics believe the same thing no matter which community or building they are worshipping in, Cheney said.
“If we keep in mind that it’s all the same church, it really doesn’t matter what building we’re in. Are you in love with your building or are you in love with your faith? I don’t find God in a building; I find him in the people that are in the building. The building is just bricks and mortar,” Cheney said.
“Am I a Catholic first, or do I live in Clifton Springs first or do I live in Phelps first?” Hunter asked rhetorically.