Throughout his 33 years of leadership, Bishop Matthew H. Clark has continually demonstrated his commitment to social justice by shedding light on the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, and those ignored or condemned by society, colleagues and social-justice advocates observed.
“The face of Christ is the poor,” noted Bernard Grizard, director of Parish and Clergy Services for the diocese. “And certainly a big legacy of the bishop and a testimony to our diocese has been his commitment to the poor. … And that goes back to his firm faith and belief that in the poor, Christ is revealed.”
As part of that commitment, Bishop Clark has created ministries to serve migrant workers, prisoners and those living in poverty, and created groups — such as the Diocesan Public Policy Committee — to highlight such important issues as health care, life issues and lay ministry.
“I can’t say enough about the bishop’s support of Catholic Charities,” said Jack Balinsky, director of diocesan Catholic Charities.
In his book commemorating his agency’s 2011 centennial, Balinsky described the bishop as the Catholic Charities’ champion.
“This history of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rochester, would not have been possible without the leadership and support of Bishop Matthew Clark,” Balinsky wrote. “Bishop Clark gives high priority to carrying out the work of social justice, both in service delivery and advocacy, and has given rock solid support to Catholic Charities in his … tenure as Bishop of Rochester.”
Over the last five years, the bishop also has supported the work of Rochester’s Catholic Family Center in creating a reintegration program for prisoners, Balinsky said. That program is one of nine pilot programs in New York, he added.
Sister of Mercy Janet Korn pointed out that the bishop has demonstrated a desire to serve the needs of the imprisoned by annually celebrating Christmas Day Mass at Monroe County Jail.
Bishop Clark acknowledged that he started the annual jail Masses on his first Christmas in the diocese “to share the joy of Christmas with people who have been in very sad situations. That’s continued over the years. I’ve tried to be alert to the needs of inmates and prisoners and support them as best as I could.”
He also oversaw the creation of a joint agreement between the diocese and the Sisters of St. Joseph to offer full-time ministry at county jails, Grizard added, noting that that ministry has grown and now involves several of the diocese’s Hispanic deacons and parishioners serving Spanish-speaking prisoners.
The bishop also sought to draw attention to a population that lives in the shadows through creation of a diocesan migrant ministry with full-time staff dedicated to helping migrant workers throughout the 12-county diocese, noted Sister Korn. Also assisting migrants is La Casa, a Catholic Charities-run temporary-housing center in Wayne County, which began welcoming workers nearly a decade ago and which Sister Korn helped found.
“Again, it’s a real sign of his commitment to those who are more marginalized in our society,” remarked Grizard. “It’s a reflection of who he is and what his commitment is about.”
The Rev. Richard Witt, executive director of Rural & Migrant Ministry, an ecumenical organization dedicated to fighting for farmworker justice, said Bishop Clark has shown “remarkable leadership” in standing with his brothers and sisters who work the fields and factories of the diocese. His support helped R&MM to recently open the Liturgia Workers’ Center in Lyons, he added.
“Under the Bishop’s episcopate, the diocese entered into a covenant with Rural & Migrant Ministry, welcoming the ministry to the diocese,” he said in an e-mail message to the Catholic Courier. “During the past 12 years, the ministry has grown tremendously within the diocese working hand in hand with Jack Balinsky and Catholic Charities, Marv Mich and the Diocesan Public Policy Committee and our colleagues at Hispanic Migrant Ministry and La Casa. … We are especially grateful for the Bishop’s prophetic leadership as the Diocese has stood tall calling for the just treatment of farmworkers in New York State.”
Bishop Clark likewise has been a leader in peace efforts, speaking out during an anti-missile movement at the Seneca Army Depot in Romulus in the early 1980s, said Sister Korn. He also has demonstrated his commitment to justice through personal witness, she added, noting that he attended the sentencing phase of a death-penalty trial in Rochester
Balinsky said the bishop’s decision in 2000 to be present during part of the death-penalty trial of Jos√© Julian Santiago in 2000 arose from the 1993 diocesan synod, which had identified a commitment to consistent-life-ethic advocacy as a diocesan priority.
Bringing together diocesan priests, religious and laity through a three-year series of grassroots, regional and then diocesan meetings, the synod whittled a list of 48 initial recommendations down to five priorities that Bishop Clark publicly committed the diocese to implement and support, Balinsky added.
As part of synod implementation, in 1995 the bishop created a consistent-life-ethic advocacy office, which evolved into the Life Issues Office within diocesan Catholic Charities; the office is currently overseen by Jann Armantrout, Balinsky noted. But even prior to the synod, Bishop Clark showed his support of collaboration and advocacy by overseeing Catholic Charities’ creation in 1992 of the diocesan Public Policy Committee. Balinsky detailed the DPC’s founding in his 2009 book, Spirit Alive! Fifty Years of Consistent Life Ethic Advocacy and Parish Social Ministry in the Catholic Diocese of Rochester 1958-2008.
“A hallmark of the bishop’s administration is always a consultative, collaborative process,” Balinsky said during a recent interview.
One of the committee’s most important tasks is development of the diocese’s annual legislative agenda, which gives special consideration to the priorities of the New York State Catholic Conference. The approach involves a multiyear focus on several issues to provide more comprehensive attention from the diocese and its parishes on such topics as parental notification of abortion, welfare reform, farmworker advocacy, mental health and end-of-life issues.
“There are other dioceses that do migrant ministry, and at least one or two others in New York that have a Public Policy Committee, (but) Rochester does seem to have a particularly well-developed program in both instances,” added Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference.
Contains reporting by Mike Latona.