Friends, colleagues share words of praise for Bishop Clark - Catholic Courier
Bishop Matthew H. Clark poses for a portrait April 30, 2008. (Courier photo by Mike Crupi) Bishop Matthew H. Clark poses for a portrait April 30, 2008. (Courier photo by Mike Crupi)

Friends, colleagues share words of praise for Bishop Clark

Bishop Matthew H. Clark has worked with and influenced many people — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — during his 30 years at the helm of the Diocese of Rochester. Several prominent Catholics and local leaders of other faiths were asked to comment on what they perceive to be Bishop Clark’s strengths as a leader and the highlights of his three decades in Rochester. Several common themes emerged from the responses, including Bishop Clark’s support of interfaith dialogue and social-justice work and his interest in the role of women in the church.


* Msgr. William Shannon, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Nazareth College in Pittsford and a prolific author — especially of books about Thomas Merton — said Bishop Clark has had a tremendous influence upon the Diocese of Rochester. Even so, he believes the Catholics — lay, ordained and religious alike — that the bishop has met have had just as much of an influence upon their leader.

“On June 26, 1979, when Bishop Clark was installed as bishop of Rochester in the War Memorial, I was privileged to be one of three persons presenting the TV broadcast of the ceremony. Many of us wondered: ‘Who is Matthew Clark and what kind of bishop will he be?’ For me the answer gradually growing in me came to fruition in April 1982 with the publication of his pastoral letter on women in the church, ‘The Fire in the Thornbush.’ It was a superb pastoral (far superior to three attempts made by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, none of which was ever published). This pastoral, I believe, proved to be a conversion experience in Bishop Clark’s life. Its publication was preceded by a year of monthly meetings of a committee whose task was to give input for the pastoral. I happened to be one of the few men on a committee largely made up of women. I remember Bishop Clark sitting at the sessions of this committee taking notes, but not joining in the conversation. For he was there, not to speak, but to listen.

“Preparing for the writing of this pastoral and actually writing it did indeed mark a turning point in the life of Matthew Clark. St. Augustine in a sermon told the people of Hippo: ‘For you I am a bishop; with you I am a Christian.’ Matthew Clark may well have agreed. The first (being a bishop) is a responsibility and at times a burden. The second (being a Christian) is the joy of realizing that, like all the people of his diocese, he is traveling life’s journey; a journey in which love is at once the goal and the way to the goal. It’s a journey toward God who is love. This bonds him to all of us. He is a people’s bishop. He enjoys being with people. He is most approachable. Like the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep, he knows people and has the wonderful facility in calling them by name. He is a shining example of one who gives of himself for others. To describe him at all adequately I would want to say that he is a holy man.

“I am told to be brief. So I would like to add just one thing more. I cannot pass over the marvelous event we experienced in (1993). The synod of the church of Rochester was a wonderful coming to maturity as church by all of us: bishop, laity, religious, priests. We came to some understanding of who we are as the people of God. It was the most joyful moment in our story as God’s people,” Msgr. Shannon said.

* Rabbi Laurence Kotok, senior rabbi at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Brighton, said he and Bishop Clark have had a warm and friendly working relationship since Rabbi Kotok arrived in Rochester in 1996. That year Bishop Clark signed the Rochester Agreement between the Diocese of Rochester, the Rochester Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Community Federation, pledging cooperation and promising to combat prejudice and promote education about the two faiths. On numerous occasions Bishop Clark has joined with Rabbi Kotok and other religious leaders to take public stands about community injustices and life issues, Rabbi Kotok said.

“I have always been impressed by his sensitivity, his openness, his commitment to his faith and his awareness of other faith communities within this Greater Rochester area. He has really tried to reflect the highest evolution of what interfaith dialogue should be today, and that is an awareness of our differences and an understanding of not trying to convince someone that they are wrong about their own beliefs. Our relationship has really been based on understanding each other, understanding our own beliefs and positions so that we can not only respect each other … but also be able to work together,” Rabbi Kotok said.

* Bishop Howard Hubbard, leader of the Diocese of Albany, became friends with Bishop Clark in 1957 when the two were classmates at Mater Christi Seminary in Albany. They have remained friends, traveling companions and colleagues in ministry, Bishop Hubbard said.

“I have grown in my admiration of his integrity, courage, vision and pastoral sensitivity. Bishop Clark is a man of principle who adheres to his values and ideals despite the cost. He has taken leadership positions on issues like the role of women in the church, justice for farmworkers, nuclear disarmament, pastoral care for gay and lesbian individuals and their families, academic freedom and ministerial collaboration, which have often rocked the boat and upset the powers that be both in church and society. His advocacy, however, has always been rooted not in the trends of the day, or the fads and fashions of the moment, but in his firm commitment to the Gospel and to the dignity which must be accorded every member of the human family.

“Bishop Clark enjoys the respect and esteem of his fellow bishops. At our statewide and national meetings he speaks sparingly but always with candor, civility, clarity, insight and with an unfailing concern for how our episcopal policies and statements will impact the spiritual life and well-being of our people. To paraphrase the old E.F. Hutton ad, ‘When Bishop Clark speaks, people listen.’

“The same is true in the ecumenical and interfaith arena as well. Bishop Clark has been a leader in promoting dialogue, mutual understanding and joint ventures among faith groups in the Diocese of Rochester. He has done so in a very frank, cooperative and down-to-earth fashion.

“In the Diocese of Rochester, collegiality has been the hallmark of Bishop Clark’s through decades of episcopal ministry. His vision and openness to change led him to be one of the first and, indeed, one of the few bishops in the nation to conduct a diocesan synod, composed of priests, deacons, religious and laity, to set pastoral priorities for the diocese.

“Rochester has been in the forefront of pastoral planning through processes which have elicited meaningful input from pastors and parishioners in shaping decisions about reconfigurations, necessitated by shifting demographics and declining numbers of priests and religious.

“Shared responsibility has also been the linchpin of Bishop Clark’s relationship with his presbyterate. I know of few dioceses in the nation where the members of the presbyterate have more opportunity for influencing the direction of the local church than Rochester. Bishop Clark looks upon his brother priests and their collaborators as peers and as coworkers in the vineyard.

“These accomplishments I have mentioned, and so many others of which you in Rochester are much more aware than I, flow from the caring heart of a true shepherd. Bishop Clark is a man in whom there is no guile. He exercises his episcopal ministry with only one goal in mind: to proclaim the message of Jesus in its fullness. He does so with deep conviction and great passion seeking to serve those entrusted to (his) care with an open mind, a listening spirit and a compassionate heart. Bishop Clark proclaims by word and deed the truth of his episcopal motto, ‘His love endures forever.’

“So congratulations, my friend, on 30 years of outstanding service to God’s people in the Diocese of Rochester. May your selfless labor continue to bear rich fruit and may you experience the love, respect and esteem of your grateful flock,” Bishop Hubbard said.

* Jack Balinsky, director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rochester, said he credits Bishop Clark with much of the agency’s growth and success through the past three decades. He says as much in his recent book, Spirit Alive! Fifty Years of Consistent Life Ethic and Parish Social Ministry in the Catholic Diocese of Rochester 1958-2008, which he dedicated in part to Bishop Clark in celebration of the bishop’s 30th anniversary. Although other bishops, especially Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Bishop Joseph L. Hogan, also contributed to his agency’s success, Balinsky said he believes Bishop Clark’s vision, leadership and constant support paved the way for Catholic Charities’ many accomplishments.

“Day in and day out he is a strong supporter of Catholic Charities in our service delivery and in our advocacy efforts. … He has done that for 30 years, and that’s why we now have a physical presence in each of the 12 counties. This would not have been possible without Bishop Clark’s support. His wonderfulness and support of Catholic Charities is not only known in this diocese, but throughout the country. I say often that when I go to state or national meetings I am the envy of my counterparts. They often say how wonderful it must be to work for Bishop Clark, and I say, ‘Amen,'” Balinsky said.

* Anne Willkens Leach, superintendent of diocesan Catholic schools, said she’s been privileged to work with Bishop Clark since she took on her post in mid-August 2008. Contrary to what some were led to believe after the closing of 13 schools last year, she has found Bishop Clark to be a staunch supporter of Catholic education.

“The bishop cares deeply for Catholic education. He is working so hard with me as superintendent and with the Department of Catholic Schools to do everything in our power to keep our schools open. We’re doing the best we can in these trying times. Right now our schools are active and vibrant and viable and we want to keep them that way. We need the help of the community and fellow Catholics to help us increase enrollment. It’s a joy to work with Bishop Clark because he does care. He’s approachable and easy to talk to. He’s very supportive of Catholic schools and he loves the children. He wants them to succeed,” Willkens Leach said.

* Imam Muhammad Shafiq of the Islamic Center of Rochester knows Bishop Clark well and has worked with him many times. Both men signed the 2003 Muslim Catholic Agreement of Understanding and Cooperation, which also was signed by other representatives of the Diocese of Rochester and the Council of Masajid (Mosques) of Rochester. By signing this document both communities pledged to respect each other’s religious traditions, fight religious and ethnic bigotry, and undertake efforts to foster mutual respect and education.

“Bishop Matthew Clark is a true bridge builder. He is the first bishop who approved and signed on to the agreement of the Muslim Catholic Alliance. Whenever I happened to meet other bishops in the U.S., all of them agreed to his reach-out capabilities and peacemaking efforts. He called for press conferences along with other key religious leaders and raised his voice on issues of social justice. He is a moderate voice, a cool-minded person, and a man of spiritual passion. He speaks softly and honors those who meet him. Personally I have great respect for his leadership and I wish him the best. It would be very difficult for another bishop to fill his shoes,” Imam Shafiq said.

* Father William Coffas grew up in the Diocese of Rochester, where he attended St. Ambrose Parish in Rochester. Even as a young child he had great admiration for Bishop Clark, he said, and that admiration only grew as he got older. Bishop Clark helped him discern a vocation to the priesthood and ordained him June 12, 2004.

“I’ve already gained a deeper respect for him as a man of faith and as a leader of the church, and recognizing the challenges of the church that confront us and how courageously he addresses them.

“I remember his installation. I wasn’t there. I remember watching it on a small black-and-white TV, and that was really my first experience of him. … I was 9 years old when Bishop Clark came to our diocese. I do remember the first time he came to St. Ambrose after he was installed, and I remember a long line of people waiting to see him and kiss his ring. I wanted his signature. I knew that he was famous. He wrote, ‘Bill, your pal, Matt Clark,’ and I still have that, and boy that really has turned out to be true. He’s turned out to be a good friend.

“I remember he helped me a great deal in my own discernment to the priesthood. I remember asking him the question, ‘How will we know we’re called to the priesthood?’ He said the decision to become a priest is primarily that between two people, you and Jesus Christ, and if you feel that call, then you need to pursue it. He was very gracious and encouraging to me, as he has been throughout my entire priesthood and my formation.

“Growing up in this diocese, I was always aware of what a remarkable, extraordinary leader he is and how courageous he is, and how blessed we are to have him as bishop. He certainly has the heart of Christ, and his connection with the previous Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, is also very special, realizing he was in the first class of bishops John Paul named. If it wasn’t for (the late pope) I would have never known Bishop Clark, who sent me on to seminary and has been very supportive and encouraging of my faith first and my priesthood,” Father Coffas.

* The Rev. Lawrence Witmer, former executive director of Genesee Ecumenical Ministry and the Greater Rochester Community of Churches, said Bishop Clark has been a great asset to ecumenical and interfaith relations in the Rochester community.

“His concern for building bridges of understanding among different religious traditions has been an authentic expression of his deep personal faith and his commitment to enact the Gospel of God’s reconciling love. His pastoral prayers at ecumenical gatherings always express this same caring friendship.

“To ensure the active voice and listening ears of the diocese are present in local ecumenical and interfaith organizations, he has faithfully overseen the appointment of well-qualified people to represent the Roman Catholic Diocese. He also sought counsel from leaders of other Christian denominations when developing long-range priorities and goals for the diocese during the three-year synod.

“Bishop Clark brought the prestige of the bishop’s office into the community as an advocate for justice, as for example, when he spoke at an anti-war rally at the Seneca Army Depot, when he spoke out against anti-Semitism and when he came to the aid of striking farmworkers,” Rev. Witmer said.

* Deacon David Palma, diocesan director of deacon personnel, said Bishop Clark has been a strong supporter of the permanent diaconate. He doubts there’s another bishop besides Bishop Clark in the country who can say he’s ordained every single deacon in his diocese.

“Bishop Clark has a very close and unique relationship with the diaconal community. Beginning with the first class of deacons in 1982, he has ordained every class. This year marks his 28th diaconate ordination. He has ordained a total of 184 men to the permanent diaconate.

“Bishop Clark has a deep understanding of the essential theology of service that is at the heart of the diaconate. His own ministry has been a wonderful example to all deacons of how to be a servant to our sisters and brothers.

“I am constantly amazed at how well he knows the deacons, and their wives and families. Over the years, he has been genuinely concerned about their ministry and welfare. The deacons and wives have great affection for Bishop Clark and do all they can to support him and his ministry as bishop.

“Not only has Bishop Clark supported the diaconate over the last 30 years, but also his vision and guidance have been critical to its remarkable growth. Without this nurturing engagement, the diaconate would never have reached such a high level of integration into the diocesan ministerium in such a short time,” Deacon Palma said.

* Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research at Rochester’s Catholic Family Center and president of the board of directors of the Greater Rochester Community of Churches, said he first met Bishop Clark in Rome in 1976, while the bishop was the spiritual director at the North American College. Mich said he’s grateful for Bishop Clark’s leadership in the spirit of Vatican II.

“Under the leadership of Bishop Clark, the Diocese of Rochester is recognized nationally for its commitment to social justice. The diocesan Public Policy Committee and the annual Advocacy Sunday in February are examples of this commitment of advocating for the full range of life issues. The decentralized model of Catholic Charities ensures that the works of charity and justice are responsive to each of the 12 counties of the diocese.

“His support of lay theological education by establishing St. Bernard’s Institute in 1981 … has provided the opportunity for laity to pursue graduate degrees in theology and ministry studies. This has enriched our diocese with educated leaders.

“On April 29, 1982, Bishop Clark released his pastoral letter on women in the church, ‘The Fire in the Thornbush.’ This letter led to his appointment to the bishops’ committee charged with studying women’s issues in the church and in society. His leadership in addressing these issues has left a lasting legacy in the diocese as we work for full participation of women in church and society.

“Bishop Clark has always paid special attention to the needs of young people. He has served on the USCCB committee on youth for many years and encouraged vibrant youth ministry in our diocese. In 1993 as part of the International Youth Day in Denver Bishop Clark slept outside in Cherry Creek State Park with thousands of young people. He gave up the comfort of a hotel room where most of the bishops stayed to sleep on the ground on the night before the Mass with Pope John Paul II. This spoke volumes for what kind of leader Bishop Clark is. He walks with us on the journey of being a disciple of Christ,” Mich said.

Tags: Bishop Matthew H. Clark
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