April 23, 1979, started off as a normal day for Father Matthew H. Clark, spiritual director at the North American College in Rome. By the end of that day, however, he’d learned that he would be installed as bishop of the Diocese of Rochester in a little more than two months.
“Oh, it was a bolt out of the blue,” Bishop Clark recalled of the news.
He arrived in Rochester on June 25, 1979, and was formally installed as the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Rochester before a crowd of 10,000 the next day.
A native of Waterford, N.Y, in the Diocese of Albany, Bishop Clark attended St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester from 1957-59, and was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in 1962. His return to Rochester was unexpected but pleasant, he said.
“I wouldn’t trade a second of my 25 years here for anything in the world,” Bishop Clark said in a recent interview.
Bishop Clark said that when he arrived in the diocese, his goal was to be a good servant and pastoral leader, so he put a high priority on listening and being attentive to the people of the diocese. Doing so has become his guiding philosophy throughout his ministry here.
“I think it’s very important for a bishop to remember that first of all he’s a disciple of the Lord, and that discipleship is what most deeply unites him with the local church, who are also disciples,” Bishop Clark said. “To the degree that I have made decisions in consultation with those affected by those decisions, I think … the decisions have been sound and well-received. To the degree that I’ve not consulted in that way, inevitably I wish I had.”
Father Joseph Hart, diocesan vicar general and moderator of the diocesan Pastoral Center, agreed, saying that Bishop Clark’s spirit of collaboration has been a strength of his bishopric.
“One always feels that he’s absolutely, totally respectful of even divergent opinions and wants to listen and to decide what to do; what is in the best interest of everyone,” Father Hart said.
An example of this came in 1986, Father Hart added, when Bishop Clark approached the diocesan Priests’ Council about convening a diocesan synod. The bishop had thought it was an appropriate time for such a gathering of priests, religious and laity to advise him on diocesan legislation and policy. But the Priests’ Council felt otherwise, so Bishop Clark respected that opinion and let the subject drop. Just a few years later, however, the council approached the bishop to say that it was in fact an appropriate time for a synod, Father Hart noted.
In 1990 Bishop Clark convened the diocesan synod, which culminated in the General Synod at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center Oct. 1-3, 1993. By the conclusion of that event, approximately 1,300 delegates from throughout the diocese had identified five diocesan priorities: lifelong religious education and Catholic moral education (which were later combined into the priority of lifelong faith formation), the consistent-life ethic, small Christian communities, and the role of women in church and society.
Long before the synod established the role of women as a priority for the diocese, Bishop Clark published a 1982 pastoral letter on women in the church, titled “Fire in the Thornbush,” which gained national recognition.
In the letter, he stressed the dignity, human rights and spirituality of all people and invited diocesan Catholics to pray and reflect on the participation of women in the life of the church; encouraged and invited women to participate within the diocese; and urged the inclusion of women in the liturgical functions that are open to them.
Bishop Clark also has been active in lifelong faith formation. He oversaw the restructuring of the now-defunct St. Bernard’s Seminary into the current St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, a Roman Catholic graduate school. Thanks to the recent success of the diocese’s Partners In Faith capital campaign, the school was able to construct a new campus in Pittsford.
Another highlight of Bishop Clark’s tenure has been the tremendous growth of diocesan youth ministry, Father Hart noted. Nearly every diocesan parish has some sort of youth-ministry program in place, many diocesan teens are involved in liturgical functions at their parishes, and the bishop often can be found mingling with teens at diocesan and national retreats and conventions.
Bishop Clark said he loves being in the presence of the young people of the diocese, although he admits with a chuckle that they sometimes tire him out. Engaging young people is important, the bishop noted, and he encourages them to find value in the life of the church community.
“I find they’re excited and smart; generous and faithful. It pleases me very much when I see young people included in parish life in all the ways for which they are trained and interested,” he said.
Bishop Clark also has been active in interfaith relations and ecumenism, gaining national attention in 1996 by signing a document, now known as the Rochester Agreement, that committed the diocese to work with the Rochester Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Community Federation to promote understanding of both faiths, and to work together on such issues as combatting prejudice. Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the agreement has become a model for similar agreements in such areas as the Diocese of Camden, N.J.
In May 2003, he signed an agreement with local Muslim leaders to affirm rights of free speech and religion; reject religious and ethnic intolerance; and promote deeper knowledge, mutual respect and understanding of Islam and Catholicism. This Catholic-Muslim agreement also is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.
“We’re not who God wants us to be if we ever forget our work to bring people closer together,” the bishop remarked. “We’re all God’s family, God’s children.”
In his 25 years of episcopal leadership, Bishop Clark has also faced several challenges, but Father Hart noted that he has dealt with them in his usual way, listening to what people have to say, then carefully and clearly attempting to show the issues and why he thinks a decision is the right one.
“Looking back at the most important moments, the most filled with learning and deepening, I’d say as a general pattern the deepest times have come at the most difficult times,” Bishop Clark said. “They’re events and circumstances that you’d never choose for yourself … (but) I’ve found the Lord touches those tough times with lessons that are important for the future.”
Perhaps the toughest of those times was 1998, when Bishop Clark removed Father James Callan from his position as administrator of Rochester’s Corpus Christi Parish because the priest repeatedly had violated church teachings related to same-sex unions, the liturgical roles of the laity and the sharing of Eucharist with unbaptized people. The conflict over Father Callan’s removal eventually led to a painful schism, when he and a group of followers formed the breakaway Spiritus Christi Church.
When the bishop discovered irregularities at the parish, he didn’t set out on a mission to damage the pastor’s reputation, the vicar general added, but rather “very carefully corrected false teachings or false statements.” Following the teachings of St. Francis DeSales, Bishop Clark “would only do what was absolutely necessary to prevent the furthering of the schism,” Father Hart noted.
The bishop also faced trying times in 1990 with the reorganization of the Monroe County Catholic-school system. In the wake of 20 school closings through 1989, this plan sought to stabilize the system by centralizing parish schools in Monroe County under diocesan administration.
Bishop Clark “is proud of the Monroe County Catholic-school system that, though not perfect, has saved school after school from closing simply because an individual parish could no longer afford it,” Father Hart said.
Another challenge has come in the form of the priest shortage, which led the diocese to embark on a pastoral-planning process in 1997. Through this process, neighboring parishes have formed planning groups to look at future options for sharing such resources as priests and Mass schedules. Some of these groups now are sharing resources, and others have combined to form a single parish
“I don’t think you ever accomplish much good postponing dealing with your problems, difficult as it might be. It’s part of our responsibility, my responsibility, not to put off to the next generation problems we should be dealing with now,” Bishop Clark said.
Protests greeted the bishop in March 1997, when he presided over an emotional, standing-room-only Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral for gay and lesbian Catholics and their families and friends. A 1997 Catholic Courier article reported that Bishop Clark intended the Mass to show the church’s love for all people, and he recently told the Courier that he still stands by the Mass as an “admirable” effort.
“Some of those moments were tough. I don’t like controversy, I don’t look for it, but you learn from those things,” Bishop Clark said.
From the fall of 2002 to the summer of 2003, opponents of plans to renovate Sacred Heart Cathedral waged a legal battle against city and diocesan officials. The renovation opponents sought landmark designation for the cathedral, a status that would have required the diocese to seek city approval for certain exterior and interior changes. The renovation opponents eventually lost their battle in court, and the renovations have proceeded.
Throughout these trials, Bishop Clark has remained a kind and spiritual man, Father Hart said.
Diocesan Catholics are lucky to have Bishop Clark as their shepherd, said Father John Mulligan, pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral and the diocese’s other vicar general.
“He talks to people … and he’s a listening bishop. He’s very collaborative in his approach, and we in Rochester appreciate that a great deal and feel that we’re very, very blessed,” Father Mulligan said.
Bishop Clark said he has enjoyed his tenure as bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, and is looking forward to continuing his work. He said he’s learned from his challenges and accomplishments, and is grateful for the opportunity to serve this diocese.
“I consider it the greatest blessing of my life to be bishop here,” Bishop Clark said.Tags: Bishop Matthew H. Clark