Late Bishop Clark inspired vocations in ministry - Catholic Courier
A man gives another man a skateboard. Bishop Clark inspired many young people to pursue ministry.

In the late 1990s, Michael Theisen (left) gifts a skateboard signed by diocesan youths to Bishop Matthew H. Clark. (Courier file photo)

Late Bishop Clark inspired vocations in ministry

In August of 1993, then-Bishop of Rochester Matthew H. Clark set up his sleeping bag in Denver’s Cherry Creek Park and prepared to camp out that night with 500,000 young people awaiting a visit from then-Pope John Paul II.

The scene stands out in the memories of Michael Theisen and Anne Kidera Gallagher, who both noted the moment was emblematic of the way the late Bishop Clark related to the young people in his flock.

“He just wanted to be with the people, and the young people especially,” remarked Theisen, who served for 13 years as coordinator and later director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Rochester.

Bishop Clark’s example inspired others’ vocations in ministry

Bishop Clark’s unwavering support for young people encouraged many not only to embrace their faith but also to pursue vocations in ministry, said Gallagher, a teen participant at World Youth Day 1993 who went on to become director of formation and pastoral associate for youth at Pittsford’s Church of the Transfiguration.

“It would be really hard for me to overestimate the impact that his presence in youth ministry and my life has had,” she observed.

Bishop Clark played a role in the vocations of many others active in ministry in the diocese today, including Donald Smith, diocesan coordinator of sacramental catechesis and family life.

And although Theisen left his diocesan post in 2005 for a leadership role at the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, he said that door likely would not have opened for him without Bishop Clark’s leadership and support for youth ministry.

Youth ministry boomed under Bishop Clark’s leadership

Theisen’s first interaction with Bishop Clark came in 1990, when the bishop spoke at the National Catholic Youth Ministry Conference, which took place in Rochester that year.

“I just remember sitting there enthralled listening to him,” Theisen said. “You could just tell from his presence and his words that he was just so genuine in his pastoral ministry and respect for all.”

Bishop Clark’s talk was one of the factors that led Theisen to move from Richmond, Va., in 1992 to become coordinator of youth ministry for the Rochester Diocese. Around that time, youth ministry exploded in the diocese, a phenomenon Theisen attributed to Bishop Clark’s vocal support of young people, which was well-known in youth-ministry circles across the nation.

“Rochester certainly was one of the leaders in (youth ministry) during that post-World Youth Day time,” Theisen said. “A number of parish youth ministers were hired over the next five to 10 years. From 1993 to 2000, we just saw a phenomenal growth.”

Bishop Clark was a regular participant in the diocese’s annual teen gatherings, where he lunched with teens, heard their confessions and participated in skits onstage. He formed authentic connections with the young people, which in turn encouraged them to embrace their faith, Theisen said.

Bishop emeritus empowered teens to take leadership roles in the church

Bishop Clark’s commitment to empowering others was one of the hallmarks of his ministry, Theisen said, pointing as an example to the “Gifted to Serve” document the bishop issued in 1997. In that document, Bishop Clark encouraged parishes and schools to invite young people to take on any liturgical roles that were open to adults. This resulted in a significant number of teens being trained to serve as lectors, hospitality ministers and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion; some even began serving on parish councils.

“He based it by reason of their baptism,” Theisen explained. “You didn’t have to wait until you were confirmed or a certain age, and that really helped young people take meaningful roles in the liturgy. We wouldn’t have gone down that road had it not been for Matthew’s understanding and support of that approach to empowering young people.”

Youth-ministry experiences invited teen to discipleship, future ministry

Gallagher is living proof of the initiative’s success. She’s been working in youth ministry since 2000, but doubts she would have discerned the vocation if it hadn’t been for her own positive experiences with youth ministry as a teen.

“My involvement in youth ministry was hugely important and formative for me. I like to say I was invited to the adventure of discipleship,” Gallagher said.

In the early 1990s, the staff at Gallagher’s home parish, St. Thomas More in Brighton, invited her to represent the parish on the new Diocesan Youth Committee, whose members would plan and carry out the annual diocesan conventions and youth rallies.

‘Our bishop was here with us’

Gallagher got to know Bishop Clark through her involvement with the Diocesan Youth Committee and her participation in World Youth Day 1993 in Denver. While she and the other teens thought Bishop Clark’s tie-dyed T-shirt was cool, what impressed them most was the fact that he had chosen to be with them, rather than heading back to the hotel for the night with most of the other bishops attending the event, she said.

“Most of the people in that field probably didn’t know he was a bishop, but the teens of our diocese knew our bishop was here with us,” Gallagher recalled. “He was in the experience with us, and what a great example that was of what it would look like to shepherd.”

The teens sensed that Bishop Clark genuinely enjoyed being around them, so they in turn loved spending time with him, she said. When they had questions, he answered them honestly, which showed them there was a place for everyone in the Catholic Church, even for people who had questions.

“He didn’t treat us like kids. He made it exciting to be part of the church. It was a place where we could all be at home, and we had an important job to do. That changed the whole direction of my life,” said Gallagher, who started working in parish ministry immediately after graduating from Loyola College in Maryland.

Recommendation from Bishop Clark leads to career in ministry

Smith’s career in ministry likewise began shortly college graduation and thanks to a boost from Bishop Clark.

Smith graduated from Olean’s St. Bonaventure University in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in theology but without a clear plan for how to put the degree to use. The Cayuga County native wrote a letter to Bishop Clark, inquiring whether there were any open ministry positions in the diocese.

Three days later, Smith received a call from a woman in the diocesan human resources office.

“She says, ‘Don, I have a very nicely written letter here that you sent to the bishop, that has a handwritten note that says, “Find this young man a job!” Can you come in and talk?’” Smith recalled. “He valued those that wanted to get involved in ministry, in whatever way, and wanted to see it happen.”

Bishop Clark shared wisdom on ministering with generosity, joy

Smith soon started working in faith-formation and youth ministry at Brighton’s Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Thomas More parishes. One of his supervisors soon passed along a lesson she’d learned from Bishop Clark, he recalled.

“She said, ‘If we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of generosity.’ Yeah, we made mistakes, but we always tried to make mistakes in a way that, yes, we had to go back and ask for forgiveness, but it didn’t hurt people,” Smith said.

Bishop Clark had a smile that radiated joy and made those around him want to share in that joy and peace, he said. His smile was a very effective way way of welcoming people to the church, Smith explained, noting that he strives to set a similarly welcoming, pastoral tone in his own ministry.

Smith also tries to emulate the way Bishop Clark approached the celebration of the sacraments, particularly confirmation. It would be easy for anyone who attends multiple confirmation services each year to start to see them as routine or even mundane, but Bishop Clark liked to remind his colleagues that each service represented an important moment in the lives of those receiving the sacrament.

“He would always say, ‘I get tired from confirmations. I never get tired of confirmations,’” Smith recalled. “I get it. … It’s OK to be tired because of something, but still recognize the beauty and joy of it.”

Tags: Bishop Matthew H. Clark, Profiles in Faith
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