Thirty-three years ago, Patty and I were among the thousands processing into the Rochester’s War Memorial arena for your installation Mass. Due to health concerns, our beloved Bishop Joseph Hogan had requested early retirement and you, a young and vibrant spiritual director of the North American College in Rome had been ordained a bishop by Pope John Paul II to succeed him.
Under Bishops Sheen and Hogan, the Diocese of Rochester had firmly embraced Vatican II. As members of the first class of permanent deacons slated to be ordained two years later, our excitement was slightly tinged with apprehension. At your first meeting with deacon candidates and spouses, someone asked, “Bishop Clark, will you be a bishop of The Church or of The People of God?” The room grew silent as all looked to see how red your face would become. But, instead of anger, your expression was instead one of bafflement. “I don’t really understand the question,” I recall you saying. “The Church IS the People of God.”
In the 33 years since you so masterfully answered that rather impertinent question, you have worked with faithfulness, humility and courage to bridge the chasm between what some see as the magisterial church and the Vatican II vision of church as the “People of God.”
* You have been faithful to the vision of Vatican II and to the trust placed in you as bishop by the universal church.
* You have been faithful to your priests, deacons, pastoral administrators, and women and men religious — gathering with them, seeking their input and entrusting them with pastoral responsibilities according to their unique abilities and the specific needs of parochial communities.
* You have been a faithful shepherd to the people of your diocese, making regular visits to their parishes, communicating with them via your weekly “Along the Way” column and respecting their intelligence by making our diocesan newspaper a vehicle of transparency and thoughtful commentary covering the spectrum of Catholic thought.
* You have demonstrated faithfulness to collegiality by convening a diocesan synod where the faithful could assist you in setting priorities for the diocese. Later, you developed Pastoral Planning for the New Millennium to give parish communities the opportunity to participate in determining their future in a church that would rely on fewer priests and more lay involvement.
* You have been faithful to the pledges made in your prophetic pastoral letter “The Fire in the Thornbush” (1982) in which you promised “to encourage and to invite women to participate in full measure in volunteer and paid positions within the diocese and its organizations,” to “provide the proper training that will help lay persons, men and women, to assume their rightful positions in the life of their respective Church communities” and to “encourage more inclusion of women in liturgical functions, in those roles now open to them or in new roles that may be legitimately created.”
* You have been a faithful shepherd to the young people of this diocese. During confirmation Masses you take the time to personally meet each young person, their sponsors and families. You enthusiastically participate in diocesan and national conferences of Catholic youth.
* Finally, in a period of history when some bishops have been accused of being aloof and out of touch with their people, you have remained one of us — shepherding in our midst. You are on a first-name basis with your priests, deacons and their spouses, religious sisters and thousands of laypeople of the diocese. Your countenance is gentle and always pastoral. When questioned, you listen attentively, and when you speak, do so with respect and thoughtfulness. You remain faithful to church teaching without abandoning those who struggle to live within its practical implications.
Bishop Clark, your faithfulness to the People of God has not come without personal cost. The extremes of the Catholic spectrum have sometimes scurrilously criticized you for the inclusiveness of your ministry and your willingness to make pastoral care the hallmark of your episcopacy. But you have never traded insult for insult or sought to use your office to quiet their voices — remaining always the faithful shepherd and trusting always that “God’s love endures forever.”
For that and the numerous ways God has graced our family over the past 33 years through your friendship, Patty and I wish you a peaceful and blessed retirement.
Deacon Defendorf is a member of the diocese’s first class of permanent deacons. He retired in 2009 from his position as pastoral administrator of St. Mary Parish in Bath.