Down to earth

When Joseph Emanuele recently went to 4 p.m. Saturday Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Amsterdam, he encountered something he didn’t expect.

It was “a very uplifting surprise,” he said, to find the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese’s new bishop, Edward Scharfenberger, celebrating the Mass and giving the homily. In fact, the bishop celebrated all the Masses at the parish that weekend.

The bishop spoke about increasing priestly and religious vocations and finding a priest to pastor the parish.

“I was very much impressed with the positive charisma he portrayed,” Emanuele said.

The Rev. Donald Czelusniak, pastor of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Gloversville and Holy Trinity Church in Johnstown, was similarly impressed with Scharfenberger, who formally became the diocese’s bishop April 10.

Czelusniak, who has headed the deanery comprising the parishes of Fulton and Montgomery counties for 14 years, said he was surprised when the bishop took the initiative in asking to attend a deanery meeting. The deanery includes not just priests, but other parish leaders.

“I was impressed by his approach, welcoming and down to earth,” the priest said. “He invited input from us.”

What the laity and priests are picking up is exactly what Scharfenberger said he wants to convey.

“My first priority is to listen to the people, to get close to what’s on their hearts, and what they are looking for from me,” he said in a recent interview.

In a diocese where church consolidations and closings have been emotionally wrenching for many parishioners, the bishop is already hearing a clear message from the people. “They’re afraid I’m going to close their parish,” Scharfenberger said.

Besides his years as a pastor in Queens, the bishop was vicar for strategic planning in Queens, which dealt with such issues.

Scharfenberger said closings are always the last resort and emphasized the people have a right to know at every point about the vibrancy and financial condition of their parish.

He recalled a parish that was being subsidized by the Brooklyn Diocese with $300,000 annually, but the pastor never told the people. When the parish became no longer viable, the members were stunned and wished they had known about the subsidy and been given a chance to help save the parish.

Scharfenberger said he’s been hearing about the pain people are feeling because of such problems as broken families, loneliness, drug abuse and economic need. He mentioned Fulton, Montgomery and Delaware counties as areas where economic distress is particularly acute.

He said he believes “people are looking for relationship,” and the church should be a place that provides and builds community.

The bishop is “honest, open, direct, a good listener,” said the Rev. Lawrence Decker, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Joseph’s and St. Michael’s parishes in Amsterdam. “He has a compassionate heart, especially for the poor and the homeless.”

The Our Lady of the Martyrs shrine in?Auriesville has been a focus of Catholic devotional life since its founding in 1885. Operated by the Jesuits, some of whose forebears were martyred there, the shrine has run into financial difficulties, and a fundraising campaign is under way to deal with that.

Scharfenberger said he is keenly aware of the shrine’s plight and is already in direct contact with the campaign’s chairman, Joseph Caruso. He also plans to meet with the Jesuits.

The bishop is not concerned simply about the shrine’s maintenance. “We need vision there,” he said. “I just wish its potential could be released.”

Part of that vision could be Auriesville as a place to bring “young people to celebrate their faith,” where they learn that Christians are here “to proclaim God’s love and mercy,” as the popes have done with World Youth Day, he said.

A lack of vocations to the priestly and religious life has plagued the Albany Diocese and many other dioceses in the United States and is a factor in parish consolidations.

Scharfenberger said he believes this need not be. He cited polls of teens and never-married adults collated by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate that found 13 percent of males have considered being a priest or brother and 10 percent of females, a sister. This interest is more likely to bear fruit if they attend a Catholic college or are involved in Catholic volunteer organizations, the study found. It also revealed the support and encouragement of other Catholics are important keys to tapping this interest.

“The call [from God] seems to be there,” said Scharfenberger, but these potential recruits often say “nobody ever asked me” about pursuing a priestly or religious vocation.

Scharfenberger, a civil and canon lawyer, worked in the Brooklyn Diocese, assisting in the investigation of clergy sexual abuse. He wants to assure people who have been abused that they will be listened to with compassion since this kind of abuse causes a deep and hurtful “father wound” and any claims will be thoroughly investigated. He said he believes sexual abuse of children is more widespread in society than people realize.

Scharfenberger said he believes in everything the Catholic Church teaches in the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

He said he wants to encourage Catholics in their devotional life and he finds Catholics often gain spiritual solace in the rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet.

The bishop said he is aware many people feel alienated and often hears people say “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.”

He encourages people who feel they are unworthy before God because of their sins to “give themselves a second chance” because Jesus loved and forgave sinners. He said he and Pope Francis are sinners and are in continual need of God’s forgiveness.

“The church is not a hotel for saints but a field hospital for sinners,” the bishop said.

Scharfenberger said he wants to stay out of the political sphere of the “red state-blue state,” sloganeering and placards. “I’m a priest, not a politician,” he said.

He said he is willing to talk with people who have opposing views, such as pro-choice advocates, to find common ground and to listen to people who have same-sex inclinations.

Scharfenberger will have plenty of time to meet and listen to people because, as Czelusniak noted, the bishop has opened his schedule to celebrate weekend Masses and preach at parishes throughout the diocese.

The bishop said he is trying to send the message that he is primarily a pastor and secondarily, the CEO of the diocese.

“He is a people’s bishop,” Emanuele said.