Today is the thirty-fifth anniversary of my ordination to priesthood that took place at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Miami. It is my custom to try my best to let birthdays and anniversaries pass as quietly and unnoticed as I can, so I find myself wondering why I have chosen this particular day and moment to write a blog entry on the occasion. The Irish “crepe-hanger” tendency in me could be the root cause as, if everything goes as I hope it might, my fortieth anniversary of ordination will likely be spent in the year following my departure as bishop of this great local Church and I really doubt and sometimes hope I will not live to see the fiftieth. So now might be the time to share some reflections and thoughts.
Thirty-five years ago as I entered the Cathedral with four others to be ordained by the late Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy, one of the kindest, gentlest, and fatherly people I have ever known, I had no real idea what turns my priesthood would take. My father had died, my mother was fragile in many ways, and my brothers were far away. I had only a small group of close friends who joined my family on that occasion and the ordination and first Mass were on the same day which, like this year, happened to be the Vigil of Pentecost. All that I had waited for, all that I had studied for, all that I had dreamed about, all I had worried about was over in nine hours. I was thirty-six years old that day. Monsignor Robert Gibbons, Father John Tapp, Father Thomas Morgan, Bishop John Noonan, Monsignor Michael Muhr all were in the seminary and some sang in the choir that morning, strangers to me and I to them.
There had been a great discussion on where to assign me for my first assignment I was later to learn. The Clergy Personnel Board had suggested to the Archbishop that I be assigned to St. Rose of Lima parish in Miami Shores with Monsignor Noel Fogarty but when he was called, he objected apparently, telling them that “I need someone who will stay here a few years and from what I know, Lynch won’t.” The man was prophetic. At the last moment, there was a swap of newly ordained and I was assigned to St. James parish in North Miami, a great working class parish at the time with a thriving school staffed by the Adrian Dominican Sisters and a rectory which consisted of a pastor, three associates, and three resident priests. Father Jim Reynolds (still alive and now a Monsignor) was my first pastor and he loved being a cruise ship chaplain and therefore was often gone ministering to Catholics on the high seas. Meanwhile back at St. James, while the proverbial “cat” was away, did the equally proverbial “mice” ever play. It was a great year. I staged the first parish musical (GREASE) and managed to bring the warring Adult Choir and Contemporary Choir together for the event which ushered in a new era of cooperation and working together.
But Monsignor Fogarty was right. Only June 26th, one year plus a few weeks after my ordination, Archbishop McCarthy called me to say that Bishop Thomas Kelly, OP, the general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference had called and informed him super-confidentially that the newly inaugurated Pope John Paul II was going to accept an invitation from the United Nations and President Jimmy Carter to visit the United States in October and the bishop’s conference was asking for me to be released to manage the first papal visit to the United States (Pope Paul VI came to the United Nations but never was invited to formally visit the US). I asked the Archbishop for permission to turn it down and told him how happy I was at St. James. He responded by saying that the “deployment” would only last until the Pope returned to Rome after the visit and I could return to St. James. So off I went – never to return to St. James sadly.
I began my work on the papal visit on July 1, 1979, taking temporary housing at the priest’s staff house in Washington, DC. On July 5th, I received a second call from Archbishop McCarthy. After exchanging some pleasantries and asking when the announcement of the visit would be officially confirmed (it had already leaked to the media), he then asked me if I would be willing to return to the Archdiocese of Miami and become the fifth Rector-President of St. John Vianney College Seminary when the Pope left in October. I told him that I did not think I would be a good candidate as I “hated seminaries.” He responded that someone who hated seminaries was precisely the kind of person who could make them better. Check-mate, Archbishop McCarthy. That was the first year and God saw that it was good!
From 1979-1984, I served as Rector-President of St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami. They were good years. I did not have time to study a learning curve so I made many mistakes, I am sure. But during this time, with a superb faculty and great priest associates, we met, formed and said farewell to over one-hundred and fifty great men, some serving as terrific priests today and some as loving and terrific husbands and fathers.
In the Spring of 1984, Monsignor Daniel Hoye, then the General Secretary of the NCCB/USCC and absolutely the finest “boss” I ever worked for, asked if I would return to Washington as his Associate General Secretary for Public Affairs. My portfolio included “supervising” women and men whose sandal strap I was not worthy really to tie: Father Brian Hehir, Father William Lewers CSC and John Carr in International and Domestic Social Justice, Mark Chopko our General Counsel, Frank Monahan our chief lobbyist, and Fathers Ken Doyle and Monsignor Frank Maniscalco in Communications to name a few of the great people of that era. In 1987, Blessed Pope John Paul II returned to the United States for his second pastoral visit to our country beginning in Miami, with the only outdoor Mass in his long pontificate that was terminated due to a severe thunderstorm, then Charleston, South Carolina, New Orleans, San Antonio, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco and Detroit – ten days and nine cities. He was indefatigable but I sure was not – the future saint wore me out. There were many moments when I thought to myself, “if the kids on the block, or even my dad, could see me now!”
Monsignor Hoye relinquished the position of General Secretary in 1989 and I was elected by the bishops to serve them in that capacity for the next six years. With Sisters Sharon Euart, Monsignor Dennis Schnurr (now the Archbishop of Cincinnati) and Frank Doyle as my associates, we served the finest group of bishops one could hope for. I had Archbishop John L. May as my first president for a year, Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk for the next three years, and Cardinal William H. Keeler for my final two. In 1993, the pope came back, this time for World Youth Day in Denver, something I had helped promote in the midst of genuine skepticism on the part of some of my bosses that (a) young people in North America will not come and (b) we could never afford the cost. But finally it was time, I knew in my heart, to return home, to Miami, to a parish and resume the rest of my life. With tears in my eyes and those of almost everyone else who lined a path from the Chapel at the USCCB/NCCB headquarters to the parking lot, I found my way to my packed car on February 2, 1995 and headed to Lorton to catch the Auto-Train south to my archdiocese.
Named pastor of St. Mark’s parish in western Broward County effective June 1st of 1995, I marked the occasion by being in the hospital for ten days with spinal meningitis contracted, according to the Center for Disease Control on a flight from Boston to Miami. When I finally arrived at St. Mark’s it was love at first sight. A contract had been signed for a new elementary school accommodating 1000 students (it was full on the day it was dedicated and remains full today!) and the worship space doubled as a hall and a church. My associate pastor was Father Fernando Isern – the best associate I ever had (not just because he was the only one either) who is now the Bishop of Pueblo, Colorado. St. Mark’s had great music, a full Church for every Sunday Mass, a Hispanic community who came up from Miami after Hurricane Andrew devastated Dade county, lots of life and spiritual vitality. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. My mother died ten days before Thanksgiving that year from chronic COPD and the national holiday was tinged with grief. The following Monday, I received a call from Archbishop Agostino Cacchiavillan, the papal nuncio, who informed me that the man for whom I had three times served as “travel agent” wanted me to come to St. Petersburg as its fourth bishop. I was ordained a bishop on January 26, 1996.
That was my priesthood, prior to being ordained a bishop. Reflections on this later period of my life need to remain just that – reflections until I am finished with my work. But what I have shared with you is the “stuff” for which I am so grateful today. So many wonderful experiences of “church” on many levels, so many bright, talented and wonderful people at my side desirous always of helping me, I have been so fortunate. Today at noon, the women and men of the Pastoral Center joined me for Mass. They are the current fountains of grace and success if that measure applies to the present moment. And so are you who read these sometimes rambling (this one may be the longest ever) musings. For them and for all of you, I give thanks to a generous and loving God.
Peace be with you!
Bishop Robert N. Lynch