In the early morning of March 6, 2017, James Michael Moynihan, retired Bishop of Syracuse, NY passed from this life into the next without fanfare but not without leaving an indelible mark on the world he left behind. Dozens of people could write a better tribute than I, but mine is intended only to put down in words what this man, this mentor, this friend meant to me and to my family.
My relationship with the bishop began informally as I would be the traditional greeter and escort for him when he attended graduation at Christian Brothers Academy where I served as the school minister. We would meet at his car, chat for about 30 minutes before the ceremony began while he changed into his robes, and eventually make our way to the procession. Those 30 minutes turned into longer conversations at other events and eventually we formed what would be an almost 20 year friendship.
Anyone in Upstate New York in the 1990’s and early 2000’s knew that when the bishop called, you responded without delay. So when he called upon me (literally) to take on the challenge of leading a new K-12 model of Catholic education in Rome, NY, I couldn’t refuse this gentle giant who knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish. You see, it was clear from day one that this bishop was committed to 3 priorities as Bishop of Syracuse: Catholic education, the sanctity of life, and the promotion of vocations. And his genius was knowing that Catholic schools were the place where all of his priorities could come together in a beautiful mosaic for the future of the Church.
A few years later he’d call me over to his house again for lunch as his time as bishop was ending. There he would tell me (not ask me), that I would be appointed the new Superintendent of Schools. At the ripe old age of 37, I requested if I might speak to my wife about such a request first. He promptly replied, “I know Stephanie will be fine with it. So please go back to the office and see my communications director; she will take it in from there.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
The stories can go on forever but what I realize today is that the real blessing of my friendship with the bishop was that I got to know him best after his retirement. It was in those frequent visits to his new home, the periodic cocktail hours, the times seeing him without all of the trappings of his office; those were the moments that he was at his best. He was a man of deep faith in God but also with a deep faith in others. He cherished the work of the laity and was genuinely grateful for our work on behalf of the Church. Make no mistake about, the bishop was a churchman from head to toe and he loved his priests. But he never failed to recognize that the Church, lay and religious alike, were the living stones that made up the local Church of Syracuse. He chose to write only one Pastoral Letter in his tenure as bishop and as its title reflects, it was concerned only with Equipping the Saints for The Work of Ministry.
My kids loved visiting the bishop, especially at Christmastime. First, they knew he always had a plethora of candy around and second, they knew they were going to hear some great stories. In the end, they came to love him as a person and not just as a retired bishop. Just this past Christmas he got to hear my oldest sing when she did a command solo performance for him (just him) at his facility. While she didn’t know that this was the last time she would see him, I know it’s a memory she will carry with her forever.
Some that run in my circles say that the most thankless job in the Church is that of “Bishop Emeritus”. What is a bishop to do after stepping down from such a high profile and influential position? But while this one man’s profile was less public, his influence in my life was even greater. Without the burdens of the office and the administrative tasks of the diocese, he was better able to equip this author for the work of ministry. And for that I will always be grateful.
I was blessed to be with the bishop this weekend in his final moments of his earthly journey. And as was typical of this man, he was less concerned about his own fate, and more concerned about those of us around him feeling comfortable. “Chris, thank you for coming,” he muttered as his eyes lit up. We spent Saturday praying with him at times and reading from Scripture at other times. These were indeed moments of grace. And as I said goodbye on Sunday morning, just hours before his death, I told him that we loved him. I told him that we were praying for him. And his final words to me were, “I am praying for you, Chris.” I take great comfort in knowing that James Michael Moynihan is praying for me in eternity.