The universality of the Church became acutely apparent to Bishop-elect Edmund J. Whalen while serving his diaconate summer in the Diocese of Kakamega, Kenya, on the Kenya-Uganda border, a mission to the Bukusu tribe.
The 500-square mile mission, where he spent three months in 1983, was “desperately poor” and “primitive” but abundant with “wonderful people.”
“It was just amazing to see the vibrancy of their faith. They had nothing, but they were rich in faith.”
The vicar for clergy of the archdiocese applies lessons learned there, as well as in Rome where he has studied extensively, to his ministry in New York. “It really brings home, as did Rome, the universality of the Church, that we’re all in this together.”
Bishop-elect Whalen, who served as principal of Msgr. Farrell High School on Staten Island from 2010 until his appointment as vicar for clergy in January, said, “I used to teach the kids in school, if you appreciate your own culture, then you’re going to appreciate others’. If you don’t appreciate other people’s culture, it really means you don’t appreciate your own.”
He speaks French, English, Italian and Spanish, and has an academic knowledge of Latin, Hebrew, Greek and German.
Bishop-elect Whalen recalled a crucial lesson about the necessity of mastering additional languages while a student at Msgr. Farrell, from the late Brother Henry Wright, C.F.C. “He taught us that if you spoke the language, you understand how people think.”
Learning another language is not that difficult, Bishop-elect Whalen insists. “I always remember Brother Wright’s first day with us. He had us look out the window and asked us what were those things passing the school on the street. We said, ‘Cars, Brother.’” The teacher asked what else they were, and the reply came, “automobiles, vehicles, and he just kept going.” Finally, Brother Wright told the young men, “See, now you’ve got all these words, but that’s still a car; you’re just adding another word.”
Bishop-elect Whalen added, “Most of my time in parishes, I was always covering the Italian Mass or the Spanish Mass. Everyone wants to talk to God in their own language, so that availability for people is important.”
Of the Dec. 10 ordination to the episcopacy of Bishop-elect Whalen, 61, and Bishop-elect Gerardo J. Colacicco, 64, Bishop-elect Whalen said, “It’s good for the Church to have a good celebration right now. We need ‘a happy.’
“It’s a chance for us to look at who we are as a Church and recognize that, despite everything else that’s facing us, and despite all the bleak news about people not believing and everything, it’s obvious that people do believe. The people of the archdiocese are people of wonderful faith.”
Edmund, the youngest of three sons of the late John and Margaret, and his brothers, Michael and Kevin, had “a very basic Irish Catholic upbringing” on Staten Island. “Faith was important to us, the family was important to us,” he said.
Their parents “were hardworking, very good, genuine people, very active in our home parish,” Blessed Sacrament on Staten Island, “very active in the schools.”
John Whalen was an insurance agent and then the business manager of the family’s parish, “which was really kind of groundbreaking in the 1960s,” Bishop-elect Whalen said. Mrs. Whalen was a homemaker. “They taught us the right thing to do and held us to a standard,” he said.
Growing up in a large extended family was advantageous. Bishop-elect Whalen said it “colors your vision of the Church, and makes it easy to understand it as a big, extended family.”
At Blessed Sacrament, Edmund was baptized and received his first penance, First Holy Communion and confirmation. He was an altar server.
“Every Sunday, you were at Mass. We grew up in an area where you didn’t say you were from a neighborhood; you identified yourself by parish. You grew up in Blessed Sacrament; you didn’t grow up in West Brighton. It was just part of the fabric of your life.”
A vocation to the priesthood was something the Sisters of Charity continually talked about at Blessed Sacrament School, he said. “It was certainly something seen as a value, something I always thought of, and solidified in the high school years. It was the influence of the priests in the parish and the priests who taught me in high school,” at Msgr. Farrell.
“They were just good men who cared about their people in the parish, cared about their students in school, were part of our lives in the parish and school and were great role models.”
Bishop-elect Whalen, speaking about the boys’ school, said, “There’s a bonding that occurs there that lasts you through life. Our motto is ‘Vir Fidelis’. From the get-go, that was always emphasized to us. They gave us an excellent education—you couldn’t beat the education—but it wasn’t about you. It was, what were you going to do with it to make a difference?”
He graduated from Msgr. Farrell in 1976, taught there from 1987 to 1990 and, during his nine years as principal, made a point to continue teaching religion, French and philosophy.
“Those were some of the best years, the Farrell years, that you could ask for.”
He has high praise for the students, and what they taught him. “They’re admirable young men. There’s a real genuine goodness in them…
“And now to run into so many of our alumni, and to see them just having done well career-wise, but also just done well as people, is great to see.”
Bishop-elect Whalen was priest-secretary to Cardinal John O’Connor, 1990-1992. “He was a demanding boss, but never more demanding of anyone else than he was of himself.
“And I learned a tremendous amount from him, because he saw himself as the parish priest—the archdiocese was just one big parish and he was the parish priest.”
From Cardinal O’Connor, Bishop-elect Whalen said he learned the value of listening, not to jump to conclusions and to show up. “These were all things too that I saw in the parish priests and in the priests in my high school,” he said.
He returned to Rome to complete a doctorate in moral theology at the Academia Alfonsiana in 1995, then began what would be 12 years teaching moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, while also serving as vice rector there, 1997-1998, and then rector of St. John Neumann Seminary Residence, the Bronx, 1998-2001.
“It was a real privilege to be able to be part of the formation of our future priests. It’s a great responsibility but a great privilege. And to see now how that formation is playing out in their service as priests is great.”
Asked about his pastoral approach, Bishop-elect Whalen said, “You have to focus on people. This isn’t a company, it isn’t a corporation. It’s the Archdiocese—not ‘the Arch’—we should stop using that term, because that’s a corporate term. We’re the Archdiocese, we’re people. It’s about God’s people as a family of faith.
“And families have troubles, families have challenges, but families pull together, and you grow through things,” he said. “This city, this state, would not be what it is today without the Church.”
Of his studies abroad, he said, “one of the great gifts I was given was being able to study at Rome. You saw that the Church isn’t just a moment—it’s 2,000 years of faith. You breathe it in at Rome.”
He was pastor of St. Joseph and St. Thomas parish, Staten Island, 2007-2010 and St. Benedict, the Bronx, 2001-2007. He also served as a parochial vicar at Resurrection, Rye, and St. Joseph, Bronxville, and weekend and summer assistant at St. Clare’s, the Bronx.
“People in the parish are inspiring,” he said. “They’re coming off the train, they’re coming home from work, and then they’re coaching basketball all night.”
Bishop-elect Whalen selected “Walk Humbly With God,” from the Book of the prophet Micah, as his episcopal motto. “The biblical understanding of humility,” Bishop Whalen explained, “is just being receptive to God, and being open to seeing God in all situations. And as we walk along in life, that’s the best thing you can do, be open to the presence of God.”