As might be expected of two priests who have each served the Archdiocese of New York for at least 35 years, some similarities exist in the assignments Bishop-elect Edmund J. Whalen and Bishop-elect Gerardo J. Colacicco have held.
A quick look at their biographies reveals the bishops-elect both have served as pastors. Bishop-elect Colacicco has had three pastorates, including his current tenure at St. Joseph-Immaculate Conception parish in Millbrook and previous ones at St. Columba’s in Hopewell Junction and Sacred Heart in Newburgh. In Bishop-elect Whalen’s case, he is currently vicar for clergy, and previously was pastor of two parishes, St. Joseph-St. Thomas on Staten Island and St. Benedict in the Bronx.
The similarities don’t end there.
Each held significant positions at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, where they taught and influenced the formation of future clergy of the archdiocese, including many who now lead their own parishes. Bishop-elect Colacicco served as director of pastoral formation for four years in the 1990s, and Bishop-elect Whalen was vice rector of development, 1997-1998, and professor of moral theology for a dozen years. In addition, Bishop-elect Whalen also was rector for three years of St. John Neumann Residence, the Bronx, which served college age men pursuing the priesthood.
The bishops-elect were each named monsignors by St. Pope John Paul II in the same year, 1999, under Cardinal John O’Connor.
Both also had served as priest secretaries to Cardinal O’Connor during the 16-year tenure during which the legendary archbishop left his mark on the Church in New York, the United States and the world as a spiritual leader, a pro-life advocate and a newsmaker who was out front and often outspoken on the issues of the day.
Their time serving the seminary system and with Cardinal O’Connor was cited by both as integral to their own development as priests, and offered elevating moments afforded by the exposure and experiences they had.
During separate interviews with CNY, they shared recollections of their times in those positions.
Looking back on his year as priest secretary to Cardinal O’Connor in 1989-1990, Bishop-elect Colacicco said, “When time passes and you reflect on past experiences…you realize how formative those experiences were and how much he influenced my priesthood.”
As the cardinal visited brother priests who were sick, or attentively listened to the needs people expressed to him, Bishop-elect Colacicco says he was privileged to be able to watch him and see what no one else saw. The archbishop’s prayerfulness stood out.
“He was the first one in chapel every morning, a man of prayer, a man who devoted himself to study. All of those things influenced me greatly,” Bishop-elect Colacicco said. “On Saturday morning, we would be around the breakfast table. After breakfast was done, he would say, ‘Why don’t you go get the car because we’re going to go to confession now.’ And the whole house went to confession—the archbishop, the vicar general, the chancellor, the secretary, we all got in the car and went to confession. It was remarkable.”
“What an impression that made on a young priest,” said Bishop-elect Colacicco who was ordained to the priesthood seven years earlier.
Another crystal-clear personal remembrance was poignant, if painful, as the bishop-elect explained.
“When we had that protest in the cathedral, ACT-UP, and the Eucharist was desecrated at Mass (in December 1989). The cathedral was closed, and a diligent effort was made to go find the particles of the consecrated hosts that may have been scattered throughout the cathedral. There were instances of sacrilege.
“Before the cathedral opened for the next day, the cardinal and I went into the cathedral and he did the prayer of consecration for the cathedral once more because of the desecration that took place. We went all around the cathedral, all by ourselves, early that morning, just the two of us, sprinkling the cathedral with holy water.
He was crying.”
“Whenever I recall that, it chokes me up.”
Bishop-elect Whalen served as priest secretary to Cardinal O’Connor from 1990 to 1992, following Bishop-elect Colacicco in the position.
“It was a great learning experience,” the bishop-elect said. “You got to know the cardinal as a person and as a priest. He really saw himself as the parish priest of New York. He was a remarkable man.”
Calling Cardinal O’Connor a “demanding boss,” Bishop-elect Whalen said the cardinal didn’t hold others to standards he didn’t meet twice over.
“The focus was to be on people, even though it was a massive archdiocese. We were here to be a church, not a corporation. So the diocese was for him one big parish.”
One of his most formative times as secretary came during long car rides with the cardinal.
“In those days, the secretary drove,” Bishop-elect Whalen said. “You’d have some of these long drives, it was just the two of us in the car…There were great conversations with another priest.
In rapid succession, the bishop-elect ticked off several lessons he learned from the cardinal.
“Making sure you did your homework on a situation, that you did things right and never lost sight of people. Learning how to deal with people who were angry.
“He taught us the importance of just letting people speak, letting them let it out, listening and then responding…”
Everyone Cardinal O’Connor met, no matter their station in life, received the same treatment. The bishop-elect cited a time when the cardinal was called to the White House during Desert Storm to meet with President George H.W. Bush and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including General Colin Powell. “He could have been at the Holy Name Society meeting of any parish. He was just telling them what he thought,” Bishop-elect Whalen recalled.
“All the stuff he talked about with the dignity of human life, he lived it. He really believed that, and treated people with that dignity.”
Speaking about his time at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Bishop-elect Colacicco said, “I loved my time at the seminary. I had a number of jobs, pastoral formation, procurator, dean of students. I really enjoyed that time, working with the faculty and the remarkable staff.”
“The staff knew their work was helping to form priests—the housing staff, the maintenance staff, the kitchen staff,” the bishop-elect said. “It wasn’t just a job. The atmosphere at Dunwoodie was just wonderful.”
One of the evident highlights came in October 1995, when St. Joseph’s Seminary hosted a visit from St. Pope John Paul II for evening prayer addressed to the seminarians.
“Being the procurator, I was responsible for the upkeep of the buildings,” Bishop-elect Colacicco said. “Getting the seminary and grounds prepared for a papal visit was monumental. Everybody pulled together. It was a wonderful experience.”
Bishop-elect Whalen taught moral theology for 12 years at St. Joseph’s Seminary, including three years as resident faculty and then vice rector for development during the seminary’s centenary campaign.
“It was great to have an opportunity to teach the future priests of the archdiocese, and a lot of different dioceses, because we had students from everywhere.”
Fostering community in a seminary wasn’t very different than the bishop-elect’s years at Msgr. Farrell High School, where he was a student, a teacher and finally principal.
“Just be yourself, and recognize the potential of each student,” he said.