For the past quarter century, Bishop-elect Edmund J. Whalen and a group of priest friends have traveled together for a week each July, a tradition that started because they became close friends and they wanted to help nurture one another in their ministries for the Church.
His four travel friends in the faith have been Father Bill Kelly, pastor of St. Paul’s parish, Cambridge, and senior Catholic chaplain at Harvard University; Msgr. Albert Kenney, vicar general of the Diocese of Providence, R.I.; Msgr. Todd Lajiness, rector of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit; and Father James Steffes, pastor of St. Augustine and St. Edward parish in Austin, Minn.
The travel destinations have included Rome, Oxford and other European destinations, as well as California, Maine and the Black Hills of South Dakota. In the U.S., the journeys have been mostly by plane but sometimes by road trip. Bishop-elect Whalen, 61, is the oldest of the friends, and Msgr. Lajiness, 51, is the youngest.
“He always brought the Irish sense of family commitment to his friendships, and a New Yorker’s great gift of humor and instinct for getting things done,” Father Kelly told Catholic New York.
“It’s a blessing for New York and the wider Church,” Father Kelly said of Bishop-elect Whalen’s appointment. “I’ve known Bishop-elect Whalen since 1984, when we were students at the NAC (Pontifical North American College in Rome). He was revered by the student body.”
Of the vacations each July, Father Kelly said, “Keeping this time to connect with each other annually has been an anchor for all of us. It’s so important for priests to have strong friendships with other priests. We celebrate Mass every day, catch up on our ministries, talk about what we’ve been reading, travel around whichever area we are visiting and always spend lots of time over long dinners.”
Father Kelly said the in-person gathering is strengthened by all kinds of contact, even if just electronic, throughout the year.
“We met in the early 1990s while studying in Rome. Bishop-elect Whalen and Father Kelly were already priests,” Father Steffes told CNY.
“It is a great blessing to get together with brother priests who are also good friends. The fraternity we have with each other and our gathering every July, filled with reminiscing, laughter, prayer, good food, travel adventures and the making of new memories, renews us and our priesthood in Jesus Christ—to go back into the field for another year.”
Father Steffes added that Bishop-elect Whalen is loyal, faithful, silent when appropriate and forthright when he needs to be as a friend, priest and “undoubtedly will be as a bishop of the Church.”
“He has the heart and mind of the Church,” he said.
Father Steffes also noted, “Though Bishop-elect Whalen is strict and disciplined, a bit of the unmoved-mover, he is one of the funniest men I know.”
Msgr. Kenney says that he has always appreciated Bishop-elect Whalen’s good humor, his fidelity to the Church and his joy. He said he is very happy for the priests and people of New York that Bishop-elect Whalen will now serve the archdiocese in his new capacity.
“I am grateful to Pope Francis for naming this talented priest a bishop of the Church,” Msgr. Kenney noted. “I have found his counsel and his example a great blessing to me in my priesthood. When challenging issues arise in my work and I want to hear another priest’s perspective, my first call is to Eddie Whalen.”
Msgr. Lajiness said the annual vacations are life affirming for all concerned, and that he and his brother priests grow in the priesthood together. “In the early years we visited each other’s dioceses, we hosted each other. Then we started to branch out (to other destinations),” he said.
“The Archdiocese of New York is incredibly blessed. Bishop-elect Whalen has an incredible wisdom. He wants to make sure that people are alive in the Church, are alive in Christ. There is a remarkable virtue he has; he is incredibly talented, but he is a humble guy.”
Back to Father Kelly, the chaplain at Harvard, who has been friends with the bishop-elect since 1984: “One time we were at a beautiful Mass in St. Peter’s Square with Pope St. John Paul II. I could tell that Bishop-elect Whalen was taking in the importance of the Holy Mass, in this place, with this pope. Then, with his clear-eyed East Coast practicality, he turned to me at the beginning of the closing hymn and said, ‘We’d better leave now. With these crowds, if we wait, they’ll be no calamari left at the restaurant.’ So we did. And the calamari was great.”