Editor's Report

Two ‘Lifers’ Share How They Responded to God’s Call

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Other than their common Mass of ordination to the episcopacy March 1, Auxiliary Bishop John Bonnici and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Espaillat also shared a similar roadmap to the priesthood a dozen years apart.

They are affectionately known as “lifers.” That means their path to priestly ordination began in high school at Cathedral Prep Seminary before continuing with college studies—at St. John’s University for Bishop Bonnici, and at Fordham University for Bishop Espaillat—and both lived at St. John Neumann Residence in Riverdale, the Bronx.

Then they went on to major seminary. For Bishop Bonnici, now 57, that meant heading to Rome to attend Pontifical Gregorian University, while Bishop Espaillat, 45, completed his priestly formation closer to home at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie.

Before heading to the seminary, Bishop Bonnici spent a year teaching biology and philosophy at Cathedral Prep. “It was like coming home,” the bishop said.

Bishop Espaillat spent a spirituality year at Northampton, Pa., an eye-opening experience for a self-described city kid. “It was pray or talk to the cornstalks. I decided to pray,” the bishop said.

Bishop Bonnici was also a city kid, and like Bishop Espaillat, a child of immigrants. Both come from close-knit families, and each has one sister.

Bishop Bonnici’s parents, John and Gertrude, are both deceased. His dad had a love for the Church, and his mother, a Lutheran, took seriously her promise to raise their children Catholic, walking Johnny—as he is known in his family—to religious education classes at St. Ann’s Church in lower Manhattan.

When their public school son began religious education, they met Sister Laura Moore of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, who guided him every step of the way. “She was my spiritual grandmother,” he said. “She took me under her wing and never let go.”

Sister Laura was one of several religious sisters who guided him at points in his life, in religious and academic pursuits, including the sciences, in which he had a great interest.

For high school, John Bonnici had already been accepted to Brooklyn Tech before Sister Laura’s late plea that he visit Cathedral Prep at 555 West End Ave. at 87th Street. He did, and it changed his mind about high school and ultimately set his life on a different course.

The prep seminary, a big departure from public school, featured many faculty members who played key roles, such as Father Walter Niebrzydowski, the late Sister Helen Doychak, O.P., and Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Gerald T. Walsh, with whom he will now serve as co-vicar of Westchester and Rockland. “The faculty were excellent,” he said.

He was a scholarship student at St. John’s University, with a double major in pre-med and philosophy, while continuing his discernment for the priesthood at St. John Neumann Residence in Riverdale. At St. John’s he enjoyed interactions with his fellow students and made good friendships. While he enjoyed the sciences, the coursework represented more of an academic pursuit than a professional one. “I was already realizing God was calling me to the next step,” he said. Sister Laura put it firmly, telling him, “You have to focus on what is important.”

He finished his undergraduate degree in three years and then taught biology and philosophy at Cathedral Prep for a year. Age requirements necessitated he wait a year to begin his final formation for priesthood. He applied to St. Joseph’s Seminary and thought he would be going there for theology studies. Then-Msgr. Edwin O’Brien, rector of St. Joseph’s, said the archdiocese instead would like him to pursue seminary studies at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He was only given a few days to decide because he had to leave in a week.

The idea of their only son traveling thousands of miles away for seminary studies “wasn’t initially appealing” to his family, but his parents always wanted him to be happy and ultimately supported his choice.

Joseph Espaillat’s journey to the priesthood also began at Cathedral Prep, and the impact was immediate upon entry, when he first saw a famous painting of the Blessed Mother with the Infant Child Jesus who was holding out a cross.

His words to his mother, Mercedes, were definitive. “Mom, I’m coming to this high school. Something said to me, ‘You’re at home.’”

His mom, speaking in Spanish, replied that they hadn’t even seen the school yet.

When the interview process began, one of the priests he spoke with asked if he would consider the call to the priesthood. “That’s how God started my call,” the bishop said.

When he enrolled, Bishop Espaillat said he had no real intention of becoming a priest, and actually had a budding interest in becoming a scientist. His family lived just a short distance away at the famed Ansonia Hotel on West 73rd Street and Broadway, where his dad, Jose, was building manager. Beginning in junior year, the Prep campus moved to Rye, where he was a resident student.

“That was a big, big shift in everything, in my prayer life, in the future. Living with priests, and seeing them in the day to day was very helpful in that stage of my life,” the bishop said.

Father Salvatore LaSala was headmaster at the time. “I owe my vocation to him, really. He was the one who asked me in my senior year, ‘Have you seriously thought about becoming a priest?’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I think God is calling you.’”

(Father LaSala died the following year at age 44.)

At Fordham University, Bishop Espaillat was a double major in philosophy and Spanish literature, with a minor in theology. He lived at the Neumann Residence.

Before his studies at the major seminary began, the bishop’s spiritual year at Northampton was formative. While it was challenging to be away from his family, “God clarified a lot of things,” he said. “He kept calling me to continue.”

As a seminary student, Bishop Espaillat had an opportunity to work with Bishop Gerald Walsh, then serving as pastor of St. Elizabeth’s parish in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, and Father Luis Saldaña, then a newly ordained priest.

The bishop, he said, taught him about “the theology of hanging out,” especially with the young people, on the church steps, on the basketball court, walking through the neighborhood. “I thank God for him,” he said.

He never forgot the lessons he learned there and applies them daily in his inner-city parish ministry.

“To meet the young people where they are…I don’t think we listen to their needs and their plight. We need to listen to them where they are.”

There is a lack of identity among young people today, the bishop said. “For them to identify themselves with the One who made them, in His image and likeness. Our identity lies in Him. There are so many that are confused about that right now.”

Bishop Bonnici amplified the point, explaining that personal encounters with young people, and others, are key. It’s important for them to witness priests and others in the Church carrying out their ministries with joy.

Sister Laura led the way for him. “She was the initial encounter that asked the question first, and then there was a whole bunch of people that supported that” by ministering in a way that was personal and accessible, he said.

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