New England
Bishop Scharfenberger poses with the New England chaplains


“We Have to Become Holy”


Note: The Most Rev. Edward Scharfenberger, D.D., Bishop of Albany, presided over the 2021 Convocation on the College's New England Campus.


Thank you, Your Excellency, for joining us for last fall’s Convocation in New England. Would you please tell us about your experience on campus?

Well it was the first time I visited, and it was a beautiful campus. The joy of my visit was meeting the faculty and the students. I was impressed by the wide variety of students, students from so many different countries. I know that they’re getting a classical education and have some good skills in philosophy and language, and I was really impressed by their ability to engage in a number of issues. The Dean asked me to say something to them, and I basically just encouraged them to be themselves, to have confidence that they are here for a purpose, and that the Lord is really looking out for them. All in all, it is a very cheerful, happy campus, and I got a good sense of love and cooperation among the faculty and the students.

Your diocese is only two hours away. Would you please describe it?

Even though it is the capital of New York State and a real center of learning — there are a lot of universities here — Albany is a very rural diocese. The diocese is about 10,000 square miles. We have a lot of rural parishes, a lot of farmland. We have mountains on both sides of the diocese: the Adirondacks to the north, the Catskills to the south. A number of people have migrated up from the city, and we have lots of diversity, with people from Myanmar, Poland, Korea, Vietnam, Mexico and Latin America. We also have 125 priests, so about as many as we have churches. We are doing OK with our vocations of late. We have about 40 men in the discernment process, so that’s an uptick over the years.

What would you say are the biggest challenges in shepherding your diocese?

When I first became bishop about eight years ago, I was concerned about the lack of vocations. I wanted to promote vocations, so as to keep our parishes thriving and lively. We also have a number of parishes that are struggling with capital expenses and population shifts. Then there’s the challenge of reaching out to those who have become unaffiliated, the “nones.” We have been putting a lot of emphasis on that, trying to invite more people in. Young people are often very willing and enthusiastic about coming forward, but they need to be invited, and we have been doing a great deal of work here, bringing young people together.

So I would say the challenge is basically trying to forge good relationships to center our faith. It’s ultimately a Christocentric faith. We want to do good deeds, but we want our faith to be centered on the one Who sanctifies us. I think a deeper understanding of the sacredness of the Eucharist and its transforming power, the importance of developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, are themes that permeate all of my preaching.

Before coming to Albany, when you served as a priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn, you were a member of the board that reviewed allegations against clergy for the sexual abuse of minors. How do you think the Church is faring with regards to cleaning up the scandal?

The systemic, unaddressed, suffer-in-silence patterns of abuse that were exposed in the last 20 or 30 years — those seem to have been addressed. What is not yet addressed in society at large is the prevalence of sexual abuse and its connection to drugs and domestic violence, which is primarily a family-related issue, and its ties to human trafficking. It’s all a vicious cycle.

Here’s the thing, and I can say this with confidence: The only force in society that is really capable of healing this is the Church. People who have been abused, many of them still have not found a place where they can talk about it. There are many people who suffer in silence. So, ironically, we have a dilemma: There are many who see the Church as predatory historically and can’t get over that, and yet, it is the Church itself that is best suited to be the healer. We need people who can bring back those who have gone away.

We have to become holy, let God make us holy, to sanctify us and transform us, and to be that light, that sign that attracts people to God because the Gospel is eminently attractive.

The biggest challenge, I think, is the challenge to holiness. We have to become holy, let God make us holy, to sanctify us and transform us, and to be that light, that sign that attracts people to God because the Gospel is eminently attractive. We can’t be ashamed of being what we truly are, even as we are honest and forthright about where we have failed, at least as an institution, and how the Church is always there to be reformed and purified. We should not lose faith or confidence that the Lord is with us, and will work through the Church. It’s the lighthouse, the sign of hope in the world.

How is your diocese recovering from all the disruptions that Covid and public-health measures have imposed on the life of the faithful?

In Albany we have experienced an uptick in attendance in our diocesan schools, and I think that has to do with doing what we do well as Catholics. We work with parents, with families, and we have managed to strengthen our relationship with them by meeting them halfway. Some didn’t want to have full, in-person classrooms, so we accommodated; we had combinations of schooling and homeschooling. That created a lot of good faith, and we managed to keep our schools open.

Our churches, too, are pretty well intact. Many people worried that after the lockdowns parishioners would not come back to Mass, but those worst fears are not materializing. There are some who may not be back yet, but that’s not because they don’t miss the Mass, it’s because they are still afraid. I’ll be very frank, it has to do with how much news you watch. I tell people, “I don’t care if it’s CNN or Fox, if you watch a lot of news, you’re going to be caught up in a lot of fear.” Fear has really been selling news over the last two years, and the people who have managed to adapt focus on their family lives and being sensible.

I’ll tell you another thing, too. In some parishes — those where the pastors or the parish leadership managed to keep good contact with the people — our collections actually went up during the restrictions. It’s been amazing, those parishes have done well.

As you may know, some 10 percent of the College’s students go on to the priesthood or religious life. Do you have any advice for young people who are discerning vocations?

A vocation comes from God. It is a true calling, and all you really have to figure out is, “Is this feeling I have really coming from the Lord?” I say this at confirmations, “There are probably a few of you who have felt the call from God. Chances are, if you feel this way, you might be afraid to tell anybody because you’re afraid they will tell you that you’re crazy. There are many priests and nuns today who, when they first felt that sense, were discouraged from doing that. It can be a very tragic mistake, because if the Lord is calling you, you’ve got to pay attention.”

Don’t be afraid to share this sense that you may be feeling with somebody you can trust, such as a priest, a sister, or a parent or friend who will encourage you. And do not pay attention to anybody who will discourage you, because they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re not really interested in your well-being. You may be challenging them in some way just by saying this. For all you know, maybe they thought about a vocation at one point and rejected it.

If you worry, if you say, “I’m not holy enough” — that’s for God to decide, not for you. And if you are getting that call, you will get the grace to follow it. Some men are reluctant to answer a priestly vocation because they fear missing out on fatherhood. But I’ll give you this: I feel more like a father now than I ever have before. I have numerous children that I care for and love. If it’s fathering that you really want to experience in life, you are not going to be deprived of it through the priesthood.

Finally, if you see somebody who you think may possibly be called to the priesthood or religious life, don’t be afraid to say, “I think you would make a good priest,” or “I think you would be a good sister, do you ever think about that?” I know many men and women who are priests and nuns today because one person — a friend, a parent, a sibling — invited them. Don’t overlook the power of inviting.

Well, we haven’t had any priest deaths, but we have had about a dozen priests get very sick, and some parishioners have died. One of the hardest things about the pandemic was priests not being able to have access to anoint people and give them the Last Rites. A lot of people told me they were not able to visit their mothers or fathers on their deathbeds, and so it was really hard to say goodbye.

As far as Mass attendance, we have pretty much followed the county and state guidelines. It was very hard when we couldn’t have anybody indoors and we were doing livestreamed Masses from the cathedral. People still came and pressed their faces to the glass window outside the cathedral, and we would take Communion outside afterward.

We tried everything we could to tell people, “We’re still open for you.” We would have drive-through Communion. We would have walk-up Communion. We had drive-in Anointing of the Sick, and people brought the elderly in their cars. I think the people were grateful for the outreach. A few parishes did no outreach; the pastor shut the doors and posted a sign “We’re closed.” That’s not right, and those churches are now in bad shape. But in general the priests were very good, and things are going well.

Can you tell us about how you met Thomas Aquinas College’s beloved chaplain Fr. Buckley when you were a young man?

When I was in high school in Sacramento, a friend and I attended a Jesuit vocation retreat led by Fr. Buckley, who was then the rector-president of St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco. Well, about one year later he drove out to my high school to visit me as a follow-up to the retreat. I was just stunned. I was in a class, and the principal came to the door, called me over, and says, “There’s a priest here, a Jesuit, who wants to see you.” And Fr. Buckley said to me, “Can we have a little chat? I just want to encourage you.” I said, “Wow, did you have business in Sacramento?” And he said, “No, I wanted to just come and check in. I hope you’ll persevere in your desire to be a Jesuit.” That made quite an impression on me — the rector president, a Jesuit priest — what I wanted to be. Wow.

Defend and spread the Catholic faith. Do any kind of ministry: teaching, or missionary work, or science, or communication, or videos— even YouTube — anything that will help bring the Gospel to people and people to Christ.

What inspired you to become a Jesuit at that time, when the Order was beginning to struggle?

The Order was still holding together in most of the communities and schools when I was exploring, and it was only after I entered it that the struggles really began to progress. But the charism that St. Ignatius brought to the Church is, I think, for all the Church and for all time: “Do all for the greater glory of God,” total devotion to any mission given by the Holy Father. Defend and spread the Catholic faith. Do any kind of ministry: teaching, or missionary work, or science, or communication, or videos— even YouTube — anything that will help bring the Gospel to people and people to Christ.

Your first assignment was as a missionary in Samoa. How did that come about, and what was it like there?

Well, I had taught as a scholastic in Micronesia at Xavier High School in Truk in the Caroline Islands, and I really loved the mission work and the school there. The cardinal in Samoa, which is in Polynesia, was thinking of having the Jesuits make a foundation there. So I was sent in to “go try it out and see.” I spent two years there.

I really loved it, but then I went to Rome for studies, and what I found was that, in the mission lands today, they have plenty of vocations. The Church is growing; convents and seminaries are packed in Africa, India, Polynesia — but in America and Europe? We’re the new mission lands. So I wanted to talk to the students at your graduation about being local missionaries, reaching out here. This is more challenging. There’s more unbelief, more “nones,” and more hostility to our faith. It’s right here in our backyard.

What role do reverent liturgies and sacred music play in this mission work, in building up strong Catholic communities in our backyard?

The parishes with reverent liturgies and sacred music are the ones that thrive. People support those parishes. They drive across town to go to them.

In our cathedral we do a very beautiful liturgy. We have a full-time paid choir that does Palestrina and Mozart, and a concert organist who is the director of music. It’s an English Novus Ordo Mass, with the Kyrie and Gloria in Greek and Latin, plus a lot of Gregorian chant. But it shows that the Novus Ordo can be done reverently and well. You see the same at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.; you see it at the Cathedral of St. Michael in Toronto; you see it at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City; you see it at St. Paul’s in Boston, where they have the Boys’ Choir from Cambridge. You see it all around.

As much as I love the Tridentine Mass, you don’t have to go to the Tridentine Mass to find reverence and sacredness. Look at what the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius are doing in Chicago. They have some Latin Novus Ordo Masses, some Tridentine Masses in Latin, some Masses in English — they have something like 12 choirs — and it’s all sacred. It’s all holy. And they’re booming in attendance.

How did you come to be a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy?

I was in the Navy for 27 years, 1991 to 2018. I joined it to be a modern missionary in our country, as I just said. It was 1991, during the First Gulf War. I was stationed in Rome as a student priest, doing my studies at the Gregorian, and they were looking for American priests in Rome to go down to Naples and say Mass for Catholic sailors on Navy warships that were on their way to the Middle East. The sailors would pick me up, drive me down, and I would say Mass for the ship’s company. When I left one ship, the captain said, “Father, next time you come, we’ve got to get you some gold stripes here to go on your sleeves,” meaning, “I hope you’ll sign up.”

So I talked to some Navy chaplains, and I felt moved by the Holy Spirit to ask my Jesuit superiors if they would allow me to join the Reserves, and they said yes. As a Navy chaplain you are a commissioned officer, and that gives you access to all the sailors and departments of a ship or base; you’re part of the commanding officer’s staff. You can go anywhere on the ship or on the Marine base, and you’re the chaplain for everyone in the command, not just Catholics.

The motto on your coat of arms is “God, the Father of Mercies.” Can you explain why you chose that and what it means?

Yes! “God, the Father of Mercies.” I chose it because for 12 years I was spiritual director in seminaries and was confessor to seminarians. So every day I would say the prayer of absolution, which begins, “God, the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of His son …” Those are the last words I want to hear before I die, words that will help me more than anything else. So I choose them as my motto.

As Bishop of Albany, you have prioritized bolstering the Catholic character in diocesan schools. What steps have you taken?

The first step is to evangelize the staff — principals and those who do the hiring — and then evangelize the teachers. So that’s a work in progress: to share my vision of Catholic education, what it means, and what the implications are. We have also revised our hiring contracts. That’s what drew TV cameras and stoked protests from certain families that didn’t appreciate the Catholic identity because they weren’t Catholic. But are our schools supposed to be non-denominational? Or are they supposed to be missions of the Church to hand on the Faith to the next generation?

And your answer is …

The Faith! I’m not interested in running a private prep school. And I tell that to the teachers: “If you don’t agree with the teachings of our faith, then this isn’t the place for you. Go teach at Sunnyside Public School or the charter school. But here, this school is an extension of the Catholic Church; it’s part of the Catholic Church. Your classroom is a pulpit, and the Supreme Court has defined teachers as “ministers of religion.”

That’s why I encouraged TAC’s graduates to please volunteer to teach catechism to our young people, especially for kids in parish First Communion and Confirmation classes. Otherwise you can’t complain at a cocktail party, “Oh, kids today don’t know the Faith. They don’t know what they’re doing when they come up for Holy Communion,” or, “Kids come for Confirmation, but they don’t know why,” or, “They’re wearing baseball hats in church.” Well, yes, kids do those things, because no one took the time to get in there and teach them the Faith. Or they had teachers who didn’t know the Faith. I’ve heard some college students complain that when they went to their parish for CCD, the lessons consisted of “Love God, draw a rainbow.” There was no content. Our religious-ed classes need to be more than a pizza and a movie.

Pope Francis recently issued Antiquum Ministerium, establishing the Ministry of Catechist. Will that help bishops evangelize the teachers?

Yes. I think it’s a great idea. It’s emphasizing something that really belongs to laypeople, and they can do it very well. It’s also a cry for help — “Please, come, get trained; we will help train you to hand on the Faith. Please come. Our young people need you.”

We have lots of training programs; every diocese does. There are two goals: teaching the content of the Faith and helping young people fall in love with Christ, to form a relationship with Him. Mind and heart are both important. We need to lead the students in both. I so believe in what you’re doing here at Thomas Aquinas College. Your graduates know the teachings of the Faith — and your graduates clearly have a loving relationship with the Lord. They are a real asset to the parishes they will live and worship in after graduation. What a pleasure it will be for a pastor to hear “Father, may I help teach First Communion or Confirmation?”