The National Catholic Review

This guest blog post comes courtesy of Msgr. Charles Murphy, former rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome and presently diaconate director for the Diocese of Portland, Maine. He is the author of six books, including Euchartistic Adoration: Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ:

On July 19 over 1,000 laity, 200 priests and scores of religious filled the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark for a joyous Mass in observance of the 100th birthday of Peter L. Gerety, archbishop emeritus. The homily that Archbishop Gerety delivered was typically less about his birthday and more about his priesthood of 73 years. In his words, “I must say that all of the promises from Almighty God that go with ordination to the sacred priesthood have been fulfilled...As I celebrate my one-hundredth birthday and thank God for the gift of life, I certainly have a heart filled with gratitude that the Good Lord called me to the holy priesthood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To be a priest standing in the midst of God’s holy people is indeed a great privilege.”

John Myers, the present archbishop, read to the congregation the personal greetings of Pope Benedict XVI and the tribute of Gerhard Ludwig Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Peter Gerety is the oldest living bishop in the United States and the oldest living archbishop in the world. The true significance of his life and priesthood is not its length but his creative and determined implementation of the Second Vatican Council and all its program of pastoral renewal and reform.

I became acquainted with then Bishop Gerety when, after having been the founding pastor of the mixed race Blessed Martin de Porres Parish in New Haven Connecticut, he was made coadjutor bishop of Portland, Maine in 1966. Our bishop at the time was Daniel J. Feeney, who had dutifully attended all of the sessions of the council between 1962 and 1965. Coming home after the final session he confessed to us that implementing the council, he felt, was beyond him. He asked for a coadjutor.

As a recently ordained priest I was one of several young priests Bishop Gerety brought into diocesan administration, a pattern he continued in Newark. Soon after his appointment I went to his apartment in the cathedral rectory to go out to dinner. I found him reading in French the complete works of Albert Camus. He knew many Maine Catholics spoke French and so he wanted to improve his fluency. I immediately thought to myself, “This is my kind of bishop.” His priestly formation, like that of many other distinguished priests of the Hartford archdiocese at that time, was in France. Ever after he loved to return to France, and his homily on his 100th birthday typically featured a quotation from the eminent French Cardinal Suhard and his classic treatise, “The Eternal Priesthood.”

Bishop Gerety chose as his episcopal motto a verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians: “In omnibus Christus” (Christ is in everything). In the context of Bishop Gerety’s life I think a better rendering would be “Christ is in everyone.” This was certainly the pastoral philosophy of the bishop as I knew him. As the pastor of a poor minority parish he skillfully worked the system to obtain grants for his community in New Haven. Later he would help launch the National Office of Black Catholics to help give African Americans full citizenship in the church. Even in the later days of the black power movement, when non-blacks were not always welcome, he maintained warm relations with the African American community. He successfully lobbied his own Archbishop Henry O’Brien of Hartford for minority causes, founding in the archdiocese Project Equality, which mandates that no agency of the church could have dealings with enterprises practicing discrimination. His visits to the archbishop became so frequent, Archbishop O’Brien once blurted out, “Now what do you want, Dr. Gerety?”

Bishop Joseph A. Francis, who became the first African-American bishop in Newark under Archbishop Gerety, recalled in a tribute in 1986, “As Archbishop Gerety’s auxiliary I entered a new and intense world of ministry. All of the dreams I had of how Vatican II should and would be implemented began to become a reality. At last I had found a bishops’ bishop and a priests’ bishop, a people’s bishop whose only ambition was to make the Church of Newark come alive in the last quarter of the twentieth century.” (There Are No Simple Answers: A Tribute to Archbishop Peter Leo Gerety D.D., Cassian Yuhaus, editor).

Bishop Gerety was well known in his ability to delegate. “Qui facit per alium, ipse facit” (“Who does through another himself does it”) was his motto. One day in 1973 Bishop Gerety asked me to draft a pastoral letter on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the famous encyclical of Blessed John XXIII, “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”). Issued only months before his death, this was John’s vision of a peaceful and just society. The pastoral letter was issued on Christmas, 1973. Just a few months later, on April 2, 1974, the then apostolic delegate Jean Jadot, in his first episcopal appointment, announced the transfer of Bishop Gerety to archbishop of Newark. Years later in Rome, Archbishop Jadot explained to me how Pope Paul VI wanted a new style of bishop after the council, not just canon lawyers and chancery officials but priests with pastoral experience. Peter Gerety fit that profile perfectly well.

Always a good financial administrator, he was able to fund and lead new pastoral initiatives in the renewal of parishes, adult religious formation, the social mission of the church and lay consultative bodies. His enthusiasm for Vatican II never flagged, even when some were finding flaws in some of his pastoral initiatives. RENEW for parishes, which became an international movement, came under doctrinal review and the national lay consultations he championed under the designation “A Call to Action” were discontinued. On the 40th anniversary of the council’s final constitution “Gaudium et spes” (“The Church in the Modern World”), in 2005, Archbishop Gerety asked me to join him on the podium to deliver joint lectures on the achievement of that document, notably its positive orientation toward the secular world which, the council declared, had much to teach the church, as well as the other way around. His extensive reading continues to this day. He always remains available to priests who seek his counsel, and this no doubt contributed to the large number of them who attended his birthday celebration even years after he stepped down as archbishop.

Peter Gerety is a “Vatican II bishop,” but his views about the role of the church, its lay members and its clergy remain traditional. As he noted in his July homily, the priest and the bishop must always minister in the midst of the people and be connected with them and their lives. He must never lose sight of the noble vocation to which he has committed his life. Archbishop Gerety through his continous study, frequent trips to Europe and engagement with the clergy and laity of Newark, remains vitally in touch with the post-conciliar church.