One noontime at the end of March 2003, my secretary and I were returning from visiting a parish out east and I asked him if we could stop by the rectory of St. Patrick in Smithtown. I had called ahead to make sure the pastor, Fr Paul Walsh, would be at home. When I arrived all the other priests and every staff member were waiting for me, looking at me with expectation Fr Walsh was in his room. We chatted and then I told him that the Holy Father, St. John Paul II, had named him auxiliary bishop of DRVC. He seemed not hear me and I nervously went on to explain that I had asked the Pope and he had chosen Paul and how wonderful this is etc. No answer from Paul. Finally, nervously, I asked, “Well, you will accept won’t you?” “Yes”, came the reply. But then immediately he said, “But I really want to stay as a pastor.”
And that is who he was and that is who he continued to be. Yesterday and today it is what all of us, you and I and countless others, have said because we knew Bp Paul Walsh. Pastor! It was enough, enough for him, enough for us, enough for God! Paul loved the Dominicans Friars who had taught him at Providence, who formed him into the priest he became and who loved him as he loved them in his years as a religious and in all his years as a diocesan priest. Yet two things happened in his life as a Friar that, in a sense, were foreordained in his religious name, Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. First he sensed he was getting more and more involved in administration at the provincial level. Then, as Pastor of St. Vincent Ferrer, he realized more and more deeply that for him being a pastor described him best and being a pastor fulfilled all his aspirations of loving service to God and to the Church and God’s people.
And while I knew he did not want to leave Smithtown nor did his parishioners want him to leave them, I wanted as my first choice as auxiliary to be a man whom everyone would recognize for that very gift: the kind of a parish priest who loved his people and whose people loved him. In a sense our Bishop Paul epitomizes the priests of our Diocese, good men, humble men, dedicated men who rejoice in the hope of God’s goodness and who bring that hope to their people by word and sacrament but, most of all, by example.
At the Last Supper, just prior to the Gospel we have heard proclaimed, Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples and given them the charge as his first apostles, As I who are your Lord and Master have done for you, so you also must do for one another. This charge to his beloved friends lies within the heart of his breaking the bread of his body and sharing the cup of his blood. For those called to do this in memory of me, the service of our brothers and sisters as healers of their hearts and pastors of their lives flows from the Eucharist we celebrate: FOR YOU, FOR YOU who are Christ’s body in earth, FOR YOU to whom we have been sent and to whom we go in imitation of Christ, the Bridegroom, to bring Him to you and you to him.
When Jesus stood up in the synagogue of his youth and read the prophecy we have just heard, the words of Isaiah became words of the New Covenant. As Jesus made that vision real in his own person, so we priests are called to embrace them as intrinsic to our ministry in the Church. How faithfully and how joyfully and, at the same time, how quietly and how simply, Bishop Paul brought glad tidings to the lowly and brokenhearted. How often did he bring others freedom and release, especially in the sacraments of forgiveness and reconciliation and the anointing of the sick. How often did he comfort those who mourn, bring joy and hope, reassurance and peace to young and old, rich and poor, one and all.
Let me not leave you with any false impression about Paul Walsh as a bishop! He fulfilled his role as a successor to the apostles very well. Not to anyone’s surprise, his life and work as a bishop mirrored all the qualities that you and I know to be his as a holy man and a humble and loving priest. But he also melded them with a profound sense of the whole Church in which he was called to be a leader by word and example. This was true not only in the confirmations he loved to celebrate and in the parish visitations he faithfully carried out. We brother bishops experienced it in our monthly vicars’ meetings. In those gatherings my vicars and I wrestle with the pastoral cares every bishop is called to carry. Paul brought wisdom and insight surely. He also brought his keen sense of humor and an uncanny ability he had and used so often to help us look past the immediate crisis and place our emphasis on the trust in the Holy Spirit who animates and guides not bishops alone but bishops who are called to recognize and celebrate the gifts and charisms of priests and people alike. He was one with his namesake, St. Paul, in encouraging and applauding the “many gifts in the one Body of Christ”. St. Paul’s words he made his own, urging people to exercise their own gifts in the Church for the sake of Christ’s body and reminding us, his brothers, to trust the Spirit in all the manifestations among God’s People.. And he insisted that St. Paul’s ways are the ways of every disciple: Let love be sincere, hate what is evil; hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. REJOICE IN HOPE and persevere in prayer.
These words are instruction for life, guidance and encouragement for us all as they were for Bishop Paul. Yet in these last months, he was tested in a way no one of us could have predicted. With typical honesty and even good humor, he faced the reality of his illness and very openly discussed what it might mean with Bishop Brennan, Fr Douglas Arcoleo, his brother Michael and me. It was at that point that we found something even more extraordinary in the beauty of his faith: his hope and peace in the face of loss. The words of the Gospel this day must have been ringing in his heart. There was the sorrow of knowing that there would be loss in his life, less ability to pastor, less physical energy and agility to help others. Yet he never stopped doing just that because he, like the first apostles, heeded those words of Jesus and had total faith in God and total faith in Christ Jesus. He knew the answer to Thomas’ question long ago. He had lived that all his life. Jesus is the way and that way brings you the truth and the life we all desire, we all receive from the Son of the Father! How could he not let it inspire him, give him comfort and continue to let him rejoice in Hope, the hope of the Kingdom, the hope of life everlasting?
There are many mansions in the Kingdom of heaven. And all of us who heed the answer of Christ are called to make him the way. For this way, the way of Christ, is the way that is the way of truth and of life, the way of the cross and resurrection, the way that leads to the Father, the way You, dear Paul, followed all the days of your life here on this earth and NOW, aided by our poor but loving prayers, the way that brings you to the Father in the Eucharistic Banquet of HOPE FULFILLED and JOY THAT NEVER ENDS. AMEN