Monday, December 11, 2017

For A Quarter-Century, The Man of This Hour

On the Sunday before the Pope arrived on US soil, the headline was unforgettable.

Above the fold and down the right A1 column, some half-million copies of The Philadelphia Inquirer blared the week's Top Story in these words:

"Bishop: Church's answers lie with the laity."

On one ecclesial bank of the Delaware River, the 2008 comment didn't merely arrive as "news," but was viewed as tantamount to a declaration of war. Just across the three bridges, though, for Bishop Joe Galante (above) the line was simple reality – at least, if his church's best days weren't going to be behind it.

Now retired from the helm of South Jersey's 600,000-member fold based in Camden, today marks Galante's 25th anniversary as a bishop. And as these pages are just one of the thousands upon thousands of spots touched by his ever-faithful, generous goodness in ministry through the years, this scribe would be remiss to fail in paying a word of tribute.

Alas, they don't make cards for days like this – of some 350-odd US bishops, only about a third reach this milestone. And even if there were a stock greeting for the moment, it just wouldn't be able to capture the measure of this jubilarian, whose rare fortune at seeing history smile on him in life is matched only by how richly he's earned it.

In attempting to explain Galante to people who've never known him, I've always tended to cite three things.

First, even for knowing a good few of the bench, I've seldom known another among them who, without fail, has spent his every vacation in his own diocese. To be sure, being assigned to the lower half of the Jersey Shore might sound like the dream job of every Philly-born priest – at least in theory – but not knowing what you'll get strung up about by the faithful while pushing your cart around the Wildwood Acme in shorts can, in practice, make it a bit easier to take one's downtime somewhere else. Bishop Joe wouldn't have wanted it any other way than staying home, in the house he kept there from his priesthood.

Second, on any given day – Mondays above all given the weekend Masses – most every Chancery in the land gets a phone call, often several, from a fired-up parishioner driven to give the Boss a piece of their mind. The topic can be anything under the sun, and the staff are usually well-trained to assuage the concerns on their own while keeping the call far from the corner office.

In Galante's case, whenever the outrage arrived, the approach was unique: once the line was transferred to his devoted secretary, Dolores Orihel would answer with some variation of, "You'd like to talk to Bishop Galante? Here he is."

As he only ever used the formal office for major meetings – splitting Dolores' cubicle with her the rest of the time – she'd just hand the phone over. And one by one, however long the person needed to come away at ease would be theirs.

Again, it sounds like a no-brainer in theory, but given the most difficult act of his tenure – a sweeping realignment that merged South Jersey's 132 parishes by roughly half (and all of it announced at once) – no shortage of soothing was needed.

And thirdly, much as he worked for and was dear to John Paul II – who named him first as Undersecretary of the Congregation for Religious, then to four diverse, oft-challenging assignments as a bishop – only in recent years has it become clear how much of Bishop Joe's pastoral ethic echoes that of another auxiliary appointed and ordained in 1992: another son of Italian immigrants to America... now known to the world as The Man in White.

To be sure, it's always been fashionable in church circles to compare a prelate's qualities to those of the reigning Pope. Yet in this case, it has the added benefit of not just being accurate, but true at a cost – while these days see Francis garnering widespread plaudits for decrying clericalism as a rot on the church's soul, and Jersey's first-ever cardinal is lionized as the champion of the nation's religious women in the belly of the Vatican beast, Joe Galante was fighting these battles in the very same places well before anyone knew of Bergoglio, with far less support... so much so that, now it can be told, a concerted push was once made to have him forced from office.

Gratefully, it didn't happen. And beyond seeing two of his own ministry's core emphases – qualities more recently defined as "pastoral conversion" and "missionary discipleship" – now promulgated by his twin as the gold standard of what it means to be a shepherd, that this anniversary likewise brings the beginning of Francis' 23rd meeting with his "Gang of 9" for the reform of the Curia adds a good bit to the providence and joy of the milestone.

A lesser man would see the turn of events as a vindication. But that word isn't in Bishop's vocabulary – what satisfaction he finds in it comes from seeing the church act more like its Lord, and striving afresh to do better in earning the fidelity and credibility of its people.

Even more than usual, the phone will be ringing off the hook today at the ranch house down the Shore where, as things normally go, five minutes rarely pass between incoming calls. Yet now, there are no complaints, just the legion of friends from all walks of life always wanting to check in, as the Eagles or Phillies game plays out on the muted TV and the cooking of his live-in caretaker, Steve, scores another compliment.

As ever, it might sound easy, but there's more than meets the eye. As it's been for the last six years, Mondays are a little rough – the first of the three days a week he spends six hours at a time hooked up to a dialysis machine. Not even a Silver Jubilee can exempt him from that. And now, the road's about to get more trying still: following a diagnosis of prostate cancer over the summer, next month sees the start of radiation that'll need to be worked around the kidney treatments.

Just as this piece is coming as a surprise to him, I know he'd seek your prayers... and as he's owed the appreciation of a grateful Church, that's the least any of us can do.

You know, the more these years wear on, the harder it is to put many things into words – the more you've been around, the less you stop sensing how much more there is to every story. Along those lines, it's par for the course that we haven't even touched the memory of the day when Galante became the first and only Catholic prelate ever to take a seat on Oprah Winfrey's couch. Nonetheless, from Nuns to "nones," the Latinos and Irish he's adopted as family to our own Italian crew – and perhaps most impressively, from Cowboys fans to Eagles Nation – much as he keeps thanking everybody else for the graces of this quarter-century, if anything, the blessing of it has been ours in the gift of him... and just like the example of his "alter ego" now in the Domus, it's on us to not just admire the richness we've been given, but to share and imitate it for the rest.

Among his horde of priceless quotes, and knowing the strains of being Publisher of a Catholic news-outlet, Bishop Joe's long been on this scribe to "Start raising money from the bishops"... just with one bit of added advice: "You can charge one rate for guys who want to be mentioned, and even more for those who don't want to be."

Suffice it to say, he's "paid" for this in the way that matters most – really, the only way that matters: in lavishing me and so many of us with his loyalty, love, support and faithfulness through the years, his "Yes" has given us life, and Lord knows how we can't begin to repay him for that.

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As tributes go, this one pales in comparison to the 44-page mega-supplement produced over the weekend by Bishop's "baby" – Camden's Catholic Star Herald, whose survival into the present owes itself more to his determination than anything else.

Yesterday, meanwhile, the 25th was marked by some 400 of Galante's extended family who crammed into the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for an intimate, moving Mass (above) and dinner.

Here, the jubilarian's closing word: