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home : features : people of faith

4/17/2014 2:56:00 PM
IN PROFILE
A Bishop 'of the people'
AFTER HIS ORDINATION and installation as Bishop of Albany, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger thanks an Albany police officer for his help with traffic flow around the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. (Nate Whitchurch photo)
AFTER HIS ORDINATION and installation as Bishop of Albany, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger thanks an Albany police officer for his help with traffic flow around the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. (Nate Whitchurch photo)
A bishop's daily schedule is packed with Masses and meetings, phone calls and confirmation ceremonies, answering correspondence and dealing with crises. But Catholics in the Albany Diocese may also glimpse their new Bishop dishing up dinner at a soup kitchen.

"I like to be out with the people as much as possible," explained Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, who was ordained and installed as Bishop of the Diocese April 10 at Albany's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. "I'm not looking for attention; if I would leave my residence and go down to a soup kitchen, it's what I want to do."

It's also tied to his interest in promoting vocations to religious life: Bishop Scharfenberger believes young Catholics need to see priests, women religious, deacons and brothers in action in order to emulate them.

"It may well be that someone's being called to do this, but unless they see what we do, how are they going to know?" he said. "We have to show young people what we do. It's important for me to set an example."

His own vocation grew "organically" from seeing priests: "I just felt drawn to it."

Equally, he said, marriage and living one's Christian faith as a single person need to be respected as vocations.

Small-town Brooklyn
Respect was drilled into Bishop Scharfenberger from childhood. A native of the Brooklyn Diocese, he said his interest in different cultures and languages began with hearing a spectrum of accents on the streets of Ridgewood.

"I grew up in a small town, from my point of view," he told The Evangelist. "Everybody knew each other; it was an intact sort of a neighborhood at that time."

He developed a facility with languages and can now claim fluency in Italian, Spanish and German; he can celebrate Mass in Polish, has completed online courses in Hebrew and knows a bit of Russian and Portuguese. He'd like to learn an Asian language, as well.

When he became pastor of multi-ethnic St. Matthias parish in Ridgewood in 2002 - and stayed for a dozen years - he would still find the "sense of community, of neighborhood pride" he remembered.

In fact, heading 150 miles up the Hudson River to the Albany Diocese doesn't strike the new Bishop as a big move, but simply as exploring a new "series of neighborhoods."

The Diocese is "a very large geographic area, with a lot of rural areas. I want to be certain I can be present to people" outside the Capital District, he noted. "When I can get out with people, that's where I want to be."

Growing up
That's no surprise, coming from a Bishop whose first childhood dream was to become an airline pilot so he could "go places." The oldest of five children, Bishop Scharfenberger remembers lining up chairs in his parents' living room and pretending he was flying a plane, while one of his two sisters served as a flight attendant.

"We really used the house as a playpen," he recalled. "My family will tell you sometimes I also played Mass. When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I had some friends who were interested in religious life, too."

Towels served as altar linens for the boys. "Communion was probably white bread," he said, although it strikes him now that Oreo cookies would have made a tastier substitute.

On the subject of communion these days, Bishop Scharfenberger has been following the Vatican's hints that change may be coming in the Church's treatment of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, who are currently prohibited from receiving the Eucharist. The Bishop is certified as both a canon (Church) lawyer and a civil lawyer and also worked for the Brooklyn Diocese's Marriage Tribunal, so he's familiar with the problem.

"It's very difficult for a Catholic not to be able to receive communion," he said. The burden is put on the individual to refrain from receiving, rather than on the priest distributing the Eucharist to police it, but "you just don't know what's in someone's conscience.

Family ties
"I have no idea what may emerge" from the Vatican's Synod of Bishops on the family, scheduled for October, added Bishop Scharfenberger. "I don't think there will be doctrinal change, but there are different pastoral solutions. We have that concern about people who are remarried [outside the Church] and would like to receive communion."

The new Bishop would have much to contribute to the October synod: "I was blessed with two parents who very clearly made family a priority," he said of his youth.

His mother, Elaine Magdal, was the child of Russian immigrants to the U.S.; Bishop Scharfenberger noted that he has Jewish roots on her side of the family. She trained as a dietician and worked for a Chicago hospital before meeting his father, Edward, an attorney. Parishioners of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Ridgewood, Mr. Scharfenberger is now 94 and Mrs. Scharfenberger, 93. They live in Warwick, N.Y.

"We were a faith-centered family," Bishop Scharfenberger stated. Parishioners of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Ridgewood, "We did go to church every Sunday. That was a big deal: 'You have to go' - sometimes, 'whether you like it or not.'"

Simple life
The new Bishop mused that his family would probably have been considered lower-middle-class. There was always food on the table, he said, but the Scharfenbergers didn't own a car until he was in his teens, "and it was a used car, at that." Family vacations consisted of picnics or trips to a nearby beach.

"We learned to be content with simple things," he said.

That may account for Bishop Scharfenberger's summation of his current hobbies: "I'm not terribly into equipment."

Although he enjoys fishing, cooking and exercise, he explained, he has no interest in collecting fishing tackle, pots and pans or golf clubs. "I like to do things that are active, but this type of fishing tackle or lure always seemed like an encumbrance."

Instead, his favorite pastime is travel.

"I would not call myself a workaholic; when I vacation, I love to vacation. I like walking and poking my nose around," said the Bishop. "My general way of doing things is to go [to a new place] and learn more about the culture."

He studied theology at the North American College in Rome, Italy, right after the 1960s' Second Vatican Council. The young priests had free rein in traveling around the city, going out for dinner and exploring churches; if it weren't for a good foundation in the faith, Bishop Scharfenberger said, the temptation to become worldly might have triumphed over a vocation.

Instead, he's the seventh of his 30 classmates to become a bishop.

People person
When Bishop Scharfenberger later visited the Holy Land, he said, he was as fascinated by the children he saw cajoling tourists to take their pictures and then asking for money in exchange as he was with the religious sites.

The new Bishop likes people in general. Although he has held many administrative positions, from sitting on the Brooklyn Diocesan Review Board for the Sexual Abuse of Minors to serving as the Diocese's vicar for strategic planning and episcopal vicar for Queens, he said that "I'm far more comfortable sitting down with people one-on-one: counseling, confessions, [visiting] parishes, engaging in discussion groups with people, doing little retreats."

He hopes, even in his new role, to continue such practices. "The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy - I would like to find ways to do that as a priest, too."

The patience and tenacity he said he learned growing up in a family of seven with one bathroom are likely to serve him well as a Bishop.

"All dioceses need a bishop who is primarily a priest and pastor - who preaches and teaches heals, primarily through sacramental ministries," Bishop Scharfenberger said. Although that "starts with his own flock," he said, the strong ecumenical and interfaith connections that already exist in the Albany Diocese must be maintained.

As well, being in a Diocese based in the State Capitol means "the Bishop does have a presence" in discussions of public policy issues, and Bishop Scharfenberger will take on that responsibility.

Only agenda
He plans to advocate for "respect for life in all its stages, respect for people regardless of classes or categories and the protection of vulnerable populations," from the poor to immigrants to persons with mental illnesses or disabilities.

Other than that, "I'm not coming in with an agenda," he added. "This [Diocese] is a community of faith that has deep roots and connections that go back 150 years. Pope Francis said a bishop has to lead his flock, but has to be with his people - and, sometimes, has to walk in back to make sure nobody is left behind."

The Bishop understands respecting one's roots. "I'll never really leave behind my Brooklyn roots. I am where I came from," he told The Evangelist. And "the best is coming with me: the memories, the witness of faith, the love that will remain."

An emphatic fan of the New York Mets, Bishop Scharfenberger also declared that "I will not divide my loyalties with another team. It's kind of in my genes," since he'd been a Dodgers fan until the team left New York and couldn't bring himself to root for the rival New York Yankees.

On the day he spoke with The Evangelist, the Bishop was despondent that, "the other night, [the Mets] threw a game away."

About connections
Pulling out his iPhone and reading a new text aloud, he boasted of the "wonderful world of communication" that will enable him to keep talking and texting with people in both his native diocese and his new one: "I've always liked the use of technology, but I'm not completely off the charts. Twitter, I'm not there yet."

But "I want to be interactive," he said. "It's all about relationship and the extent to which our relationships are born out of love: to listen, to understand.

"People are trying to figure out, 'What's he really going to be like? Is he going to be like Bishop Hubbard?' Some people are afraid there are going to be changes," Bishop Scharfenberger remarked. "That's what I would expect anywhere. But I'm clear about what my core principles and values are, and any decisions would come from that. I have to go through a period of listening and learning before I make any changes."

On the other hand, "If a water pipe is leaking, I have to fix it," he added.

The principles to which he referred, he said, are "transparency, candor and honesty. Everybody's rights and dignity have to be protected. We have to self-regulate."

As he settles into life in the Albany Diocese, a bit farther north than he's used to, Bishop Scharfenberger may be the only Catholic in the Diocese's 14 counties not eager for warm weather.

"I like snow," he confessed - although "maybe we should get a winter off from snow, so we can appreciate it."





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