Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, New York, a longtime supporter of LGBT people in the Catholic Church, turned 75 on July 15th, the required age for submitting a resignation to the Vatican.
Two Rochester news organizations have been observing this milestone with stories reviewing Bishop Clark’s tenure and also looking toward the future for the diocese. A Rochester.YNN.com article recalled Bishop Clark’s welcome of LGBT people in the church, quoting him:
“One of the very enriching parts of my ministry over the years has been many, many opportunities I’ve had to sit down with gay and lesbian people and to hear from them their experience of their lives and the pain it causes them when people speak of them in derogatory ways or with ugly statements or inferences that are damaging.”
In 1997, Bishop Clark presided at a Mass for LGBT people at Rochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. Although there were many protests from traditionalist Catholics that he not host the liturgy, Bishop Clark stood firm. The cathedral seats 900 people; 1300 responded warmly to his welcome by attending that day.
In that same year, Bishop Clark spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Fourth National Symposium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and also presided at the conference liturgy. I recall that when he proclaimed the Gospel for that day, which included the famous John 3:16 verse–“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”–he choked up with emotion and had to pause for a few seconds before continuing. It was a moving experience that was not lost on the assembled crowd who recognized in it Bishop Clark’s commitment to the Gospel.
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle article on Bishop Clark’s resignation had a lengthy comment on his commitment to LGBT people:
“Thomas Wahl remembers Bishop Clark taking the pulpit in September 1998, before a Mass of gay and lesbian Catholics. [This was the Mass for the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries conference which Bishop Clark hosted that year.]
“Wahl, the one-time head of the local chapter of Dignity U.S.A., a group of gay and lesbian Catholics seeking acceptance from the Catholic Church, was among the more than 600 who pushed past the protesting crowds at the door and watched as Bishop Clark took the altar at St. Mary’s Church.
“ ‘He said “Good afternoon,” and then he just stopped,’ said Wahl. ‘And for 15 or 20 seconds, the tears rolled down his cheeks.’
“It was only the second such Mass that Clark had attended, and it came in the midst of a two-year stretch that saw the Rochester diocese take center stage in a national debate on how the Catholic Church should treat its gay parishioners.
“After the diocese’s first gay Mass, which Clark had convened in March 1997, protestors got the attention of the Vatican, who began keeping a close eye on the region as the diocese made some seemingly conflicting decisions regarding its gay outreach.
“In the summer of 1998, Clark reassigned Rev. James Callan of Corpus Christi Church for three offenses, one of which was blessing gay weddings. Shortly after, he ordered diocesan priests to stop participating in a special weekly Mass for members of Dignity U.S.A.
“But just one week after barring his own priests from the Dignity Masses, Clark turned around and hosted a national conference of Catholics that minister to homosexuals, and gave his second Mass for gays and lesbians, further confounding his critics.
“ ‘I have so much love for this man, because he doesn’t really care who he pisses off,’ said Wahl. ‘He will go as far as he can while still staying within the letter of the law so he can continue to be a shepherd for the Rochester gay Catholic community.’ “
Indeed, although Bishop Clark did not support New York’s marriage equality law in 2011, traditionalist Catholics were angered by his lack of zeal in the fight to defeat the bill:
“ ‘He put out a few letters (last year), but it was the same letter they put out years before that just said “This is what the Catholic Church believes,” ‘ said Ben Anderson, [a blogger] . . . critical of Bishop Clark. ‘That was it. There was no standing up. No going in front of the media and saying “You can’t propose this.” Bishop Clark was just sort of mum on that legislation.’ ”
Bishop Clark’s forthright role in the controversy surrounding Fr. Charles Curran, a Rochester priest who is a theologian that was fired by the Catholic University of America, was also cited as a high point in the Rochester Ordinary’s tenure:
“Bishop Matthew H. Clark remembers the letter: stern, foreboding, and signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the man whom the world knows today as Pope Benedict XVI.
“Delivered to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester in 1986, the Vatican’s letter said that Rev. Charles E. Curran’s beliefs on the subjects of masturbation, homosexuality and premarital sex would promote a questionable ‘pluralism in teaching moral doctrine,’ and that Clark was not to defend the man’s opinions any more.
“But Clark didn’t back down.
“ ‘Your Eminence, I fail to see how such a description does justice to what I wrote,’ Clark responded in a return letter. ‘My intention was to portray moral theology as a living discipline, which ever faces new questions and which historically has developed a great deal.’ ”
In a separate Rochester Democrat and Chronicle article which considers the type of bishop that the diocese will have as Bishop Clark’s successor, one Rochester Catholic expressed hope:
“ ‘I have no idea who’s coming, so I can’t worry,’ said Joan Tannous of Gates, who currently serves on the diocese’s Women’s Commission. ‘But I’m hoping someone like (Clark) with his charisma, his foresight, his insight, will replace him. Someone to carry on his accomplishments. The essentials of Bishop Clark’s tenure need to be continued.’ ”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry