Spreading God's word: Bishop Scharfenberger busy in his new diocese role

By Meg Hagerty
August 10, 2014

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, right, presides over Mass on Saturday, July 12, 2014, at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church on Wheeler Avenue in Whitehall. Bishop Scharfenberger is the newest bishop in the Albany Diocese.


Edward Scharfenberger remembers having a couple of sleepless nights after getting a call from the apostolic nuncio at the Vatican notifying him he had been named to succeed Howard Hubbard as the 10th bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.

He wasn’t afraid of leaving the Brooklyn parish he served for 12 years, but he feared in his new position he’d be stuck behind a desk all day.

But the 66-year-old has not been languishing in his office since he started his duties in April. He has made it a priority to meet the Catholics in the 12 deanery, 14-county area bishopric.

Kenneth Goldfarb, director of communications for the diocese, said even he has trouble keeping track of the bishop.

“I want to hear people. I want to spend time with them,” Scharfenberger said.

The people in his jurisdiction are “wonderful, welcoming and desirous of hearing the word, hungry for spiritual development and very open,” he said.

Scharfenberger credits Pope Francis for focusing on the “joyful core of the Gospel.”

He said the pope’s request for bishops and priests to de-emphasize materialism and live simpler lives makes sense, so nothing gets in the way of people seeing an “all-loving, all-forgiving God.”

John O’Brien of Glens Falls, a lifetime communicant at St. Mary’s Church, follows Scharfenberger online and through The Evangelist, the official publication of the Albany Diocese. The new bishop has become a Facebook friend of his and prayed for his newborn granddaughter in April after she stopped breathing and had to be rushed to Albany Medical Center.

O’Brien attended St. Pius X Church in Loudonville one morning and discovered Scharfenberger was conducting the Mass. O’Brien introduced himself.

“Pope Francis seems to be about evangelization and kind of a renewed importance on our Catholic faith — knowing it, No. 1, to the best extent of being an educated Catholic and based on the official Catholic teachings, being able to carry that out.” he said. “I would hope for Bishop Edward that he’ll place a high importance in knowing our faith and living out that faith.”

Scharfenberger has already made an impact on the Rev. Rendell Torres, who presides over Our Lady of Hope in Whitehall, St. Ann’s Church in Fort Ann and Chapel of the Assumption Mission of Our Lady of Hope at Hulett’s Landing.

The bishop made a call in July at the parish in Whitehall and the 43-year-old Torres voiced concern about the shortage of Catholic clergy. He spoke of the challenges of trying to minister to the approximately 400 congregants who come out regularly to his three churches.

“It’s analogous to being a father of two to three families and trying to be a spouse and father to them. It’s very difficult for both the pastor and the people,” Torres said.

“I think he’s trying to get an overall picture of how things are and what he can do,” Torres said of Scharfenberger. “He was a pastor, so he understands a lot of the things pastors are undergoing from a practical level.”

The Rev. Joseph Busch of Our Lady of the Annunciation of Queensbury and the Rev. Joseph Manerowski of St. Mary’s Church in Glens Falls echoed Torres’ concerns about the lack of people entering the priesthood.

Maneroski said many of the clergy in the diocese are “retirement ready” or have health issues that keep them from fulfilling their duties.

Busch feels fortunate he can rely on retired pastor Joseph Anselment for assistance at his church, but that won’t always be the case.

“We’re going to have to cover parishes, and that means we’re going to have to look at the Mass schedule itself and maybe do some cutbacks,” Busch said.

Scharfenberger said, to counteract the dwindling numbers, the church needs to be more active in developing leadership. He cited a 2012 survey at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University that said 11 to 13 percent of unmarried Catholic men and women have seriously considered a vocation in the priesthood or religious life.

“What that says to us if we do the math, if even 10 percent of those who felt that call actually pursued it, we would not have a shortage. The next question is, why would they not pursue it? The CARA Center found out that the person was never asked and that the person didn’t think he was worthy,” Scharfenberger said.

Scharfenberger has studied theology and law. He was admitted to the bar in New York in 1991 but never practiced as a civil attorney. He was the judicial vicar for the Diocese of Brooklyn, where he handled administrative and judicial tasks and presided over mostly matrimonial cases. He served at churches in Forest Hills and Dix Hills, and since 2002, he was the pastor of St. Matthias Church in Ridgewood, Brooklyn.

From 2002 to 2008, Scharfenberger was a member of the Diocesan Review Board for Sexual Abuse of Minors for the Brooklyn Diocese, charged with evaluating the way sexual abuse cases were handled. He and a committee determined whether an allegation was credible, then made recommendations to the bishop. During his last year on the board, he took on the role of Promoter of Justice and worked to protect and pursue individual and ecclesial rights in the church.

Sharfenberger acknowledged there was a “lack of vigilance” in the past on the part of church officials to respond to allegations of sexual abuse. As far back as the 1970s, mental health professionals were suggesting perpetrators only needed counseling and reassignment to a new parish and all would be well, he said.

“Those were obviously, as you look back, not the right decisions to be made. Never again,” he said. “Now we urge the public, if they see something, to say something. To many of the victims, more than anything else, the most healing thing is just knowing that somebody is listening to them and takes them seriously.”

Scharfenberger praised Pope Francis for reaching out and apologizing to victims of clergy sexual abuse. In the past 10 years, the Catholic Church has had to do “personal soul searching,” he said.

“That was important. The church that only focuses in on itself and, God forbid, in a very defensive way, is not going to be effective in claiming the Gospel. That having been said, what I like about the Francis approach is that it doesn’t seem like he’s doing this in order to bring people to convert, to proselytize. That’s very distasteful,” he said.

Scharfenberger said the Albany diocese has an agreement with each of the district attorneys in the 14 counties and if an allegation is made, it is forwarded to that office immediately. In addition, the diocese conducts its own investigation with the review board.

“I’m personally present throughout that process to keep an eye on things,” he said. “My goal is to be transparent, to follow law and go beyond in terms of those that have been affected.”

Scharfenberger wants to address issues relating to the isolation of women who are often head of single-parent households, as well as the substance abuse issues in this area.

He plans to go into prisons to better understand the relationship between the culture in the prisons and the outlying community.

“Some of the people in the prisons have probably the worst isolation from God and themselves,” he said.

As Scharfenberger continues to reach out and get to know the people of upstate New York, he feels “very excited” for the future.

“I have a lot of hope that if we can bring out the best in one another, we will have a great journey together,” he said. “I see when human beings can be human beings and treat each other like human beings, we can grow together.”




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