e-mail us
‘New territory’ for prelate and people

Newark, N.J.

When Pope John Paul II appointed Peoria, Ill., Bishop John Myers to become the fifth archbishop of Newark, N.J., July 24, many were puzzled. John Myers among them.

New Jerseyites wanted to know how this farm boy’s shoes would fit into a terrain of tough urban streets like those in Newark and Jersey City -- or for that matter into its posh northern suburbs that serve as commuter colonies for Manhattan. Progressive Catholics wanted to know what they had done to deserve a bishop whose orthodoxy credentials stretched from the wheat fields of southern Illinois to the Gregorian University in Rome and Catholic University in Washington.

Hispanic Catholics -- whose numbers in the Newark archdiocese are more than double the entire Catholic population of the Peoria see -- wanted to know what they would do without their beloved Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. He spoke and wrote to them in Spanish, but was called to Washington last November after 14 years in Newark.

Myers, 60, wanted to know how he would adjust to the culture shock, the traffic jams, the faster-paced life in the East. Myers had to bid farewell to his father -- newly widowed and ill -- and to six siblings, 10 nieces and nephews, and friends he had known for a quarter century and longer.

Then came Sept. 11. Myers sent stunned condolences to Newark’s Catholics within hours of the twin towers toppling, an event that the archdiocese’s administrator, Bishop Paul Bootkoski, had seen from his bedroom window in Sacred Heart Cathedral rectory.

Six days before he donned his miter as Newark shepherd in the Cathedral Oct. 9, Myers put on a blue hard hat and toured the zone of devastation that has come to be called Ground Zero. He prayed with workers, talked to chaplains and gave his rosary beads to a woman who said she could no longer pray.

Myers reported that another woman approached him, one who had narrowly missed death at the site. “You’re leaving your home territory and going into an entirely new situation,” she told Myers. “But we have something in common. We are in entirely new territory, too.”

Myers began the homilies at his prayer service Oct. 8 and at his installation by noting how the terrorists’ actions had “violated human life … violated families, violated our nation” and had affected most of the parishes in the archdiocese and across the metropolitan area. He reassured the flock in Spanish and in Italian.

Alongside four cardinals and 60 bishops, the cathedral was filled with some 300 priests and deacons -- about a quarter of those serving the archdiocese -- with scores of sisters and with a colorful procession of plumed representatives of the Knights of Columbus, of St. Peter Claver and of the Order of St. George. Among the laity and behind side altars and in vestibules were dozens of Newark police and other security officers.

Myers emphasized the teachings that marked his 11 years as bishop of Peoria: upholding the value of human life from conception to its natural end and lifelong fidelity in marriage with each union open to children. He said that the church would assist those whose marriages failed or “find themselves in an abusive situation.” In stating that human sexuality must be practiced according to “its God-given purpose,” Myers reinforced the church’s ban on contraception, in vitro fertilization and homosexual sex.

While Myers has indicated that there is much he wants to say and a pastoral letter he plans to deliver, for now he has released a list of 47 engagements that will take him to parishes and archdiocesan institutions before Christmas. He has planned 11 holy hours with priests and will attend a number of memorial services linked to the Sept. 11 attacks in which at least 350 New Jerseyites -- many from the archdiocese -- perished.

Myers, a canon lawyer, hinted in his homily that he might speak further on embryonic stem cell research in a state known for its biomedical institutions and pharmaceutical firms. “We welcome knowledge in all its many forms and need never fear the truth,” Myers said. But he added, “Technology and science which refer only to their own principles often fail to follow limits required by the larger and deeper vision of the human person.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2001