Bishop Matthew H. Clark’s 33-year tenure as shepherd of the Rochester Diocese has ended.
On Sept. 21– slightly more than two months after submitting his letter of resignation on his 75th birthday July 15, as required by church law — Bishop Clark announced that the letter had been accepted by Pope Benedict XVI effective at 6 a.m. local time that day.
"I begin my retirement today, and will have the wonderful title of bishop emeritus," Bishop Clark said during a morning press conference at the diocesan Pastoral Center Sept. 21.
Also during the conference, Bishop Clark introduced Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, who has been appointed to serve as apostolic administrator of the Rochester Diocese until the diocese’s ninth bishop is appointed. Bishop Cunningham will oversee this diocese concurrent with his duties as leader of the Diocese of Syracuse.
Father Joseph A. Hart, who has served as vicar general and moderator of the Pastoral Center under Bishop Clark, will be Bishop Cunningham’s delegate in the daily governance of the diocese.
Bishop Cunningham, 69, was born and raised in Buffalo and was ordained to the priesthood on May 24, 1969. He served as pastor of St. Louis Church in downtown Buffalo, associate pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish, Kenmore, and assistant pastor of his home parish, St. John the Baptist, Kenmore.
He also has had extensive experience shepherding upstate dioceses. In Buffalo, he served as diocesan chancellor, assistant chancellor and vice chancellor; vicar general; a judge in the marriage tribunal; and secretary to Buffalo’s Bishop Edward D. Head. He was named a monsignor by Pope John Paul II in 1984.
In December 2003, the Buffalo Diocese’s College of Consultors elected him diocesan administrator when then-Bishop Henry J. Mansell was appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn. He was appointed the 13th Bishop of Ogdensburg March 9, 2004, and installed May 18, 2004, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ogdensburg.
He was appointed 10th Bishop of the Diocese of Syracuse on April 21, 2009, and installed on May 26, 2009, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse.
Although Bishop Cunningham has never served in the Diocese of Rochester, he has roots in the area. Both of his parents, the late Cecil and Grace Cunningham, were Rochesterians, and his brother and sister were born here. He noted that he frequently visited his grandparents here and that some of his earliest memories were of the city’s St. Monica Church.
During an interview after the Sept. 21 press conference, Bishop Cunningham described his new role in the Rochester Diocese as that of a caretaker helping the diocese to prepare for its next bishop.
"I came here to help span the bridge between Bishop Clark and his successor," Bishop Cunningham said. "I look forward to being among you as a person who serves."
The appointment of an apostolic administrator in a vacant see is not unusual, Father Hart explained, noting that it should not be interpreted as a signal of a future merger of the Rochester and Syracuse dioceses, as some rumors have suggested.
In fact, apostolic administrators are not allowed to make major changes to the dioceses they are overseeing, he said. They are put in place to help manage the day-to-day operations of a diocese or archdiocese, but they are not authorized to start new initiatives, such as renovations or additions to parish properties, sales of parish properties, mergers or appointments of new pastors.
During the period that the diocese is without a bishop, there is no vicar general, and the diocesan Priests’ Council also is disbanded, Father Hart said. However, the judicial vicar, chief finance officer, chancellor and pastors remain in office. The diocesan Stewardship Council and the College of Consultors likewise remain in place.
Meanwhile, the selection of Rochester’s next bishop is in the hands of the apostolic nuncio, who is the pope’s representative and ambassador in the United States, and the Holy See’s Congregation for Bishops. Together they will identify possible candidates and make recommendations directly to the pope, who will make the final determination and appointment. Although the process can take several months, Bishop Clark said Sept. 21 that he hopes the Holy See will move up its timetable for the sake of Bishop Cunningham.