Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, nearly three months into leading the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, turned around in the waiting room seat outside his office when asked about the collection of porcelain Hummel figurines behind him.
Their presence in an ornate curio seemed disconnected from the man who says possessions are “just not a concern of mine.” It was.
“I didn’t put them there,” he told a visitor, looking them over as if seeing them for the first time. “Do you want one?”
He gestured toward his office a few feet away in the Pastoral Center. “The only thing I’ve added to my office is that cross over there, which my grandmother gave me from way back when,” he said.
“I’m not a collector. I like things. I like a good meal. I like a good conversation. I like a good glass of wine. But I could walk down Fifth Avenue ... or go to a museum and say ‘I’m glad they’re taking care of it.’ I don’t like to be tied down to things.”
With his few possessions soon in tow, Scharfenberger, 66, a native son of Brooklyn, was ordained in April as the 10th bishop of the Albany Diocese at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Since then he has traversed the 14-county diocese, trying to get a pulse of his 330,000 parishioners. Now he is collecting viewpoints and concerns from a region he is only beginning to learn.
The bishop sat down last week for an interview with The Daily Gazette. The following exchange has been edited for space and clarity:
Q: Discuss the moment you decided to become a priest. Was there a single moment of revelation, or did you realize your calling over time?
A: I kind of grew into it. I suppose I just developed a fascination for what the church was doing, gathering people together, people who really like being part of this Catholic thing. I was also thinking about becoming an airline pilot. Maybe that was something, maybe something spiritual about wanting to lift people up to the heights? Who knows? By the time I was 13 I ruled that out, because I wore reading glasses.
Q: But you ended up with a great metaphor.
A: (Laughs) I processed that.
Q: You were 9 when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. How did that affect you?
A: We loved the Dodgers. I would go out to Ebbets Field with my uncle. Then they left. We were abandoned. As soon as they came up with the New York Metropolitans in the early 1960s, we all gravitated.
Q: Does (being a Mets fan) help you understand suffering?
A: It does. It fits right in — redemptive suffering.
Q: You are fortunate enough to still have your parents alive at an advanced age. What is the most important lesson they imparted?
A: Faithfulness. And their gentle care of each other. They put each other and family first. They always showed that commitment.
Q: During your installation there was a point you got time for reflection. What did you think about?
A: I was just thinking about all the people in my life who helped me be who I am. I was thinking “Thank you, thank you, thank you for all of them.” I didn’t get through the list.
Q: What do you see as your priorities in this role?
A: Being new, my first task is to be a good listener. I’m here to be a priest, and a priest is one that communicates with people to help them grow spiritually. In order to know my people and know where to lead them, I have to do a lot of listening.
Q: Can you see, given public polls around the world regarding how many Catholic women and women in general are using contraception, a change in the church’s position?
A: It’s hard for me to see a change in what we see is so essential to what marriage and the procreate dimension of what marriage is. The teaching is very clear that anything that interferes directly with procreation is immoral. That having been said, I think we should always be in dialogue and conversation with others that may think differently.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing the Albany Diocese?
A: People are spiritually hungry. They want to be fed. They want stability. We know that there’s been a lot of changes; some parishes have had to merge either because financially they could not continue to support themselves, or we did not have the priest personnel we did in the past. So I will be doing all I can for the development of vocations.
Q: How do you recruit more priests? What is your pitch?
A: My pitch is ask them. The reality is, 12 to 13 percent of unmarried Catholic men and women have at least somewhat seriously thought about becoming a priest or religious. When asked why they never did, they say one of two things: “Nobody asked,” or “I don’t feel worthy.” None of us is worthy.
Q: What is your biggest vice?
A: I guess trying to do too much, trying to do everything. I don’t know if it’s a vice, but it is my biggest challenge. And being able to say no to good things. If I get overextended I have to keep pulling myself back.
Q: A Pew study in 2008 determined one in 10 Americans are former Catholics. What course of action do you think could lure at least some of them back to the fold?
A: First of all, I’m really confident that people are attracted to the Gospel when they hear it. It’s good news. It’s saving. It brings peace, happiness. If we can get that message out, what Pope Francis calls the freshness of the Gospel, [people will learn] it’s a gospel of mercy, it’s a gospel of forgiveness, and it’s a gospel that heals what is broken inside of us.
Q: What would your Jewish grandfather from Kiev think of his grandson being the bishop in Albany?
A: I think he would be very proud. I really do.