His gift was in being ‘wonderfully ordinary’

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Following is the homily that Father Terry Odien gave at Bishop Joseph Galante’s funeral Mass on June 1 at Saint Agnes Church, Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood.

Every once in awhile in life you come upon a person who is very special because he is so very ordinary. A person who doesn’t need to put on airs, because he doesn’t take himself that seriously. A person who down deep is so fully in possession of himself that he doesn’t have to prove anything by his actions. He is quite content to be the person God made him and sees no need of trying to be someone else. He is simple, straight forward. Anyone who has met such a person has come upon a precious treasure indeed. And I want to suggest that this is the kind of person we recognized in Bishop Joseph Galante. Simple, wonderfully ordinary, never putting on any airs. At least I can say this is the Joseph Galante I came to know in his older years when he became the Bishop of Camden in 2004 at the age of 66 right up to his death last Saturday.

Terry Odien gives the homily at Bishop Joseph Galante’s funeral Mass on June 1 at Saint Agnes Church, Our Lady of Hope Parish, Blackwood. —– Photo by Mike Walsh

I believe this description of Bishop Galante flows deeply from his episcopal motto “Have the Mind of Jesus” which flows from our second reading today from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Having the mind of Jesus begins with surrendering the heart and living Jesus with every ounce of being. Having the mind of Jesus requires faith, developing a mind set on the things of God through an obedient connection with the Spirit of God. Surrendering the heart to Jesus requires relinquishing control over every area of life. And this surrender is possible because of Jesus’ great love for his people. As we hear in John’s Gospel today, “As the Father has loved me so have, I loved you. Now remain in my love.” Knowing this great love and surrendering the heart develops within a person a spiritual confidence that we call faith, and there is no doubt that our beloved Bishop Galante had a deep faith. I am sure my brother priests and I can recall the many Chrism Mass homilies when Bishop Galante invited (exhorted) us to graph ourselves to Jesus. Jesus develops that faith in us as a believer and as we grow in faith, we grow in obedience — always discerning the will of God for us. This journey of faith invites us to listen to the voice of God and to have regular conversation with God, which only strengthens our hunger to know God more and to be more like God. This is the man I came to know since 2004 when he graced the Diocese of Camden by his appointment as our bishop.

I believe this also probably describes the young Joseph Galante when he heard God’s voice inviting him to discern his vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It took prayerful discerning even though I understand that when he was born the delivery doctor said he was a healthy boy with good shoulders who could grow up to be a football player. His grandmother, in her broken English responded. “No football. Priest.” And the rest of his life is a testimony to his deep faith in God’s love for him and his desire to be obedient to whatever God might be asking of him. It took him away from his beloved home in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to studies in Rome just 15 months after he was ordained to the priesthood, followed by graduate studies in Rome for three years. And just when he probably thought he was heading back home to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he gets sent on loan to the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, where he served for four years.

He frequently spoke of this time with and being mentored by Bishop Humberto Medeiros while serving in the Diocese and how Bishop (later Cardinal) Medeiros was an example of a humble servant that would have a lasting impact as Bishop Galante embraced his episcopal responsibilities later on in his life as a bishop. He admired Bishop Medeiros who was such a strong advocate of immigrants, the poor and minorities, and we see that played out in the life of Bishop Joseph Galante.  

After serving in the Diocese of Brownsville, he returns to Philadelphia and serves in a number of positions in the archdiocese: seminary professor, Vicar for Religious, Marriage Tribunal and then he is off again to Rome to serve as Undersecretary, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated life and Societies of Apostolic Life where he served for five years. You get the sense by now that this very faithful, obedient servant of God had wondered if God forgot about him when he would go to the chapel and say a special prayer:

“Dear God, if you can get the Israelites out of Egypt, can you get this American out of Rome?”

God finally heard his prayer when he was named as the auxiliary bishop of San Antonio, Texas in 1992, and from then on, he remained in Texas for 12 years in San Antonio, Beaumont, Dallas. He loved Texas and often spoke of the beauty of the people and his deep gratitude to God for sending him to serve the diverse population of those dioceses. And then came his appointment to serve as Bishop of the Diocese of Camden in 2004, which he described as “ a return home.” How blest were we!

For the next nine years Bishop Galante shepherded the Diocese of Camden with great diligence and care. For Bishop Galante, it was always about being open to the Holy Spirit, which meant being open to God’s people as channels of that Spirit. We know, of course, that church leaders are channels of the Spirit — that God speaks through them. But God also speaks through the people in the pews — through their needs, their hopes, their challenges, their dreams. So, Bishop Galante engaged in a diocesan-wide planning process which began by visiting every parish in the Diocese of Camden, along with diocesan staff members, and listened to people speak of their hopes and dreams for their parishes. It was a tiring process, but he was engaged and never appeared defensive as he sometimes heard some unpleasant stories. As we know, one of the results of these listening sessions was the consolidation of the number of parishes from about 124 to 70. It was a seismic shift but all with the hope that the mergers would bring about vibrancy, community and financial stability to our parishes. He wasn’t the most popular man at that time, but he held to the course — desiring only the best for the people of God in the Diocese of Camden. He recognized that he would not live long enough to see the fruits of that laborious process, but he had great trust that God would see it through in the years to come.

Bishop Galante was a man who valued collaboration — whether it was the Presbyteral Council, Diocesan Finance Council, Priest Personnel Board, senior staff and oh so many others. He did not feel that he had a corner on the truth.

He would frequently say as he entered the room for another meeting, “To Jesus through meetings.” He valued the opinion of all, even if he disagreed with what some staff might say or recommend. I think some of my favorite photographs of Bishop Galante are when he would be sitting in a chair with his hands folded looking like he was deep in contemplation, listening, pondering, perhaps discerning God’s voice in whatever the situation was. Occasionally he would get upset at our senior staff meeting and go off on a “toot” about the situation, and I remember one woman on our staff whom he respected very much would speak up and say, “Bishop (Joe), you are not being your best self right now.” He would never react, but he would take the comment in, in all humility, be still, ponder and invite us to move on.

Where did this man get all these values and deep faith in God? Obviously, the beginnings came from his family and early formation. But I am convinced that much of what helped Bishop Galante to become the man he was came from his involvement with vowed women religious over the years. For a number of years he lived with the Sisters of Saint Joseph at the Catholic Home; he also lived with the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart in Haverford for six years, his years as Vicar for Religious in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and his years in Rome working in the Institute of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. There is no doubt in my head that these many years of association with women had a profound, positive impact on the life of Bishop Joseph Galante. He valued the counsel and wisdom of women and appointed women to senior staff positions in the diocese and, in fact, his spiritual director since his retirement was a vowed religious woman.

Permit me to fast forward to his retirement:

The same faith and deep trust in God’s love for him was such a source of strength even as he embraced ill health and discerned his decision to petition for retirement because of his diminishment. He saw his ill health as “God’s favor, an invitation to share in Jesus’ suffering.” “One of the things I say to God is thank you for being in charge of my life, rather than letting me be in charge.” As he was hooked up to the dialysis machine three times a week all these years, he described it this way: “Being hooked up to a machine helped me be more aware that I am hooked up to God who will give me eternal life”.

That eternal life is yours now, dear Joe. What a gift you were to your family, your friends, to the people of San Antonio, Beaumont and Dallas, to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and most especially to us here in the Diocese of Camden. You taught us — more by who you were than by what you said; you led us, walking alongside of us and never lording it over us; you inspired us to be our best selves and never take shortcuts around the Gospel; and you challenged us to dream great dreams and to believe that nothing is impossible for those who believe. Blessed are you, dear friend. Blessed are you. Yours is the kingdom of heaven!