BLACKWOOD — The funeral Mass for Bishop Joseph A. Galante was celebrated June 1 at Saint Agnes Church here, the same church where he was installed as Camden’s seventh bishop 15 years earlier.
Bishop Dennis Sullivan, who succeeded Bishop Galante — who retired because of ill health in 2013 — was the principal celebrant. Several visiting bishops concelebrated, and Father Terry Odien, who worked with Bishop Galante as Vicar for Clergy, was the homilist.
During a career that had taken him to Rome and various places in Texas, the Philadelphia-born Bishop Galante described his episcopal appointment to Camden as a “homecoming.” Francis Galante, who offered words of remembrance at the funeral Mass, recalled that his brother “loved this Camden Diocese.”
Francis recalled asking his brother — who served as auxiliary bishop of San Antonio, bishop of Beaumont, and coadjutor bishop of Dallas, all in Texas, before coming to South Jersey — what diocese he liked best. “He said, ‘I loved all the dioceses I was in, but I have a special love for Camden.’”
In retirement, with the title of Bishop Emeritus of Camden, Bishop Galante remained in the diocese, living in a small house close to the Jersey shore, in Somers Point. He occasionally celebrated Mass at nearby Saint Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Marmora and participated in some important diocesan ceremonies, but his life mostly consisted of prayer, keeping up with Philadelphia sports teams and taking care of his health, including undergoing dialysis treatments.
He died May 25 at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point. He was 80.
The final years of his life were a contrast to his tenure as ordinary of Camden, 2004-13. He was, without question, one of the most consequential individuals in the history of the diocese. Even by the standards of a diocesan bishop, he had an outsized influence.
The very location of his funeral Mass was an indication of that influence. Saint Agnes Church is currently part of Our Lady of Hope Parish as a result of the 2010 merger of Blackwood’s two parishes, Saint Agnes and Saint Jude. Bishop Galante oversaw the ambitious plan of reconfiguring the diocese’s 124 parishes to 70.
Bishop Galante’s sweeping merger plan had vocal detractors, but as Father Odien said in his funeral homily, the bishop was always patient and humble, even in the face of his harshest critics. His secretary, Dolores Orihel, recalled that he would take the phone himself when he felt she was dealing with abusive callers.
But while some people complained, many others respected him for having the courage and determination to do what needed to be done for the well being of the diocese — and they admired him for the way he did it.
Soon after his installation in the Diocese of Camden, he hosted 138 “Speak Up Sessions” over 15 months to obtain feedback directly from parishioners, clergy, religious and others on the ministerial priorities of the diocese. This consultation led to a multi-year planning process that sought to address pressing challenges while revitalizing parish life in every area of the diocese.
The mergers were a result of the process. Another was that the deaneries — groupings of parishes that work together in particular regions — were reorganized to be more representative of the diversity of the diocese and to put them into a position to be more collaborative with each other.
Also, the diocese established a virtual university by reaching agreements with several institutions of higher learning to provide cost effective education in ministry and church administration.
The funeral Mass for Camden’s seventh bishop
Bishop Galante, who was a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Communications, genuinely liked journalists as a whole, and often gave interviews, even once holding a “press conference” with student representatives of Catholic schools.
But in his homily, Father Odien concentrated less on Bishop Galante the decisive administrator and newsmaker than on the personal qualities that brought so many people, including many former and retired diocesan employees, to fill the large church for his funeral.
“Every once in a while you come upon a person who is very special because he is so ordinary,” the priest said. “He is quite content to be the person God made him and sees no need of trying to be someone else.”
That was the Bishop Galante he came to know, Father Odien continued, when he came to the Diocese of Camden at the age of 66.
He recalled the story Bishop Galante used to tell of his own birth. The doctor who delivered commented on the broad shoulders of the healthy newborn, saying he could grow up to be a football player. At that point his grandmother responded, “No football! Priest!”
(The future bishop was ordained in 1964, but he had grown up to be a passionate football fan. Those who knew him well were thrilled that he lived to see his beloved Philadelphia Eagles win their first-ever Super Bowl championship in 2018.)
In addition to the influence of his family, Father Odien said, he imagined the bishop’s personal character and spirituality were strongly influenced by women religious. The bishop served as Undersecretary of the Congregation for Religious in Rome. He didn’t enjoy working in the Eternal City — his prayer at the time was, “Dear God, if you can get the Israelites out of Egypt, can you please get this American out of Rome?” — but working with sisters then and at other points in his life had a profound and lasting effect on him.
Father Odien also observed that Bishop Galante thought of his health issues as a way to share in the suffering of Jesus. Being hooked to a machine during dialysis treatments made him more aware, he said, of being “hooked to God who will give him eternal life.”
In his closing remarks, while thanking people, Bishop Sullivan singled out two people who were especially close to Bishop Galante: his caregiver, Steven Katona, who was unable to attend the funeral Mass, and his own secretary Dolores Orihel, who had previously been Bishop Galante’s secretary.
The bishop’s nieces, Annmarie Freeman and Karen Ann Galante, were readers at the Mass.
Father James Bartoloma, chancellor, read condolences from Pope Francis and Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark.
The closing hymn, which Bishop Galante requested for his funeral, was “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” with the lyric “I long to see God face-to-face.”
Burial was at Saint Dominic’s Cemetery in the Torresdale section of Philadelphia.