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Bishop Kmiec’s legacy: ‘Charity and Service’

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When Bishop Edward U. Kmiec was introduced as the 13th bishop of Buffalo in August 2004, he said he came to Buffalo “to serve God, this local Church and especially to serve all of you, in the very spirit of our Lord who said, ‘I have come not to be served, but to serve. Do likewise.'”

Those words launched an eight-year episcopacy in which he demonstrated time and again he was a true servant leader.

He came to Buffalo from Nashville and made it look easy as he transitioned from a mission diocese of just 70,000 Catholics to one that had 700,000 Catholics. 

When he returned in October 2004 for his installation, I’ll never forget riding through Buffalo Niagara International Airport with him in a motorized cart. A message board read, “Welcome Bishop Kmiec.” He quietly said, almost to himself, “My parents would have really liked that.”

From a public relations standpoint, Bishop Kmiec was a dream. In the eight years I served as his spokesman, not once did I have to walk back anything he said in public. He was always prepared to talk to the media, he understood the important role he played in delivering his message and the Church’s, and he made himself available. After an interview, he invariably continued to have friendly conversations with reporters, and that no doubt helped the coverage.

Much of the reporting following his death on July 11 has focused on the Journey in Faith and Grace, the five-year diocesan reorganization plan that led to numerous parish and school mergers and closings. That’s understandable. He made some very courageous decisions that were painful yet necessary. It was a bottom up collaborative process which he asked people to understand and accept, and I think, for the most part, they did. 

“We have to look at our strengths, our weaknesses and our challenges,” he said. “Opportunities await us as we use this process to reimagine our diocese.” 

There was plenty of pushback from some parishes, but most moved forward, establishing vibrant new faith communities. He made it a point to celebrate the first Mass when a new parish emerged.

Some other observations about his legacy:

His respect for his brother priests was clear before he was even installed as bishop when he celebrated the funeral Mass for Father Thomas Crowley at Blessed Sacrament Church in Buffalo. This was one example of how he devoted so much time fostering a strong relationship with his brother priests.

As the first Polish bishop to lead the Buffalo diocese after 12 prelates of Irish decent, he reveled in Buffalo’s strong ties to Polonia. During his installation Mass, he offered a greeting in Polish, with many in the congregation responding in Polish. “I kind of thought some of you might be able to answer that,” he joked.

He was loyal to Pope John Paul II, the future saint and first Polish pontiff, who named Bishop Kmiec to the episcopacy, sending him first to Nashville and then Buffalo. The two met several times, always conversing in Polish. When the Holy Father passed away in 2005, the bishop called him “a true pope of the people for his wonderful outreach, his travels around the world and his deep faith and courage during difficult times. He is a true heroic figure, firm in his fidelity to God and Church in building the Kingdom of God on earth.”

He paid special attention to Buffalo’s rich and diverse religious communities. Among his first public appearances following his installation was speaking at an awards luncheon given by the Buffalo/Niagara Chapter of the American Jewish Committee. He said he looked forward to continuing the dialogue and “I hope and pray we achieve a lot of good things.”

In 2006, he addressed the Western New York Chapter of the Muslim Affairs Council, telling the gathering, “We have a duty to this generation, and many to come, to witness the positive role of faith in public life. Humbled through that faith, we can, with God’s help, create a more just and peaceful future for the world we live in.”

Bishop Kmiec really stepped up to advocate for Catholic Health in 2007 when the state-appointed Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century wanted to shut down St. Joseph’s Hospital in Cheektowaga. The bishop’s very public, very strong support led to the decision to allow St. Joseph’s to remain open as a campus of Sisters of Charity Hospital. The importance of that reversal was clearly evident earlier this year when St. Joseph’s Campus was transformed into a COVID-19 treatment facility.

In July 2007, he welcomed 2,300 people who filled the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center for the 10th Black Catholic Congress. He said he prayed the “Holy Spirit will provide us with the wisdom, knowledge and vision which will meet the issues of our African-American brothers and sisters today.” Those words continue to ring true.

Bishop Kmiec stood at the forefront of the Pro-Life Movement. He prayed the rosary in front of abortion clinics, celebrated the Respect Life Mass every year at St. Joseph Cathedral and traveled to Washington, D.C., taking part in the March for Life. While a muscle strain prevented him from attending in January 2009, he still delivered a message by telephone to the Buffalo delegation: “Even though I’m not with you physically, I’m with you in prayer and penance. God bless all of you most abundantly for your generosity and sacrifice in the cause of life and the undoing of abortion.We won’t give up. We know that God will win out in the end.”

He had a strong love and respect for the women religious of the diocese. When Sister Karen Klimczak, SSJ, was murdered in 2006, he cut short out of town travel to return home. “I don’t know how coincidental it is that she died on Good Friday and three days after she came to resurrection, not in this life but the next. I don’t think it was a chance. I think that was a special gift of God that was given to her to share that closely with the suffering death and glory of Our Lord with the resurrection.”

The young people of the diocese had a special connection with Bishop Kmiec, who was a regular at the annual youth convention. At the 2009 event, he told about 780 teens, “The Church needs your energies, your enthusiasm, your youthful ideals in order to make the Gospel of Life penetrate the fabric of society, transforming people’s hearts in order to create a civilization of true justice of heart. Christ needs laborers to work in his vineyards.”

He was also a champion for religious freedom. In 2012, after the Department of Health and Human Services mandated that health plans must cover contraceptives (including abortifacients), sterilization procedures, and related education and counseling. Bishop Kmiec said the order threatened freedoms guaranteed in the United States Constitution. This debate is about religious freedom, not about access to contraception. It is not government’s role to determine if Catholic or any other faith-based ministries are ‘religious enough’ to qualify for religious freedom protection.

“If we lose our religious freedom, what’s next?”

As he entered retirement in 2012, Bishop Kmiec said, “From the moment I arrived in Buffalo in August 2004, I felt very much at home here, and I consider myself a Buffalonian and a Western New Yorker.”

There is much, much more to to be said about Bishop Kmiec’s legacy, from his unwavering support of Catholic Charities, to his presence at Catholic elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities, and the direct way he preached the Gospel. His presence, his gentleness, his sense of humor will be cherished and remember through the ages. He is already greatly missed.

Bishop Kmiec’s episcopal motto was “Charity and Service.” 

Looking back on the life of this good and faithful servant whose life was well-lived, it is readily apparent he lived out those words every day.

May God grant Bishop Edward U. Kmiec eternal rest.

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