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Vicar for Clergy position keeps Father Kopec involved in many areas of diocesan life

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Father Jerome E. Kopec, former pastor of SS. Peter & Paul Parish in Williamsville, has taken on the role of episcopal vicar for clergy. This role sees him involved in many others ministries within the diocese. He works with deacons, helps plan clergy assignments, and works with the continuing formation of priests and deacons. This is the first time since his June 1 appointment that he’s been able to sit down and explain this new position. Ordained for 42 years, Father Kopec says he still learns from his brother priests.

What does this role involve?

Basically, what is under my umbrella are all matters that concern priests and deacons. So, that’s everything from how they enter our program. I work with (Deacon) Tim Chriswell (director of the permanent diaconate). I work with the Vocation director (Father David Baker) with regard to seminary formation. Everything that happens in their lives from the time they come into our diocese for formation ’til their death. It includes all clergy matters. So, I collaborate with a lot of different departments.

This is a new role, right?

Yes. We used to have a vicar for priests. When Bishop Mike (Fisher) came, first of all we made it vicar for clergy. At the same time, he appointed Father Walt Szczesny as bishop’s delegate for priestly care and support. The reason for that is that when a priest comes to talk with me, a lot of times a priest will say, ‘Can I go to confession with you?’ My role is to represent the bishop, so when a priest or a deacon comes to talk to me they’re basically talking to the bishop and so I cannot offer them confession or confidentiality that comes from what we call internal forum. To assist that, Bishop Mike appointed Father Walter as delegate for priestly care and support, and priests can go to confession to him. So, Father Walter provides for the internal forum and I provide for what’s called the external form.

Father Walter is, I guess the word would be counselor. Where I am representing the bishop in all these other things – formation, assignments, retirement, all those kinds of things. I’m not a counselor so much as the bishop’s representative to all the other aspects that are involved with clergy. 

The bishop had the same role in Washington. Did he share anything with you? Was there anything specific he said he wanted you to do?

He has provided me with a template that they had in Washington, D.C., for programs of ongoing formation. That would be something that I’ll be working on. One of my tasks is to form a committee for the continuing formation of priests. The committee will be tasked to come up with our own template. The bishop offered the Washington template as a suggestion, just as something to show me. We still have to develop our own, but at least this gives us ideas.

You started June 1. What are some of the things you can share?

I’ve served on the diaconate advisory committee. With them, I review new candidates for the diaconate program. I review candidates coming up for ordination. I’m working on the diaconate advisory board on reviewing their entire guidelines for the diaconate program. This Saturday, for example, we have the rite of candidacy for three deacons, so I’ll be attending that.

I was part of the meetings for Road to Renewal with the diaconate and their wives. I collaborate in those things with the diaconate.

Similarly, with priests, I’m very involved with priest assignments. I collaborate with the Priests’ Personnel Board. We work not just on assignments, but kind of strategic planning for assignments of priests. I also work with the board of administrators for the priest retirement residences. I’ve been part of those meetings, trying to find different ways of assisting priests in their retirements.

I attend the curia meetings. I coordinate and collaborate sometimes with the tribunal as it deals with priest cases there. I attend the senior staff meetings. The bishop is forming a new Bishop’s Advisory Committee. I’m going to be serving on that.

I work a lot with Sister Regina (Murphy, chancellor) because Sister Regina is responsible for all the Chancery files so that when we’re dealing with a priest, I need to know where the priest was assigned. We work on getting the records through her.

I have made some visits to some priests that are planning to retire and help them with that process. The mentoring program for the new priests, that’s part of my work.

It’s a pretty big umbrella.

What I love about the job is I’m working with so many different people and they are all so dedicated. Whether it’s the Road to Renewal staff, if it’s the Priest’s Personnel Board, or whether it’s the diaconate program; these advisory groups are people who are really dedicated to the Church and to the diocese, and it’s humbling to work with them because of their dedication and commitment.

Why do you think you were given this assignment?

I have a master’s of arts degree in Sociology, and so I’m oriented to people issues, social issues. Back in the ’90s, I was the priest personnel coordinator under Bishop (Edward) Head and Bishop (Henry) Mansell. Also, I have a canon law degree. I used to be president of the Council of Priests. So, I’ve been involved in priest issues in a lot of different ways. Many years ago, I used to be part of the formation work of the John Paul II Residence. Prior to this I had been a mentor to new priests. So, I have been connected to clergy issues in indirect ways.

You’ve been at the job for five months now. How are things going?

It’s really, I think, going very well. I know that a lot of people are concerned that, because of the sexual abuse crisis and the bankruptcy that the diocese is floundering. It isn’t. It’s really an exciting time. We are in a time of transformation. What is happening with the sex abuse crisis and with the bankruptcy is our diocese really is becoming transformed in a good sense. We are getting better all along. We’ve come to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the sexual abuse crisis, of what victims have experienced. The bankruptcy has forced a reorganization and that has forced us to look at what is really essential and where do our efforts really have to go and be focused to be effective. With all this is also the Road to Renewal. It’s a transformative time. … We are going to be a better Church. We are going to be a better diocese.

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