Diocese’s longest serving priest looks back at seven decades of ministry
Last month, just before Christmas, Father Charles Amico celebrated 70 years as a priest, giving him the distinction of being the longest serving priest in the Diocese of Buffalo. He took some time recently to reflect on his ministry, his service, and his relationship with Jesus.
He points to several factors that led him to consider his spiritual vocation – mainly his family. Born the fifth of six sibling to Italian immigrants, who had very deep religious roots from Mussomeli, Sicily. They were very active in their parish and brought the faith into their home through prayer and devotional practices. They were also active members of the Mussomeli Society, made up of local immigrants from that Italian town.
“The society’s blend of religious, social and recreational activities, played an important role in my spiritual formation,” Father Amico said.
Two older cousins, and later a younger brother, Richard, also became priests.
He recalled seeing many dedicated happy priests serving the community when he was a child at Holy Cross Church in Buffalo. That’s where he became an altar boy at the age of 10, receiving careful, but joyful training from the parish’s assistant pastor, Father Pius Benincasa, who would later serve as auxiliary bishop of Buffalo. Father Amico lists Msgr. Joseph Gambino, Father James Navagh (also a future bishop), Father Paul Eberz, Father Clatus Snyder, Father David Herlihy as exercising a deep influence on him as a young man. At the end of eighth grade, he knew he wanted to become a priest.
“At a very early age I would ‘practice’ saying Mass at home and even at times put on a makeshift clerical collar,” Father Amico recalled.
After attending high school and one year of college at the Little Seminary of St. Joseph and the Little Flower, where he was president of his high school graduating class, Father Amico traveled to Rome to attend the Pontifical Urban College of the Propaganda Fide College.
He was ordained on Dec. 21, 1952, in the chapel of the seminary. He celebrated his first Mass at his father’s parish in Mussomeli.
Picture it. December 1952. American soldiers were fighting in the Korean War. Vladimir Putin, Sharon Osbourne and Roseanne Barr had just been born. Albert Schweitzer received the Noble Peace Prize. The CIA was about to gather to discuss UFOs. Dwight Eisenhower had yet to be sworn in. Queen Elizabeth would not be crowned for six months.
Sunday Mass attendance remained very high. Pastors heard frequent confessions and held many outdoor processions. Religious vocations saw an abundance of young people entering the seminary and religious orders. Novenas, retreats and parish missions were common. Organizations such as Christian Family Movement, Legion of Mary, Holy Name Society, Young Catholic Ladies Society, Third Order affiliations and Knights of Columbus flourished.
“All seemed well in the U.S. Church,” Father Amico said.
Father Amico recalls the faithful of Western New York being a bit segregated. Catholics would typically attend Mass on Sunday, abstain from meat on Friday, attend their parish schools and marry other Catholics.
“Very deep changes,” came about as a result of the second Vatican Council. The essentials of the faith remain, but the role of the laity increased as people were encouraged to read the Bible, rather than have it explained to them through a sermon. Catholics were encouraged to work with non-Catholic and even non-Christians entities. There was a renewed emphasis on social justice with protests against abortion and capital punishment.
Father Amico watched as all sacramental rites went from being in Latin to the vernacular, and full, conscious, active participation of all people was encouraged. The permanent diaconate was restored. Lay men and women began serving as lectors and Eucharistic ministers. Girls were welcomed as altar servers. Parish councils consisting began including lay people, who would now assist the pastor in parish affairs.
Looking back at his 70 years as a priest, Father Amico keeps his memories in neat order. As a seminarian in Propaganda Fide College in Rome he enjoyed the fellowship of living with seminarians from 30 different countries, as well as seeing the beauty of Italy.
His favorite times in parish ministry were as chaplain of the Christian Family Movement, serving with married couples, and as director of a parish religious instruction program for 1,000 public school students.
He also spent over 40 years as a professor of Philosophy, Theology, Homiletics in Trinidad, West Indies, Toronto and, locally at St. John Vianney/Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora.
When your ministry reigns longer than Queen Elizabeth, you learn a few things. His advice to seminarians and young priests is to always put prayer first.
“Above all, never neglect your prayer life,” he advises. “Maintain a spiritual director. Cultivate daily spiritual reading. Attend clergy meetings, convocations. Keep close friendship with a fellow priest. Be faithful to annual physical examination. Subscribe to reliable journals, both spiritual and pastoral. Attend, once a year, national or international conventions or institutes in order to enlarge your horizons.”
He also includes an antidote for burnout.
“Don’t neglect your weekly day-off and annual vacation.”