Saturday, July 20, 2024

Q&A with Bishop Senior

Bishop Timothy Senior greets the Holy Father, Pope Francis.
Bishop Timothy Senior greets the Holy Father, Pope Francis.

On a warm spring day, looking out over the skyline of Philadelphia, Bishop Timothy Senior reflected on his childhood, discernment, ministry and hopes for the Diocese of Harrisburg prior to his installation as its Twelfth Bishop.

Between the packing, purging and preparing for this transition, Bishop Senior has also spent many hours in prayer.

“I would say that it began the moment that I hung up the phone with Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Papal Nuncio, on the 16th of April when he called me. His message to me, while surprising – and I can only describe it this way – had a certain gentleness of the Holy Spirit. I sort of knew right from the beginning that the will of the Holy Father, the call of the Church, was something that I wanted to do,” said the bishop.

Bishop Senior was returning from a parish visit when he received the call, adding that even as he was carrying his bags back into the parish, he was already thinking about where to go next.

“I knew where I wanted to go. I said to the Nuncio, ‘I’m going to go right in and make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.’ I think we all go through periods of time where we say, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Is this really Your will?’ I went into the Church at St. Matthias in Bala Cynwyd, where I lived, and knelt down in prayer. It was Divine Mercy Sunday, and I sort of uttered that prayer in my heart, ‘Jesus, is this really what You want of me?’ By then, I was already swimming in all the details of ‘What am I going to do? I can’t tell anybody. I want to call my spiritual director.’ There was a certain calm that came over me, especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and the words of the Preparatory Prayers of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy: ‘Jesus, I Trust in You.’ That sense of calm came over me, and again it was an affirmation of what I had felt initially – the surprise and then there was a certain gentleness,” said Bishop Senior.

With that sense of peace and excitement, Bishop Senior visited Harrisburg several times before his installation on June 21. During his announcement visit, the bishop toured the St. Samuel Center with Catholic Charities and St. Catherine Labouré School. On a second trip back, he also attended Catholic Charities’ “Hands of Christ Creating Hope” benefit dinner.

“I’m humbled by the response and welcome that I’ve received. I’ve never done this before so I had no expectations, but certainly the warmth of the people of the communities I have encountered has been wonderful and I’m looking forward to being among the people of the Diocese,” said Bishop Senior.

Visiting a grade school, which Bishop Senior hasn’t had the opportunity to do in some time, was one of the highlights of his early trips to the Diocese, as was his visit to the St. Samuel Center.

“With Catholic Charities, seeing the work of the Church and how it encounters the lives of people in need and people who also have the power of God working in their lives was so beautiful. We saw that in the testimony of one of the people who went through one of the programs at the St. Samuel Center. That brings it to life and makes it real. This is the Church in action, where the Gospel principles are coming to life. And you also see, before your eyes, the work of the Holy Spirit,” he added.

Humble Upbringing
Pope Francis visits St. Charles Seminary in Overbrook during his Papal Visit to the United States in 2015, escorted by Bishop Timothy Senior, left, and Archbishop Charles Chaput.
Pope Francis visits St. Charles Seminary in Overbrook during his Papal Visit to the United States in 2015, escorted by Bishop Timothy Senior, left, and Archbishop Charles Chaput.

The youngest of three children, Bishop Senior very fondly reflected on his family, including his late brother James and sister-in-law Ann Marie, his sister Myra and late brother-in-law Ron, and many nieces, nephews and great nieces and nephews. The bishop added that he lost his father from cancer in 1977 and more recently, in February 2020, his mother passed.

“My mother lived to be almost 99. She died February 20, 2020. On February 25, we had a glorious funeral with the whole seminary community, concelebrants and bishops, people from our parish where we grew up. Mom would say to me in her later years, ‘Timothy, I’m outliving all my friends and my family. Nobody will be at my funeral.’ If she had lived another three or four weeks, there would have been nobody there because COVID shut things down.”

A teacher in both Catholic and public schools, Bishop Senior’s mom continued as a substitute until she was 86. She was also the music director for their family parish, St. Rose of Lima, for more than 30 years.

“My parents met when their families lived across the street from each other in Immaculate Conception Parish in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. In Germantown, many of the priests serving in the parishes were Vincentians. My father would say the only priests he knew growing up were Vincentians, and he didn’t think there were any other kind of priests.”

With a large extended family having Irish and Welsh roots, Bishop Senior said that in his life, family has been and continues to be paramount.

“My experience has been that my family is always there, always supporting me, always present. Families are the sources of our greatest joys, and also some our greatest sorrows. They’ve been wonderful and they’re very talented people. We’re very musical people so we have a lot of fun, a lot of laughs. My brother was a talented writer and author, and passionate about so many things. My sister also became a teacher, and later a school principal. She is a passionate and deeply committed person who you always want as an advocate. My father was more reserved and quiet, having served in World War II. My mother was incredible in many ways,” said the bishop. “Home – where I come from – is very important to me and holds a very special place in my heart.”

Hearing the Call

The example set by his family, especially his mother, inspired Bishop Senior from a young age to take a greater interest in prayer and spirituality.

“I became an altar server when I was in fifth grade, and I wasn’t a very good one; I was kind of a clumsy one. One of our priests at the parish, Msgr. Michael Carroll, taught high school and was in residence at our parish. He would celebrate the 6:45 Mass. I remember serving that Mass, watching him in that role, and being incredibly inspired by it; to be so close to the Eucharist. I recall another occasion when I was in 8th grade with a classmate of mine, being assigned to an hour of Adoration during our parish’s 40 Hours Devotion. I remember feeling very drawn to the Eucharist – to the presence of Jesus there.”

Once he entered high school, the bishop said he started to think more and more about the priesthood, but didn’t share his thoughts with anyone at the time. He started looking through brochures for different orders, including the Vincentians and Jesuits.

At a December 2022 ceremony, Bishop Timothy Senior joins in breaking ground for the new St. Charles Borromeo Seminary campus at Gwynedd Mercy University.
At a December 2022 ceremony, Bishop Timothy Senior joins in breaking ground for the new St. Charles Borromeo Seminary campus at Gwynedd Mercy University.

“Then, seemingly out of the blue, some packets came in the mail to our house and my parents asked what it was about, and I admitted that I was thinking about becoming a priest. That became a buzz in the family for a while, but I then set it aside for a while and went on with high school,” said Bishop Senior.

While the priesthood was on the bishop’s mind, so was being a concert pianist. Having studied the piano since he was seven at the Lansdale Conservatory of Music, Bishop Senior dreamed of music being his future. But then, something happened.

“When I was in tenth grade, our parish organist and her husband began to spend the winters at their home in Florida. There was a need for another organist to fill in, and so they plopped me on the bench, and my piano teacher, Bob Sloan, then started to also teach me to play the organ. Through playing the organ for the Liturgy, I began to more powerfully sense a growing spirituality in my music, and ultimately a deepening awareness of the presence of God in my life.  I often have said, I think I discovered my vocation to the priesthood in music. There was something about playing the organ in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, as a form of prayer and as an act of worship to God that carried me away.”

But entering seminary wasn’t a done deal. By the time he was a senior in high school, Bishop Senior was seriously considering becoming a lawyer; however, the call to the priesthood was still on his heart.

“In the fall of my senior year, I told one of my friends, ‘Matt, I’m thinking about becoming a priest.’ He was very supportive and wasn’t surprised. Then I started to tell a couple of other friends, and they said they weren’t surprised either. I went home and told my parents and they saw it differently at first. They thought it was a crazy idea, I had just turned 17, and was the “baby” of the family, and so on. My father said he wanted me to go to college at least for a year and get a job and get some experience. Meanwhile, his health was declining.”

Bishop Senior’s father passed away from an aggressive cancer on September 2, 1977, at the age of 54.

“His funeral was September 6; the day I would have entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, had I entered right out of high school. So what did I do that year? I sort of reopened my entire discernment process. I started to meet for spiritual discussion/direction with a priest, Father Peter Funk, a priest assigned to a neighboring parish at the time. He was very helpful to me in that year, beginning to teach me how to pray in a more contemplative way. I also considered possible options to the diocesan priesthood, including both the Augustinians and the Jesuits. I was particularly drawn to the charism of the Jesuits and connected with them, going on retreats at their novitiate in Wernersville, Pa. In that context, I was introduced to the spirituality of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, which has been a great grace in my life.”

That same year, Bishop Senior was attending Temple University, Ambler Campus, double majoring in Economics and Political Science, still with a goal of pursuing the legal profession.

“In the end, after much prayer and discernment, I applied and was accepted to Saint Charles, entering in 1978.  I bought my first black suit at Wanamaker’s the summer before,” said the bishop.

Throughout his time in seminary, Bishop Senior continued to study the organ, eventually becoming the seminary organist. He added that music became more and more a part of his life and he even considered taking time off of seminary to pursue music, but through the guidance of people in his life, he continued in seminary and was ordained to the priesthood on May 18, 1985.

Fostering Future Priests
Bishop Timothy Senior with seminarians from his time as rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, including Diocesan priests Father Tim Sahd, fourth from right, and Father Richard Lyons, second from right.
Bishop Timothy Senior with seminarians from his time as rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, including Diocesan priests Father Tim Sahd, fourth from right, and Father Richard Lyons, second from right.

Twenty-seven years after leaving Saint Charles Seminary at his ordination, Bishop Senior found himself back at the seminary, this time as its rector.

“I knew from the day I walked into the seminary as the rector that God had given me a great blessing. Yes, it was the privilege of working with incredibly talented priests, religious, faculty and staff. But I think we would all agree, faculty and staff, that the greatest treasure is the seminarians,” he said.

His years prior to returning to the seminary were filled with challenges, as the bishop served as the Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia during traumatic years for the Church in Philadelphia after the clergy abuse report.

“God knew what He was doing when He tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘There’s something really wonderful happening in the Church, too. You’re dealing with the pain, the struggles and the challenges and trying to look for ways for people to find healing. That’s extremely important, but remember God is still working in the midst of the confusion.’”

After being faced with many challenges, Bishop Senior said returning to the seminary gave him a chance to see that the Holy Spirit was active in purifying and renewing the Church.

“I have found seminarians to be generous in responding to God’s call with creativity and dedication, and clarity about their faith and a desire to serve in a very passionate way. They are ready to proclaim the Gospel and engage the world. And they don’t have the level of support from the culture as a whole, as we would have had in the late 70s and early 80s.”

While formation has changed over the decades, the things a man needs to be a priest have remained consistent.

“First and foremost, they need to be centered on their relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s the number one priority. I used to say to the seminarians, ‘You need to be a disciple before you can be a priest, to be a man who is going to be a faithful follower of the Lord.’ That’s true for me every day of my life as well.”

The date of Bishop Senior’s installation, June 21, is the Feast of St. Aloysius. This day was chosen in part because, as the patron saint of young people, Bishop Senior hopes everyone will remember the importance of promoting vocations.

“We need vocations in all forms in our diocese; to the priesthood, the consecrated life, married life, etc. The day of my announcement, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of young men who were at the Diocesan Center to be recognized for their academic and athletic success. They’re great young people. I could sense that they have been exposed to developing a relationship with God, lived out in the life of the Church, and I’m sure there are vocations there. I’m asking St. Aloysius to help us especially to discover the potential future seminarians of Harrisburg a bit more readily, and to encourage and prompt them to consider the priesthood,” said the bishop. “Promoting vocations is everybody’s responsibility. It’s not just the job of the Vocations Director or the bishop. Priests are extremely important in it, but so are families. If you know a young man that you think would be a good priest, tell him. The Holy Spirit could be prompting you to do so. Don’t be afraid of it.”

The Real Presence
Bishop Timothy Senior elevates the chalice during the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Bishop Timothy Senior elevates the chalice during the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

One of Bishop Senior’s early focuses will be the national Eucharistic Revival, which has been ongoing since June 2022.

“I think that the experience of the celebration of the Eucharist is the celebration of the Real Presence of Jesus. We have to manifest the expression, Lex orandi, lex credendi, the way we pray shows what we believe.”

A well celebrated, beautiful liturgy captures the attention and can deeply move people, explained the bishop.

“That’s the Holy Spirit. It is not a performance. We also then need good catechesis to build on the experience, and to address questions that might arise: Why is the liturgy so beautiful? Why is the experience, the music, the incense so beautiful? What does it mean? We believe that Jesus is with us until the end of time. In the breaking of the bread, Jesus is saying, ‘This is the way that I am with you.’”

“To encounter the unconditional love of Jesus, no matter where we are along the continuum of our growth, and to catch the gaze of Jesus, is only love and mercy. We can be a mess through our own doing, and ashamed, but God is looking for us. To gaze upon the Eucharist, in faith, is to catch the gaze of the love of Jesus. That’s why there is power in Eucharistic Adoration. I know that the Revival speaks to the importance of that as well. We have to emphasize the liturgy and letting the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ transform us, but Adoration can also be transformative. He is with us there.”

From Priest to Bishop

In 2009, Bishop Senior was ordained an Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, serving most recently as a regional bishop.

“The archdiocese is divided into three episcopal regions. Bishop Deliman oversees the Hispanic communities in the entire archdiocese. Bishop McIntyre, Bishop Fitzgerald and I oversaw three regions. Mine was all of Montgomery County and half of the City of Philadelphia. I had 88 parishes in my region,” said the bishop.

Installing new pastors, being the first call in the death of a priest or deacon, making canonical and pastoral visits, and supporting the priests of his region were all part of Bishop Senior’s responsibilities. As an auxiliary bishop, he also assisted the Archbishop, Nelson Pérez, the Ordinary for Philadelphia, with his responsibilities.

“I think I have a good understanding of what the responsibility is administratively. The temptation can be to be absorbed by administrative responsibilities,” said Bishop Senior. “Going into Harrisburg, I’m looking forward to being, first and foremost, a pastor, and in some sense, that’s the easy part. I want to be among the people, I want to listen to who they are, and understand the culture.”

Part of his listening will be to understand the challenges the Diocese has faced over the past several years, especially related to the sexual abuse of children.

“Primarily, I need to listen. I need to hear the experiences. Sexual abuse in any situation is a traumatic experience, whether it’s in family, in the workplace, in a community, in a school. We have experienced that in the Church. As an institution, a lot of us think, “How could this possibly happen?” I still live with that. I go back to 2002 when the situation began to become more public. There was trauma for Catholics as a result of the realization that this could happen. As a result, priests, consecrated religious, lay faithful, all people who work in and on behalf of the Church, seminarians and their formators as well – we all have to work together to ensure that our children are safe.”

The bishop added that there are many ripple effects of abuse, and that listening and being available to those who have been harmed is a way to support survivors.

“We also need to be vigilant as much as possible on all areas of Church life. We’ve learned lessons in this experience that help us to be more effective in other areas of Church governance, in handling any form of clerical misconduct in the Church – sexual misconduct, financial misconduct. We’ve learned lessons of the importance of transparency, and working with law enforcement if there is anything potentially inappropriate. As bishop, I want to be vigilant about continuing that.”

Bishop Senior said that while he won’t be perfect, he’ll do his best to be the bishop the people of the Harrisburg Diocese need him to be.

“I know I have my strengths, and I know I have my weaknesses. Over the years, I have become humbled by the ministry entrusted to me. I have a lot more to learn, so I want to listen. It’s extremely important for me to listen in order to be effective. I aspire to the qualities of servant leadership. That’s been a huge part of my life,” he said. “My MBA was focused on strategic management and organizational studies. I hope my decisions and leadership are strategic in Harrisburg. One of the areas of interest I have is to study leadership and leaders. It’s one thing to study the lives of leaders, and admire their styles, or to study leadership as a concept; it’s another thing to actually be a leader! I look to the example of the Lord to help me and guide me; He is the epitome of servant leadership. If you want to be a leader, you need to serve the rest.”

(Photos courtesy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.)

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