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Honoring a bishop who weathered the storms; Catholics salute Kmiec for a tough job well done

As a young seminarian, Edward U. Kmiec envisioned himself being pastor of a small Catholic parish along the coast of New Jersey.

The Vatican, as it turned out, had dramatically different plans for the Trenton native.

Nearly 50 years after his ordination, Kmiec is known across Western New York for leading a historic and tumultuous reorganization of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, one of the area's largest and most powerful institutions.

Kmiec, in seven years as Buffalo bishop, closed more than 70 worship sites across eight counties and reduced the number of parishes from 265 to 169. He also shut down 25 elementary schools.

The gregarious, affable bishop absorbed plenty of criticism over the years for shuttering venerable old churches and splintering tightly woven parish communities that dated back more than a century.

But on Sunday, area Catholics came out to salute Kmiec and thank him for a difficult job well done.

About 750 people attended a special Mass in St. Joseph's Cathedral in honor of Kmiec's 50 years as a priest, 29 years as a bishop and seven years as bishop of Buffalo.

Kmiec, who in June submitted his resignation letter to Pope Benedict XVI and is awaiting his successor, recalled in his homily the simple goals and expectations he had while studying for the priesthood at a seminary in Maryland.

"My ultimate goal was to be a parish pastor on the Jersey shore," he said.

Instead, he ended up on the shores of two Great Lakes.

"This isn't the cruise I signed up for," he said. "Looking back, what a cruise it has been."

Along the way, Kmiec said he learned to understand that he might have had a plan for himself, but that God always had a better one.

He described his experiences as a priest and bishop as sometimes daunting and frightening, but more often satisfying and fulfilling. He often relied on a favorite prayer from St. Teresa of Avila, which concludes with the words, "Whoever has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices."

"For me, that was always comforting, even on some rather dark days," he said.

Kmiec received a 30-second standing ovation after his homily.

In the Diocese of Buffalo over the last several years, there were plenty of dark days for area Catholics who grieved the closing of their beloved churches.

But Kmiec's supporters, including many priests, said the changes were necessary and long overdue

"He confronted it. He didn't flee. And it was not easy. He faced it courageously, and he didn't run away. I wish more people would appreciate that," said Monsignor J. Patrick Keleher, campus minister of the University at Buffalo Newman Center.

Despite the unpleasantness of the task at hand, Kmiec never exhibited a moroseness or felt sorry for himself, said Monsignor Robert E. Zapfel, pastor of St. Leo Church in Amherst.

"The bishop always seems to project the joy of the Gospel. There is a happiness about him, a joy of serving the Lord and his people that is infectious," Zapfel said.

Zapfel, who also serves chairman of the diocesan Council of Priests, said Kmiec maintained a very close relationship with members of the clergy.

"He has allowed us to know him, as he has gotten to know us. There's a level of trust and a level of confidence we have in him and that he has with us. There's a mutual affection," he said.

Buffalo is by no means the only diocese to undergo such upheaval of parishes.

In places such as Cleveland and Syracuse, parishioners held round-the-clock vigils to keep open churches that bishops had selected for closure.

From Allentown, Pa., to Toledo, Ohio, downsizings have become the norm in dioceses in the Midwest and Northeast.

Nationwide, the number of Catholic parishes has declined by 7.1 percent over the last decade to fewer than 17,800, from 19,000, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a social science research organization at Georgetown University.

The closings and restructurings have been driven in large measure by a growing shortage of priests combined with demographic shifts -- namely, Catholics moving to the suburbs, away from cities with large concentrations of church buildings, or away from Midwestern and Northeastern urban areas altogether, to places such as Florida and the Carolinas.

Bishop Matthew H. Clark of the Diocese of Rochester knows as well as anyone how distressing church closures can be. He has had to do the same thing in his diocese, albeit over a longer period of time.

"You never do that in order to cause people difficulty, or to cause people pain, but knowing that in doing it, you do cause people pain," said Clark, who studied with Kmiec at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

The Rochester bishop said he admired how Kmiec handled the restructurings in Buffalo, "knowing that it's necessary for the long-range health and well-being of the community."

Clark was one of nine bishops who concelebrated the Mass with Kmiec, including Auxiliary Bishop Bernard J. McLaughlin, who turns 99 in November and is the second-oldest bishop in the country.

Cardinal Edward M. Egan, archbishop emeritus of New York City, was scheduled to be part of the celebration but was unable to attend because weather problems caused his flight to be canceled.

Kmiec had more than 80 family members and friends from out of town in Buffalo for the special Mass.

In an interview with reporters after the Mass, the bishop reflected again on his priesthood and episcopacy.

He remembered, in particular, his feelings about first arriving in Buffalo, after having served for 12 years as bishop of Nashville, Tenn., a much smaller and simpler diocese, with far fewer priests, parishioners, and Catholic schools and hospitals.

"I'll tell you very simply: I was scared to death when I first came here," he said.

But the bishop overcame his fear and found a "home and a family" in Western New York, where he plans to reside at least part of the time in retirement. He also owns a home near the Jersey shore.

"Buffalo has been what I would call my last port of call on that cruise of ministry," he said.

Kmiec acknowledged that he looked forward to trading in the complexities of the prelate's office for a life of greater "simplicity, serenity and peace."

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com