(The following biography of Bishop Joseph McFadden was originally published Aug. 19, 2010 in The Catholic Standard and Times, the former newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.)
Coincidences? Call it the plan of God; almost everything happens for a purpose. This should be perfectly clear to Bishop Joseph P. McFadden as he leaves Philadelphia to take up his new duties as Bishop of Harrisburg. His own past uniquely suits him for the challenge.
Born May 22, 1947, the son of Thomas and Ellen (Griffin) McFadden, he was baptized at St. Rose of Lima Church and later attended Our Lady of Lourdes Parish School in Overbrook, as did his older brother and sister, John and Jane, and younger sister, Ellen.
Faith was instilled in the children at an early age. Their father, who repaired elevated trains for Philadelphia Rapid Transit (later SEPTA) was a daily Mass attendee who accompanied his children to confession every Saturday, and afterward, the bishop recalls, gave them a dime to buy a candle to light at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. During May and October, after-dinner family rosary was the rule. “We couldn’t go anywhere until the rosary was said,” Bishop McFadden recalls.
He especially admired Father Francis Hallman, who oversaw the altar servers at Our Lady of Lourdes and encouraged him to consider the priesthood, both in his childhood and young adult years. He lived right near St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, and the occasional sight of the long lines of black-clad seminarians also piqued his interest.
During his years at St. Thomas More High School, where he became a member of the National Honor Society and graduated as valedictorian in 1965, the Vincentian Fathers also sensed a religious vocation and encouraged it by inviting him to visit their seminary in Northampton.
But there were competing interests too. There was Student Council and the school newspaper but, most of all, basketball. He played on the school’s team and continued his interest in the game at St. Joseph’s College where Jack Ramsay was producing championships in the Big Five. If not a priest, he decided, he would like to be a basketball coach like Ramsay.
After playing freshman ball he turned to coaching on the side, first as freshman coach at Tommy More, then as J.V. coach at West Catholic.
There was also sadness in his life during these years. His mother died when he was a senior in high school, and his father died during his college years.
Joe McFadden graduated from St. Joseph’s in 1969 still undecided on his future. Should he enter the seminary, or work his way up to a career coaching basketball, or maybe consider politics? He was a people-person with a degree in political science, and the idealism of Jack Kennedy was still fresh in his conscience. He did have an initial interview at St. Charles Seminary but decided it wasn’t for him, at least not yet.
To become a coach, one usually has to start on the high school level. He applied to West Catholic, but there was a catch; coaching was considered a sideline, the main job was teaching. Teaching posts were hard to come by in that era.
Brother Mark Lowry offered him a teaching position in general science, the only opening at the time. He accepted and the next year moved on to National Problems, which was more in line with his degree. Meanwhile he continued coaching basketball at various levels and moderating the student council. In 1972 he was appointed the school’s director of athletics.
It was a bit of a shock to him when he was asked to switch to teaching religion at West Catholic. Why would he be asked to do this at a school conducted by a religious congregation? Well, the ranks of the Christian Brothers were thinning and, as a young lay teacher, he could be a good role model for the students.
With a bit of trepidation he accepted the assignment and discovered he loved the work.
Even though he had a normal young adult life, hanging with friends and dating, through teaching religion his dormant thoughts of the priesthood grew stronger.
A pivotal event came on Christmas Eve 1974. His sister, Jane, by this time was an Immaculate Heart Sister and missioned to Peru, and she could not come home to celebrate the holy day. He visited her instead, and was stunned by the abject poverty he found; it made him question his own values. When he accompanied her to a little mountain village, he witnessed the true joy and faith of little children as they sang Silent Night in Spanish.
He came home, pondered further, and eventually resolved to enter a seminary.
“I didn’t know at the time what an effect the children and the poverty had on him,” Sister Jane McFadden said. “He takes a lot into his heart, and he had a hard time looking at the poverty. I knew he was searching, and even as a young boy we sensed he had a religious vocation. When he told me he was entering the seminary, he said he wanted to bring Christ and the sacraments to the people. He loves everybody.”
Meanwhile, he was attending a young adult Mass at Villanova University and enjoyed it so much he considered entering the Augustinians.
“You’re too independent for community life, you should go to St. Charles,” a fellow athletic director who was a priest advised him.
He entered St. Charles in the fall of 1976, at 29, slightly older than most of his classmates, but nevertheless, he fit right in.
“He entered when I was in second year college,” said Father Edward Hallinan, a friend from seminary days, first through basketball.
Father Hallinan served at St. Elizabeth Parish, which was eventually absorbed by St. Martin de Porres Parish. When he evangelized in the surrounding neighborhood, Bishop McFadden, before he was even a priest, would often join him.
“He’s a people person, and he’ll bring that to Harrisburg,” Father Hallinan said.
Just before his second year, something happened that would affect his future career.
He was home when Father Thomas Heron from the seminary called. The Archdiocese conducted a summer home in Ventnor, N.J., Villa St. Joseph by the Sea, primarily for retired or ill priests. Volunteer seminarians would go down for a week, help set up the sacristy for Mass, do other little chores and socialize with the residents. No one had volunteered for the last week, would he do it?
“Certainly,” he said. What he didn’t know was that the priests generally went back to Philadelphia midweek at summer’s end, and Cardinal John Krol might come down. That’s exactly what happened. The Cardinal arrived on Thursday evening, and Joe McFadden greeted him. The Cardinal asked what time he would prefer morning Mass. The two agreed on 7:30 a.m.
“Do you play golf?” the Cardinal asked. “We may need someone for a foursome.”
“Yes,” Joe admitted, “a little.” He did join Cardinal Krol and his friends for golf and soon discovered the Cardinal was by far the better golfer.
He must have made a good impression because for the next three years he was asked by the seminary to go to the Villa for that final week of the season.
After his deacon year spent at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Secane, he was ordained a priest by Cardinal Krol at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on May 16, 1981. At this point, he could expect to be assigned either to parish ministry or, because of his prior experience, the educational apostolate. As it was, he was sent to St. Laurence Parish in Highland Park as parochial vicar and thoroughly loved the work.
He fully expected to be there for five years, which was the norm at the time, but after only a year he received a shock.
The note came while he was away on retreat, and in keeping with the Cardinal’s style, it was brief.
“Dear Father McFadden,” it read. “I am pleased to appoint you my secretary. I am sure you will be a welcome addition to our staff. Sincerely yours, John Cardinal Krol.”
Father James Green (now Archbishop and Papal Nuncio to South Africa), who was the Cardinal’s secretary, was being sent to Rome for studies for the Vatican’s Diplomatic Corps.
“Your Eminence, with all due respect, I think you are making a big mistake,” Father McFadden said at his subsequent meeting with the Cardinal. He listed all of his predecessor’s qualities: an accomplished musician, fluent in four languages and many other accomplishments.
“Jim Green is a very talented guy. I don’t have his abilities,” he said.
Cardinal Krol answered, “Yes, you are right. Father Green does all of these things very well, but I made Father McFadden my secretary. If ever there is any adjustment to be made, I’ll adjust.”
He added, “I’m 71, I’ll be retiring soon. You’ll be with me until I retire or die, but I understand, I wanted to be a parish priest too.”
Also typical of Cardinal Krol, as Father McFadden left, he said, “I’ll see you next Monday, and by the way, if we made a mistake, we’ll soon correct it.”
It would be a mistake to presume Cardinal Krol chose Father McFadden to be his secretary because of a few friendly encounters and rounds of golf in Ventnor. In fact, he was the top man in his class at St. Charles, graduating magna cum laude, and any impression Cardinal Krol had was surely enhanced when he made a visit to the seminary, during which the bright seminarian was chosen to give the principal address.
Father McFadden remained secretary to the Cardinal until his retirement in 1988 and further, until his own appointment as president of Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield in 1993.
He got to know the aging Cardinal very well, and in the process also began to understand the often heavy responsibilities of a bishop.
“Cardinal Krol was a churchman,” Bishop McFadden said. “He always called me Father. He had great respect for his responsibility to the priesthood.”
For most of his tenure, many Philadelphia Catholics thought of Cardinal Krol as rather cold and aloof, but not those who, like Bishop McFadden, knew him well.
“In some ways he was a shy man,” Bishop McFadden said. “Some of his humor could be cutting, but it wasn’t hurtful, just a kind of way to interact. He taught me a great deal about love of the Church and living the vocation of a priest and bishop.
“He dealt with issues but it was nothing personal, he never held malice. He told me, ‘If we always agreed on everything, one of us isn’t necessary.’ But when a decision was made, that was it. He gave me a deeper appreciation for the bigger Church.”
Cardinal Krol was “liberal on social issues but conservative in protecting the doctrine of the faith, and he affected my priesthood immeasurably,” Bishop McFadden said.
Although the Cardinal was still quite vigorous when Father McFadden became his secretary, as time went on, especially in his retirement years, he was beset by various illnesses. The relationship between the two men graduated from Cardinal and secretary to friends, and ultimately to almost grandfather and grandson, Bishop McFadden remembers.
While Cardinal Krol lived until 1996, by 1993, then-Msgr. McFadden was ready for more active ministry. He requested a return to the educational apostolate, which was undergoing dramatic change, and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua appointed him first president of Cardinal O’Hara High School. During his tenure the school saw enrollment increase from 1,540 to 2,000 students, and an innovative “Laptops for Learning” program was introduced because “computers are the wave of the future,” he said.
In 2001 another change came when Cardinal Bevilacqua appointed him pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Downingtown, a young and rapidly growing parish.
“It had a big debt although my predecessor Msgr. (Robert) McManus had done a very good job,” Bishop McFadden recalls.
He really enjoyed parish work, especially in a young parish, and once again thought this would be a long-term assignment.
But after just three years, on May 31, the feast of the Visitation, the call came from Cardinal Justin Rigali.
“The Holy Father wants you to be an Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia,” the Cardinal informed him, telling him the Apostolic Nuncio would have to be informed of his acceptance. There was silence on the line. “Are you still there?” the Cardinal asked.
“I said, ‘it was a great honor but would you mind if I make a Holy Hour before I answer? I would like to pray on it,’” Bishop McFadden recalls.
It wasn’t false modesty.
“I went over to church and thought, ‘This is crazy, I don’t get it. I know the demands of being a bishop; it’s difficult. As a bishop you have to interact with so many people, you are so spread out.’”
After a Holy Hour and no clear-cut answer from heaven he called the Cardinal back.
“After prayer, my initial reaction is to say no,” he remembers telling the Cardinal. “I’ve seen it up close. But having said that, when I decided to be a priest I agreed to respond to the will of God and what the Church is asking.”
Bishop McFadden was ordained to the episcopacy by Cardinal Rigali on July 24, 2004. Since then he has assumed many responsibilities, in addition to many confirmations, including oversight of Catholic education and the now nearly completed and very successful $200 million Heritage of Faith-Vision of Hope capital campaign.
In 2010, just as in 2004, on May 31, the feast of the Visitation, he was informed by the Papal Nuncio that the Holy Father wished him to assume the duties of Bishop of Harrisburg.
By now the solid foundation in the role of a bishop he received under Cardinal Krol has been expanded through his six-year apprenticeship as an Auxiliary Bishop to Cardinal Rigali.
“Cardinal Rigali has been a great mentor. He has a passionate love for the people and for the Church,” Bishop McFadden said. “He has given his auxiliary bishops great responsibilities, and that has been very helpful.”
Going into a diocese of his own, as a bishop, he said, “Our job is to teach, to enflesh the Word of God. Jesus taught the kingdom is in the here and now. We must proclaim the Gospel, make visible the kingdom.”
It’s not an easy task because, he believes, “Let’s face it. We’ve lost two or three generations, but we are moving forward. It starts with personal renewal, molding our lives on Jesus and the Blessed Mother. It is evangelization, going door to door.”
Most important, he stressed, we must have faith: “Do not be afraid.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.
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