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JAMES BEHRENS: Centenarian archbishop played vital role in church history with his can-do attitude

Recently, my brother emailed me a link to an article from the New Jersey Star-Ledger. It was an article about Peter Leo Gerety, the retired archbishop of Newark. He was honored on the occasion of his 100th birthday with a festive Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.

I read the article and it brought back a host of warm memories of Archbishop Gerety. He is a remarkable man. He came to Newark in 1976 after having served as Bishop of Portland, Maine. Both appointments came from Paul VI.

I remember Archbishop Gerety as a very energetic and positive man. It was a wonderful time for the church. The parish-oriented program called Renew originated in the Newark Archdiocese under his guidance and sponsorship. It soon involved 45,000 people in the Archdiocese and over the years grew to embrace over 25 million people all over the world, people of different languages and cultures but who rejoiced in the common life they shared in the church.

It was a time when the laity were called to take their rightful place in the church and Archbishop Gerety relished the task of awakening his people to the call of service to the church and to each other.

He has been active all through his retirement years, making the rounds of parishes celebrating confirmations and officiating at funerals and weddings. I have heard that he is a voracious reader -- he keeps up with everything. He was always delighted with the gift of life, or people -- the church.

When I first started to write, the first essay I wrote was on a diner and the people who frequented that special place. The diner was called Andy's. The essay landed on the front page of the National Catholic Reporter and not long after a letter arrived in the mail. It was from Archbishop Gerety and he wrote how he loved the article and hoped that I would continue to write, with his blessings and support.

It was the beginning of a warm relationship with him. We have exchanged letters over the years and I am honored that he kept in touch with me. I know I am one of many who benefitted from his generosity of spirit, his kindness.

It was and is the age of the laity. During his years as shepherd of Newark, he welcomed speakers who brought to Newark the insights and pastoral applications of the Second Vatican Council. I attended lectures by Edward Schillebeeckx, Dorothy Day, Bernard Haring, Raymond Brown, Rosemary Haughton, Raimundo Pannikar, Bernard Lonergan and others.

I credit Archbishop Gerety for doing everything he could to share his vision with the people of Newark by bringing to them those who were at the forefront of thought and action in Catholic circles. It was a time of change, of upheaval. He did not fear it. He welcomed it, learned from it, harnessed it.

Walter Cardinal Kasper once likened the church to a trajectory making its way through history -- indeed, making history -- on an irreversible and infallible path. It's spiral spin draws everything in its wake as God fashions everything according to His plan.

We are all caught up in it. Some of us embrace it, some of us try and hide from it, some of us do what we can to keep our heads low as it comes our way.

I like to think that Archbishop Gerety hitched a ride on that divine bullet and shared the joy and the mystery with those he served.

Some people speak of the post Vatican II years as the Golden Age of the church. I do not think that gold has faded. It still shines and rises in the church -- you have to go looking for it, which I think has always been the case. The church is more alive and well than ever, thanks to shepherds like Peter Leo Gerety and those like him.

Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 SW, Conyers. His email address is james@trappist.net.