Recalling the Priestly Gifts of Bishop Garmendia

By Kathleen Keefe
January 2006

I did not have an appointment to see Bishop Francisco Garmendia that winter morning 13 years ago when I rang the bell at St. Thomas Aquinas. It was a “cold call,” as they say in sales. A family in desperate spiritual need asked me for the kind of help only a priest can give. The mother of the family would only speak to a Spanish-speaking priest. The bishop’s name came to me in a flash. “Fine,” she said. “I will speak to the bishop.” I headed straight for the South Bronx to request a meeting with the bishop.

I remember thinking thar bishops aren’t available like parish priests might be. How mistaken I was. He came into the waiting room immediately and met with me for almost an hour, writing down all the necessary details about the family. He assured me he would call the family that day and bring them in to begin their journey back to the sacraments. I was deeply impressed. Actually, I was overwhelmed by his humility, his confidence in God’s mercy and his burning zeal for souls.

How did this priest, who possessed the fullness of the priesthood, accomplish so much for souls?  It would not be long before I learned that his secret was prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, where the Santcifier sanctified him during those countless hours he kept watch in intimate communication with the Eucharistic Lord; the confessional, where he spent untold hours dispensing the mercy of God to souls, his unabashed love for Mary, his Queen and Mother: and his willingness to embrace suffering in silent union with the Crucified One.

As I left the bishop that morning, he asked me to return the following Tuesday at the same time. It was the first of many spiritual visits during which I explained the apostolate’s work of Divine Mercy among priests and families. He arranged for me to meet with the heads of the parish organizations to bring the devotion to the Merciful Jesus to the Hispanic community of New York. He not only opened the door to the devotion, but he personally involved himself in all aspects of the work of Divine Mercy, never refusing any invitation to proclaim God’s mercy to the people. He recognized the powerful effect of Divine Mercy in the work of evangelization, particularly in the healing of families.

The impact of one’s personal witness, the bishop believed, was vital to moving hearts to respond to grace. He stressed the importance of responding to the grace of the present moment. During our second meeting, as we spoke of the work of priestly renewal through the mercy of God, he revealed the great weight he carried in his heart for priests and the priesthood. He posed this question: “What does it mean when Jesus asks a priest to be his companion on the Cross?”

“It means,” I answered, “that such a priest has been specially chosen by God to suffer the Passion of Christ in an extraordinary way in order to accomplish the will of God.”

“Thank you,” he replied, and then, in a barely audible voice, added, “I am that priest.”

When I left that day, I knew, by God’s grace, that I had been allowed a fleeting look into the mystery beyond my comprehension. It was never mentioned again but his personal witness became the bedrock upon which he was to accomplish a great work of Divine Mercy in the hearts, homes and parishes of New York. In November 1993, the bishop celebrated Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas before a packed congregation from throughout the Bronx and Westchester as he called for the re-evangelization of families through the mercy of God and prayer for priests.

Blessed images of Our Lady of Guadalupe had been visiting the homes of parishioners to prepare the way for the eventual enthronement of the Merciful Jesus in every home.  Moral miracles abounded in the weeks and months that followed that Mass as laity with devotion to Divine Mercy were emboldened to go the extra mile to bring the mercy of God not only to their families but to the neighborhoods of New York, including nursing homes, hospitals and prisons.

Bishop Garmendia tapped into the basic goodness he saw in every person. even the most abject, and he called them to greatness in the service of God.

In January 2002, I met with the bishop to discuss the work of priestly renewal that had been evolving since the year 2000. Once again, he pledged his support with his customary enthusiasm, offering his assistance in anv way possible. Divine Providence would determine the basis of his help. It came in a most unexpected fashion one week later when the bishop suffered a serious fall after leaving the adoration chapel at St. Thomas Aquinas. Thus, his active ministry as an auxiliary bishop of New York came to a close as he undertook a new ministry of suffering in his painfuI ascent to the summit of Calvary to live out his companionship with Christ as a living crucifix.  Several months after his fall, during a brief visit to the nursing home, I had the joy of witnessing the bishop unite his sufferings to Jesus through Mary for his brother bishops and priests and for the Church.

During a period of recovery in October 2002, he blessed the founding of Regina Cleri (Queen of the Clergy) Oratory of Divine Mercy, an apostolate to uphold the Eucharist, Mary and the Priesthood. His words that day are a summary of his whole life: “There will be joy in giving everything to God for His priests if you allow Our Lady to be born in your hearts. Ask her in the prayer af the Rosary to be born in your hearts: it is then the heart of Mary leading you. That is the only way you will persevere.”

In June 2003 Bishop Garmendia went to live at Rosary Hill in Hawthorne in the loving care of the Dominican Sisters and assisted by a group of his faithful friends. During this time of suffering, he ministered to the sick and dying and taught all what it means to be a companion with Jesus on the cross. Those of us who knew and loved him are confident that his work continues from heaven.

Kathleen Keefe is Director of the Peace Through Divine Mercy Associate

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