Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger carries an image of Blessed Mother
Mary during the March for Life rally in Washington, D.C.

Photos by Nate Whitchurch
and photos provided.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger carries an image of Blessed Mother Mary during the March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. Photos by Nate Whitchurch and photos provided.

They say time flies when you’re having fun.

On April 10, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger celebrates his fifth year as Bishop of the Diocese of Albany. The five years have brought many changes to the 14 counties, all buoyed by a mission with five core principles: to evangelize, strengthen faith communities, develop vocational and mission awareness, care for the poor, and engage the people.

“You’re in this situation that’s new, but then you realize (it’s) all about relationships,” said Bishop Scharfenberger in an interview with The Evangelist. “It’s getting to know the (people) that you think you know, but you don’t really know until you make those commitments.”

Much like welcoming a new family member, it only takes time before it becomes impossible to imagine how you ever got along without them. After five years, it’s hard not to see Bishop Scharfenberger as the “father” figure of the Albany Diocese.

“I feel like the people are my family and I feel more like a father — maybe more like a grandfather — than I ever did in my life before,” he said.
Now, Bishop Scharfenberger takes time to look back on his past half-decade in Albany. He looks at the challenges he’s faced, his accomplishments and the knowledge he’s gained from being shepherd to his new flock, all alongside his unwavering faith and ever-supportive diocesan family.

A native of Brooklyn, Bishop Scharfenberger was pastor of St. Matthias Church in Ridgewood for 12 years before coming to Albany. Going from pastor to bishop may sound like a daunting shift, but Bishop Scharfenberger said the move to Albany was a “smooth transition,” even though there was “no such thing as bishop school” to prepare him.

The best way to get into the job was to get to know the people, he said. Once he committed to the role as bishop, things began to feel more comfortable.

“To me parish life was always primarily about relationships — getting to know the people, getting to know one another, finding out what our talents are, what our likes and what our passions are, and that’s sorta asking how the Lord wants us to work together.”

Even before coming to the Albany Diocese, Bishop Scharfenberger, 70, donned numerous hats over the years that helped prepare him to tackle his current job.

As a college student, he studied English at Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston, N.Y. He also studied theology at North American College in Rome; and earned a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from Pontifical Gregorian University in 1972.

After being ordained on July 2, 1973, he served as Parochial Vicar at St. Stanislaus parish in Maspeth, N.Y. The Bishop returned to Rome to further his studies, earning a licentiate in sacred theology from Academy of St. Alphonsus in 1977, a canon law degree from Catholic University of America in 1980 and a law degree from Fordham University in 1990. He was admitted to the New York State bar in 1991. 

From 1993 to 2002, he served as Judicial Vicar for the Brooklyn Diocese until he was appointed pastor of St. Matthias Church in Ridgewood (Queens) in 2003. He later went back to school, this time to teach, as a professor in moral theology for the Brooklyn Diocesan Pastoral Institute and adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. 

Also in the Brooklyn Diocese, the Bishop served as Promoter of Justice, was a member of the Diocesan Review Board for Sexual Abuse of Minors, and served as both Vicar for Strategic Planning and Episcopal Vicar for the Borough of Queens. 

Bishop Scharfenberger said he so much enjoyed his time at St. Matthias that when called to the role as bishop, he wondered if he could carry that same joy into his new role.

“I have to say that when I first got this appointment I was wondering, ‘Am I ever going to be a priest again?’” he said. “Bishops have to be present at a lot of meetings and a lot of public events, and some of them are ceremonial … but how much of that would I be able to invest my own personality, my own vision, my own passions, my own loves into?”

The Bishop said he was pleasantly surprised to find that “being a bishop is just like being a pastor of a larger parish.”

“You’re dealing with different people and different needs (at) different levels,” he said. “It’s kind of an expansion of being pastor. That was my biggest joy to realize.”

After moving, the Bishop made a point to drive around the Diocese and visit the parishes outside of the Albany area: “I don’t want people to feel isolated because they’re in Hancock, so I do make it a point to get around.”

Seeing the Diocese was a bit surprising at first for the Bishop, who was shocked by how diverse and rural it was: “I didn’t know what 10,000 square miles meant,” he said of the Diocese’s size. “When you think of Albany, you think of the center of politics.”

Before his assignment to Albany, Bishop Scharfenberger was named Episcopal Vicar for the Borough of Queens in the Brooklyn Diocese: “I was responsible for the territory of Queens,” he explained. “So I had some sense of what it’s like to have your finger in a number of different pies.”

Queens holds around 100 parishes; Albany contains 126 parishes. Bishop Scharfenberger said that the role might have been “God’s way of preparing me” to be Bishop of such a large territory.

When it came time to come to Albany, having just moved to Queens for his new job made the jump upstate a lot easier: “I didn’t accumulate that much stuff because I had just moved,” he explained. “The less you accumulate the better!”

After coming to the Diocese of Albany in 2014, Bishop Scharfenberger laid out the priorities for his new position in a mission statement comprised of five main principles:

•  To evangelize: the heart of evangelization is the cultivation of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ — nurtured through prayer, Scripture and Sacrament, especially the Eucharist.

•  To strengthen faith communities at all levels — friends, families, parishes, schools, inter-parish, vicariate, diocesan – through prayer, resource allocation and the works of mercy.

•  To develop vocational and mission awareness at all levels through discernment, formation and empowerment.

•  To care of the poorest and most vulnerable, within and beyond our faith communities, and at every stage of life, from conception to natural death.

•  To engage all diocesan agencies in support of the above, especially in parishes.

Looking back, Bishop Scharfenberger said he always felt that the strength of parishes were a matter of great importance for the Diocese but perhaps didn’t promote that mission enough at first: “The health, well-being and growth of the Diocese lies in the health, the well-being, and the growth of its parishes,” he explained.

Fostering relationships with parishes and its people is not unfamiliar to the Bishop, who is not one to work from behind a desk. The Bishop tries to get out in into the parish community, and visits schools, religious communities, shut-ins and prisoners.

Recently, the Bishop did a ride-along with Meals on Wheels, handing out hot dishes to the elderly and homebound, and making some friends along the way. After St. Clare’s Hospital was unable to continue funding former employees’ pension checks, the Bishop called a meeting to hear from those affected. While the Church wasn’t financially responsible to bail out St. Clare’s employees, the Bishop set out to help the people in need as best he could, much as a pastor would for his parish.

By being present in the Diocese, the Bishop is able to experience what is happening and learn from it, and help to foster deeper relationships between his people and Christ: “People ask me, ‘What is your vision for the Diocese?’ And I have to be completely honest, I said, ‘Is it really about my vision?’ I’m thinking, is it my vision or is it the Lord’s vision?”

Of his many duties, the Bishop found attending confirmation ceremonies to be one of his favorite activities: “I never thought that doing confirmations would be such a wonderful experience. Every place you visit is different.”

Recently, Bishop Scharfenberger has taken to addressing the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. He has been talking to survivors of clergy abuse, and is working on increasing transparency within the Diocese, as well as rebuilding that lost trust for the Church community.

“I definitely want people to know that we are addressing the crisis of sexual abuse of minors, and that we are engaging victims and survivors of sexual abuse in conversation toward what I like to call restorative justice, toward healing.”

Included in this ongoing effort, Bishop Scharfenberger said he hopes to address all victims of abuse, whether sexual, domestic or emotional mistreatment. He added that he sees survivors as the ones “leading the way” toward a safer, more transparent Church.

“Their experience will help us to be a more honest, more open, more protective and safe environment, and I’m looking forward to building up that trust that was lost.”

Over the past five years, Bishop Scharfenberger has worked to carry out his mission statement in the form of various events, summits and campaigns around the Diocese.

“I’ve heard that the faith is very simple; it’s just not easy,” said Bishop Scharfenberger. “And the reason it’s not easy is because we have to get beyond our comfort zone, and whenever we meet another human being we all tend to gravitate to people we’re more comfortable with, but Jesus also asked us to go to places that are beyond our comfort level.”

Recurring events, such as Rosary Walks, the March for Life in Washington, D.C., 40 Days for Life, and various Year of Mercy events were all attended by the Bishop: “I want to support the people and (have them) know that I’m with them,” he said. 

The Hearts Aflame Eucharistic Congress was the first of its kind in the Diocese since 1938. The celebration was held on Sept. 22, 2018, at the Auriesville Shrine, a beautiful 600-acre property situated on the banks of the Mohawk River. It was an event focused on joy, fellowship, prayer, unity and spiritual renewal.

Bishop Scharfenberger, who spearheaded bringing the Congress back to the Diocese, said that the turnout “was a beautiful surprise.” The event caught the attention of hundreds of disciples, and drew close to 5,000 people to the Shrine for a day dedicated to the appreciation of the Eucharist.

“There are all these priests (hearing confessions) there, and people receiving God’s mercy right along the Mohawk River, all these beautiful things,” he said, recalling how he saw families gathered with their children enjoying a picnic on the grounds as he walked around the shrine that day.

In previous years, the Bishop and a team of employees and volunteers, spearheaded a Family Summit and a Vocations Summit at the shrine in Auriesville, which the Bishop notes is both a geographic and spiritual center of the Diocese. Both events drew hundreds of pilgrims to the historic site.

The diocesan-wide Re-Igniting Our Faith campaign has been in the works since 2016. The campaign hopes to raise $45 million, of which 70 percent will go back to the parishes. Parishes can use the money to address their own needs, such as strengthening ministry and church programs or fixing old roofing and floors.

Like many of the events Bishop Scharfenberger brought to the Diocese, Re-Igniting Our Faith is aimed at strengthening local parishes, and giving parishioners an opportunity to practice their faith and connect more with their Lord.

“I’m just trying to do what Jesus asked us to do, and basically all he’s asked us to do is make other disciples,” he said.

After a successful first five years, Bishop Scharfenberger is looking at what’s next for the Albany Diocese. For the Bishop, addressing the sexual abuse scandal and regaining the trust of parishioners is a top priority.

“Nobody is going to fade through the cracks and use their position in order to abuse or misuse (the Church’s) trust,” he said. “I want to create a more transparent and open structure so that the people have more trust... that’s what I look forward to as my greatest challenge, but I think it’s absolutely necessary. I have to help to regain that trust that has been lost.”

In addition to dealing with the trauma of abuse, Bishop Scharfenberger hopes to work on strengthening communication around the Diocese, something he calls “one of the biggest challenges” that still remains for such a large area.

“How do you get the word out about what’s going on? How do you get things done? So many parishes do great things, but they’re not always known.”
In the little free time he has, Bishop said he is always looking for new hobbies. Whether it’s learning new languages (he’s currently working on Polish), trying to garden, or getting back into playing the violin, Bishop Scharfenberger has plenty to look forward to.

“I have learned more and more to trust God,” he said of his first five years. “I have learned that when faced with this overwhelming responsibility, to let go and to let God. I’ve learned fear is useless; it’s faith that counts. I’ve learned (about) the incredible goodness of people, the talent that surrounds us. Everybody’s got a story. I think I’ve believed that always, but now I think I can say I see that.”