COVER STORY: Bishop’s life changed after almost leaving seminary

Last Updated on January 14, 2020 by Editor

On June 4, 2019, Pope Francis appointed Douglas Lucia to be the 11th bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse. He succeeds Bishop Robert Cunningham, who retired. The new bishop shepherds more than 220,000 Catholics who reside in seven counties of the diocese covering 5,479 square miles. It’s been quite a journey for a man who wasn’t sure he wanted to be a priest. At one point he decided to leave the seminary with hopes of marrying and starting a family — that is until a moment serving in a soup kitchen changed his life.

You were born in Plattsburgh and grew up in Altona, which is north of Plattsburgh. You have a twin brother, sister and a younger brother. What was it like in a busy household?

We had our chores to do around the house, but somehow we got along. If things got too crazy, I would escape to my grandmother’s house next door. As I look back, somehow we managed to respect each other enough, providing some privacy.

Is there a special connection between you and your twin brother?

Absolutely. He was my partner, playmate, confidant. We did a lot of things together — although we learned to be independent early on when we were separated in school beginning in kindergarten.

What are some of your fondest memories as a child growing up?

Sunday Mass as a family followed by breakfast with our paternal grandmother; camping and Sunday hikes as a family; extended family gatherings at holiday time.

Living close to the Canadian border means harsh, cold, snowy winters. Now you’re living in Syracuse, dubbed the snow capital of New York. Are you following the snow or is it following you?

I thought since I moved south, it would be milder! Actually, as a kid I liked the snow. These days I prefer a white, warm, sandy beach.

When did you realize you that the priesthood was calling? Was it one moment in time when it became clear or a gradual process?

It was a gradual process. I was inspired at a young age by our parish priest, Father Howard McCasland. I then had other ideas like a policeman or lawyer. In my senior year I felt I needed to go to seminary to find out whether God was calling me or not. While at seminary I made the decision to leave because I wanted to marry and have a family. However, before exiting, I did a semester break program in the inner city of Buffalo. While working in a soup kitchen, I had an experience that I confirmed what God wanted me to do. That is why I am a priest and bishop today.

Is there one person who influenced you most in your journey?

Father Howard McCasland, who baptized me and was a hard-working, people-loving, holy parish priest.

You served at a number of parishes and in different positions. How did that background prepare you for your current ministry as bishop?

I really believe that the role of a bishop is to be a pastor. So through my work in parishes, the people trained me to be a pastor. My work in the various diocesan offices has given me experience in the workings of a diocese.

You spent time studying canon law in Rome, Italy. What was that experience like?

It was a great experience and one I never expected. However, to learn Italian and go to an Italian university opened my eyes to a bigger world. I now think globally and have a broader vision of the church.

You also served as a part-time chaplain at a correctional facility? What was that like and what did you learn from the inmates?

My work as a chaplain in prison helped me to meet people where they were at. It also taught me to be less judgmental and to be more understanding of people’s situations in life, both the incarcerated and the personnel. From the inmates and guards I learned the importance of faith.

At age 56, you’re a very young bishop. Did the appointment come as a surprise and what was your first reaction?

An absolute surprise! I was actually in the Syracuse cathedral the day before the call came and had no clue what was about to happen. My reaction was one of shock, but because of my experience in the soup kitchen, I know now to say “yes” when God calls.

One of the things you did in one of your first visits to our area was play in the Men in Black softball game at Notre Dame Junior-Senior High School in Utica. It’s a gathering to help foster vocations to the priesthood. What did your appearance there mean to you and what do you hope in meant to the other priests, seminarians and others in attendance?

I enjoy life and I like it when people gather to share and enjoy life’s moments. So for me, it was a moment to do something I enjoy, playing ball. I also helped it showed the priesthood is fun, too, but what makes it work is teamwork.

One of your first acts as bishop was to send out a letter discussing the clergy sex abuse scandal. We all realize what has happened, the lives it has affected and the stain it put on the church. What have you learned about the way things were handled and what can you promise the people of the diocese going forward?

It has taught me that the past way these things were handled were insufficient in addressing the true nature of the problem. Today, it must be faced openly and aggressively to prevent such harm to youth and vulnerable adults.

What is your leadership philosophy in guiding our diocese?

I want to lead by example and invited others to share in tending the flock. This is not about me. It is about us.

Bishop Douglas J. Lucia

Age: 56.

Things you like to do in your spare time: Read biographies, history, novels; work out at the gym; hike and kayak.

Family: Parents Leonard and Betty; two brothers and sisters-in-law: David and Laurie, Paul and Krista; one sister and brother-in-law: Ann and Barry; four nephews and nieces.

Favorite book: “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather.

Favorite TV show: “Hogan’s Heroes.”

Favorite movie: “Invictus.”

Favorite musical genre or artist: Pop, country, contemporary religious; Audrey Assad, Kenny Chesney, Coldplay.

Favorite quote: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”