90 Years, 90 Heroes: Msgr. Robert L. Stern

In this image from 2006, Msgr. Robert L. Stern meets in his office with Bishop Abune Menghesteab Tesfamariam, M.C.C.I., of Asmara in Eritrea.

Where do I begin? “Think small,” Deacon Greg, our multimedia editor, suggested. “Don’t overthink this.”

I laughed. The subject of this 90/90 is not a wall flower, nor is he just an average Joe. He’s a man who hired me, formed me professionally, transformed a sleepy organization into a thoughtful instrument of the church, and buried my father. He’s a man who can’t think small, and no doubt thinks through everything. Most importantly, he’s a good and kind priest who understands that to understand the other, one must place him or herself in that person’s shoes — and listen.

Reared in the Bronx, son of an Irish Catholic mother and a Jewish father, Bob Stern wanted to be a physicist, and he enrolled in Amherst College to do just that. But, he could not ignore a gnawing call to serve the Lord and his church as a priest. Eventually, he entered St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y., studied canon law in Rome and assisted as a young priest during Vatican II. It was there, as the fathers of the council sought to take on the challenges of the world by engaging in dialogue with it, that the young priest internalized this renewal of the church known as aggiornamento, and made it his own.

It is a process he has instituted in all of his services to the church, from his 25-plus years in parish and community renewal in the African-American and Hispanic apostolates to his 26 years in leadership of CNEWA. For Msgr. Stern, this call for aggiornamento is a process not just for the sake of process, but one to help the church open the way to the Lord.

“We take for granted freedom of religion and respect for conscience,” he wrote in CNEWA’s magazine in September 1990, soon after visiting the U.S.S.R. “Pluralism is our way of life.” He continued: “We speak…of the servant church that is a sacrament or sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human family.

“When we ask the Catholic churches of the Soviet Union what help they need, we may be thinking of the buildings, equipment and tools we’re used to; they may be more concerned for vestments, prayer books and rosaries. Our pastoral goal may be how best to support all believers, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant; theirs may be the repossession of their confiscated churches and the defense of their rights.

“The challenge of their future is aggiornamento, to be caught up in the great renewal of the church launched by the Vatican Council,” he concluded.

“Their challenge is to transform their heroic faith of resistance into the faith that plunges into the open, unknown future with the same confidence in the Lord who promises, ‘I am with you always, until the end of the age.’ ”

Thank you Msgr. Stern for your service to the church and the world, especially in waking us up to see all that unites rather than what divides us.

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