Surrounded by children, Msgr. Harold Cullen, pastor in St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish, Spring Lake, consecrates the host during Mass July 15. Mike Ehrmann photo
Surrounded by children, Msgr. Harold Cullen, pastor in St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish, Spring Lake, consecrates the host during Mass July 15. Mike Ehrmann photo

Story by Lois Rogers, Correspondent

Father Harold Cullen was honored to be named pastor four years ago in Spring Lake’s St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish. His reaction, however, was one of complete surprise when, during the Monmouth County Vicariate meeting June 28, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M. announced that he was being named a monsignor.

Photo Gallery: Msgr. Cullen celebrates Mass; receives papal honor

“As I was beginning my final year before retirement, the last thing on my mind was becoming a monsignor,” Msgr. Cullen said.

The distinct honor of being named a Chaplain of Honor to His Holiness is given by the Pope to certain Roman Catholic priests in recognition of their service to the Church. Candidates are nominated by their bishop.

St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish is a community of 3,600 families with a religious education program of 426 and parish school of 345 students. The parish also has two large cemeteries and mausoleums.

“In my mind, there is no doubt that my becoming a monsignor is very much related to the legacy of faith and generosity to the Church and to the Diocese on the part of this parish,” Msgr. Cullen said.

“It has always been and continues to be a strong and proud Catholic parish. … Mass attendance and the sacramental life are growing,” said Msgr. Cullen, noting that he perceives the honor as a welcome affirmation for the parish.

“My family and friends are more inclined to see it as an affirmation of me … and I’m grateful for this,” he continued. “My sister in Ireland commented that she regretted my mother was not alive because she would have loved to have shared in this honor. I have no doubt there is an added sparkle to the heavenly smile on my mother’s and father’s faces today.”

God’s Will

Priests who hold the title of “monsignor” are part of the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household, which includes the Papal Chapel and the Papal Family. As members of the Papal Family, monsignors are included in the Pontifical Yearbook, Annuario Pontifico, an official directory of the Holy See.

It’s an ancient honor, dating back to the time of Pope Urban VIII. In addition to being addressed as “monsignor,” the position carries with it certain privileges, such as ecclesiastical dress.

Msgr. Cullen shared how his vocation first took root in the Redemptorist order founded by St. Alphonus Liguori, who exemplified humility and encouraged it among his followers. As such, becoming a pastor and monsignor, he said, “just wasn’t on my radar.”

What was in store for Msgr. Cullen was the “blessed, varied and very interesting life in the priesthood” that began when he was ordained a Redemptorist in the Diocese of Galway, Ireland, Sept. 15, 1968, in the midst of the post-Second Vatican Council era – a time he described as one of “unparalleled excitement, energy, change and development.”

He spent the first years of his priesthood in Ireland serving in parish mission and retreat work. “If I had any aspiration, it was to go to Brazil as a missionary … but God had other designs,” he said.

Priestly Journey

Sent as a chaplain to an inner-city girls’ high school in Dublin, he worked with troubled young people in Ireland’s capital city. The appointment served as a catalyst for moving to the United States to study psychology in Ohio’s Xavier University and

later, Philadelphia’s Temple University.

While he was studying, he continued to work in school settings as a school psychologist and also became a licensed psychologist. With the approval of his provincial superior in Ireland, Msgr. Cullen remained in the United States after graduating from Temple University and began to discern being a parish priest.  

“From my earliest days as a Redemptorist, I had questions whether the nomadic ministry of missions and retreats was the right path for me and had always been attracted to ministry in which I was part of a community of faith,” he said.

Transferred to the Diocese of Camden, he served in St. Patrick Parish, Woodbury, and St. Anthony (now St. Mary of Mount Carmel) Parish, Hammonton, before being sent in 1982 to the Diocese of Trenton, which he said had a reputation that “the morale amongst the priests and the laity was excellent.” He went on to serve from 1986 to 2005 in St. Mary Parish, Barnegat. “I had the opportunity to be a part of a parish that grew exponentially,” he said, calling the parish pastor, Msgr. Kenard Tuzeneu, a role model and mentor.

In 2005, Msgr. Cullen was named pastor of St. Jerome Parish, West Long Branch, which he shepherded for nine years, including four years as pastor of neighboring St. Mary Parish, Deal. (On July 1, the two parishes merged and became Our Lady of Hope Parish.)

Msgr. Cullen – who plans to defer this year’s 50th ordination celebration until next year, when he turns 75 – said the satisfying experience of working at the parish level in both Dioceses ultimately led to his request for incardination in the Trenton Diocese, which was affirmed by Bishop John Smith in 2006. “I look upon the decision to become part of the Trenton Diocese as a turning point in my priesthood and a source of continued blessing and joy in my life,” Msgr. Cullen said.