Living in their midst -- Father Cuomo reflects on 50 years of joy as a parish priest
By Christina Leslie | Staff Writer
“I have been first and foremost a parish priest,” observed Father Rocco Cuomo, reflecting upon his half-century of ministry in the Diocese of Trenton. “I understand a parish priest to be one who lives in the midst of those he serves and shares with them the joys and sorrows of their lives. That service has been ministered in the spirit of the reform and renewal of the Second Vatican Council.”
Born in 1938 in Newark, the journey to the priesthood began during his second year in high school. Discussions with his parish priest and correspondence with seminarians he had met while assisting with vacation Bible school both nurtured that vocation. “I think my family was rather surprised about my choice of going to the seminary because I had been awarded a full tuition scholarship to Rutgers University,” Father Cuomo remembered.
The future priest known to all as “Father Rocco,” studied at St. Charles College, Catonsville, Md., and St. Mary Seminary and University, Baltimore, then was ordained May 23, 1964, in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, by Bishop George W. Ahr. His first series of parochial vicar assignments from 1964 to 1981 led him to minister to parishioners in St. Ambrose, Old Bridge; St. Anthony, Hamilton; Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Maple Shade; Sacred Heart, Mount Holly; St. Mary, Colts Neck; St. Paul, Princeton, and St. Mary of the Lake, Lakewood.
“During my time in various parishes, I have also had the opportunity to minister in other ways as the occasion and need arose,” Father Rocco recalled as he detailed years spent teaching religion to high school and grammar school students, in parish religious education programs and in prison ministry. In addition to his parish work, Father Rocco served on the Continuing Education Committee of the Council of Priests and as moderator of the Burlington County Catholic Young Adult Club.
Hospital ministry proved to be a favorite, and Bishop John C. Reiss afforded him permission to be the first priest to establish a full-time Catholic chaplaincy in a secular hospital: Jersey Shore Medical Center, Neptune.
“[It] was personally very rewarding for me from a spiritual point of view,” Father Rocco said of his five years ministering to patients facing surgery and families of those admitted through the emergency room. “However brief they may have been, those occasions allowed me to develop an intensely deep relationship with some patients and family members at very critical moments in their lives. Facing the mortality of our human existence often allows people to think deep thoughts about here and hereafter.”
Father Rocco served as pastor of St. Ann Parish, Keansburg, from 1986 to 1990, and St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville, from 1994 to 2000, but the self-professed “parish priest” preferred a simpler form of ministry as an assistant priest. “[Serving as pastor] probably demands a special grace which I do not have,” he said frankly. “I relish the freedom I have had in our diocese in choosing not to be a pastor after I found that role did not suit me. Instead that power of choice has allowed me to minister in a more personal way as an assistant on a parish level for the greater part of my active ministry.”
Following his resignation as pastor from St. Barnabas, Father Rocco was appointed parochial vicar of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Freehold. He retired from active ministry in May, 2008, but returned as the Freehold parish’s temporary administrator in June 2009 and served there until May 2010. Since 2012, he has served as a weekend assistant at St. Leo the Great Parish, Lincroft.
Last fall, Father Rocco embarked upon what he referred to as a “spiritual journey of remembrance” of his 50 years as a priest. In a letter sent to each of the parishes he had been assigned to over his years of active ministry, the once and ever self-described “parish priest” requested neither gifts nor receptions be given him, but simply the opportunity to celebrate a weekend Mass of Thanksgiving. The priest shared his homily notes from one such liturgy, celebrated this May 25 in St. Barnabas Church, as he thanked the parishioners for the spirit of collaboration and cooperation he had enjoyed while stationed there.
“While I was here trying to do God’s work by preaching, teaching and celebrating the Sacraments, God was forming and fashioning me through the gift of the priesthood,” Father Rocco told the congregation. “I believe the people of this parish, and all the other parishes that I served in, have been God’s instruments in helping to form and fashion me as a priest. It is because of you that I am able to be on my ‘spiritual journey of remembrance’.”[[In-content Ad]]