“God has promised always to provide shepherds for his people, and we have a new shepherd.”
They were words, spoken by Bishop Richard Malone, that Catholics throughout the Diocese of Portland had waited 19 months to hear. At six o’clock in the morning on December 18, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had appointed Most Reverend Robert P. Deeley, J.C.D., Auxiliary Bishop of Boston and Titular Bishop of Kearney, as the 12th Bishop of Portland.
“The announcement that brings us together this morning is a moment of great joy for me,” said Bishop Deeley. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to be the pastor of this diocese.”
Bishop Deeley had received the call from the apostolic nuncio, the pope’s representative in the United States, the week before. He actually missed the first call, and not realizing its source or significance, didn’t immediately check the message and call back. Once he and Archbishop Carlos Maria Viganò connected, Bishop Deeley says he didn’t hesitate in his response.
Bishop Deeley says there was no need to hesitate because he’s a firm believer that if God asks something of you, he will give you the help you need to get it done.
“The responsibility he now gives me is great, but we know that God is good. He gives us no task without giving us the grace to accomplish it,” he said during his introductory news conference. “I’ve always believed that. I honestly do believe that.”
That belief and that trust in God has guided Bishop Deeley since his ordination at Sacred Heart Church in Watertown, MA, in 1973.
“I’ve been a priest for 40 years, so I can’t really think of myself as being anything else. I have found the priesthood to be a life which has been rich in God’s gifts. It has been difficult at times, but it has been rich in grace,” he says.
In his 40 years in the presbyterate, Bishop Deeley has served the Archdiocese of Boston as an associate pastor and pastor, as a chaplain to religious communities, as a vicar forane, as a judge and judicial vicar in the marriage tribunal, as moderator of the curia and vicar general, and since January 2013, as auxiliary bishop. He also spent seven years serving at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican and has served on numerous committees and boards including as president of the Canon Law Society of America.
“He brings a broad experience at all sorts of different levels, and I just think that is going to make him a very good diocesan bishop,” says Father Kevin Deeley, the bishop’s younger brother. “That’s going to be an asset to him as a diocesan bishop, and I think it will be for the people of the Church in Maine as well.”
“It’s an extraordinary gift to the Church to bring a person of his competence and his experience to Maine,” says Monsignor Charles Murphy, who has known Bishop Deeley for years through their mutual association with the Pontifical North American College in Rome. “I just think that it’s a marvelous choice.”
The Church has been an important presence in Bishop Deeley’s life since he was a child. Born in Cambridge, MA, he grew up in the town of Belmont, about ten miles outside of Boston. His parents, Michael and Mary Deeley, now deceased, immigrated from County Galway, Ireland. They met and married here. Bishop Deeley is the fourth of five sons.
“My parents were of very strong faith, coming from their roots in Ireland. Irish village life is pretty Church centric, and they carried that to this country,” says Paul Deeley, the second oldest of the brothers. “Our parish life in Watertown was very much a part of our upbringing as was the example of our parents and the encouragement and support in the faith from both of our parents.”
“It was the center of our family’s life and our social life. My father was in the Holy Name Society. My mother was in the sodality. That was the reality of our lives,” says Bishop Deeley. “From the home to the church, it was seamless
.Bishop Deeley says his family prayed the rosary every day.
“There were five boys, five mysteries."
He says the first inkling of his vocation came when he was just four or five years old. He says his parents didn’t take him and his younger brother to church when they were very young, but his mother used to stop in at the church while walking to the supermarket with them.
“I remember going to church one day, and there was a Mass. I don’t remember what the circumstances were. I was very young, but I remember being fascinated by it,” he says. “That, I think, were the first seeds of a vocation.”
As his older brothers had done before him, he became an altar server. He was active in the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) and attended Catholic school.
“We were involved in all the activities, all my brothers were, not just myself and my brother Robert,” says Father Deeley. “To my parents, Catholic education was extremely important.”
“We had wonderful priests and the Sisters of St. Joseph who staffed the school,” says Bishop Deeley. “The priests and the sisters in the parish were wonderful role models and examples of a faith-filled life. So the priests were a real inspiration to me.”
He cites one in particular, Monsignor John Keilty, who guided the altar servers at the parish and whom Bishop Deeley describes as the “principle priestly inspiration in my life.”
“He was a very caring man who lived his concern for people every day. He just had the joy of the Gospel in his heart, and he brought that joy wherever he went, and because of that, people were attracted to him. He certainly inspired me and others.”
Bishop Deeley says, although they didn’t all become priests, several of his friends and classmates also entered the seminary.
Bishop Deeley attended Matignon High School, a Catholic high school in North Cambridge. There, he says, his focus was on study and his social life until one day, during his junior year, when Monsignor Keilty raised the question of the priesthood.
“That’s when I really started thinking about it. When someone else articulated for me that this might be something you should think about, somebody I respected as much as him, I had to listen to that voice that was in me, telling me that there was something there,” he says.
In 1964, he entered Cardinal O’Connell Minor Seminary in Jamaica Plain. Two years into his studies, he received a Theodore Basselin Foundation Scholarship to study philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Only seminarians who have demonstrated superior performance in their studies are considered for the scholarships.
Bishop Deeley notes that although both seminaries had rigorous academic programs, his experiences at them were quite different. Coming before any of the changes of the Second Vatican Council, he describes the first as a fairly closed seminary with a regimented schedule. The second, he says, was far less regimented and reflected more of the cultural influences of the late 1960s.
“The influence of culture permeated Washington and the seminary,” he says. “So that was a very interesting period in life because there was a lot of upheaval and a lot of unrest in Washington and in the world in those years."
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Catholic University, he went to Rome to continue his studies at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University. He describes the theological training he received there as “superb.”
“I was privileged to have as professors at the university those who had been so helpful in the work of the [Second Vatican] Council and people who were very much involved in the work of the council,” he says. “I am very, very grateful for the dedication and the service of those Jesuits and the priests who taught us theology.”
Coming soon after the close of the Second Vatican Council, he says it again was a time of great change.
“Those seminaries were very much in transition,” he says. “Bishop [James] Hickey, who would become Cardinal Hickey in Washington eventually, was the rector and worked very hard to maintain an equilibrium and to help us mature into priesthood spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally.”
He says living in Europe also gave him a global perspective.
“My experiences as a seminarian in Rome gave me a distancing from the culture in Boston and in the United States, and gave me an appreciation for the world in which we live. As I look back at it now, you realize that we were only twenty-something years after the Second World War, and Europe was still very much in a recovery state, finding its economic and emotional legs, if you will, and so I was able to participate in that and learn from that.”
While studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University, he lived at Pontifical North American College, the national seminary in Rome for candidates from the United States. He says ties formed there have remained until this day.
“It was not only a friendship, it was a fraternity in the best sense of what priestly fraternity should be about. We supported each other. We encouraged each other. We challenged each other to move towards priesthood. It was a wonderful environment to prepare for the priesthood.”
Bishop Deeley’s fellow seminarians included Monsignor Michael Henchal, pastor of the Cluster 22 parishes in Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, and South Portland.
“Being part of the New England contingent there in Rome, the group used to get together and share new information and just socialize together,” he says. “So I’ve known him [Bishop Deeley] for a very long time.”
Monsignor Henchal describes Bishop Deeley as someone who is extremely bright and convivial. “He is very appreciated by his peers, whether they have been other canonists or priests or bishops, appreciated by them and held in high regard,” he says. “This is somebody connected with a lot of people who gained their confidence, and that’s why he is where he is today, his ability to connect with people and build relationships and a network of support and a network of friends and others that can assist him in what he has to accomplish. I think that will be very important. He knows people all over the country. He knows people all over the world, and they could be of assistance.”
earning his degree in Theology (S.T.B.) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Bishop Deeley returned home and, on July 14, 1973, was ordained to the priesthood at his home parish of Sacred Heart in Watertown.
“To be present in people’s lives, to strengthen and to help them in sickness and in loss and in the joy of birth and in the raising of their children, in all those ways in which our parishes and our institutions reach out to be with people, to convey to them that fundamental message of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ, has been a real gift, a gift that I have treasured and I have greatly, greatly enjoyed,” he says of his years as a priest.
Bishop Deeley’s first assignment was as associate pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Needham. After serving five years there, he was asked to become secretary to the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Boston. A tribunal handles judicial cases that fall under the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church, most frequently marriage annulments.
“I got involved in Church law and found it to be very attractive,” he says. “It’s practical theology. It’s practical ecclesiology. It’s the structure within which the Church gets to accomplish what it is that it’s supposed to do, which is to bring the Gospel to others. So I found it a very rich way within which to do my ministry.”
Bishop Deeley says his interest in the law goes all the way back to his high school years.
“For some reason, the law interested me, and I had decided that, if I wasn’t going in to be a priest, then I would be a lawyer.”
After serving three years as secretary in the tribunal, he returned to Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to study canon law. As with his seminary years, it was a time of change in the Church, with the 1917 Code of Canon Law being updated as a result of the Second Vatican Council.
“I got my license in canon law in 1983, which was the year in which the new Code of Canon Law was promulgated. So the time I was studying canon law was fascinating because the law was being written even as we were studying it. So rather than having a set Code of Canon Law, we had all these sheets of paper that were shifting all the time.”
Because of the timing of his studies, Bishop Deeley wrote his doctoral dissertation on one of the additions to the code, Canon 812, which requires those who teach theology in institutions of higher studies to have a mandate from the bishop.
“My thesis interpreted what that canon meant, and who was obligated by it, and how it enhanced the life of the Church,” he says.
When Bishop Deeley returned to the Archdiocese of Boston, he resumed his work in the tribunal, first as a judge, then as adjunct judicial vicar, and later becoming judicial vicar.
He calls his years in the tribunal “a very rich experience.” He says they were years in which he witnessed both hurt and hope.
“One would think that, having been through some of the experiences that I had seen, that people wouldn’t want to get married again. And yet, they were willing to do that again. For me, it was a beautiful opportunity of grace to see the way in which people can deal with the hurt of failed marriage and move on in hope to new marriage. That’s a moment of grace for me.”
Although he said he “greatly enjoyed” his work in the tribunal, he asked, in 1999, that he be assigned to parish work and was named pastor of St. Ann in the Wollaston section of Quincy.
“Every diocesan priest wants ultimately to be a pastor,” he explains. “We become priests because we believe in what the Gospel tells us. Pope Francis calls it the Gospel of Joy, and that’s really what it is. We believe that the Gospel is Jesus, and we believe that when we are actively engaged in being a pastor, we are bringing the message of Jesus and His joy to others. The ability to do that directly as a pastor in parochial ministry is a very valuable experience: to administer the sacraments, to be present with people in the moments of life when they most need the embrace of God -- their losses, their joys. It is a very special privilege to be present with schoolchildren as they come to know Jesus and to know of His love for them. To participate in those first Communions and those confirmations with young people is a great joy. So it’s a very special thing to do that.”
Bishop Deeley says he believes the spirituality of a diocesan priest is dependent on his participation in the Eucharist with a parish community. It is why, throughout his various assignments, he has always chosen to live in parishes and to celebrate Masses there whenever possible.
“It is in the reflection on the Scripture, where you lead people to appreciate the meaning of Scripture for them, that you come to grow in your appreciation of Scripture yourself and its direction in your life. As you help to bring people to the Lord, you also, inevitably, are drawn closer yourself.”
He says his time at St. Ann was among the richest of his experiences.
“I had a very, very beautiful parish, wonderful, wonderful people. I learned an awful lot about being a pastor,” he says.
They were equally fond of him.
“He’s very kind and caring, a very spiritual man, prayerful,” says Meg Venuti who has served as parish secretary for 15 years. “All the parishioners here, I know, felt very comfortable with him, no matter what they needed to talk with him about. You just get that feeling from him, a very comfortable feeling. No matter what you need to talk to him about, he’s always here.”
She especially recalls his pastoral leadership following the World Trade Center attacks.
“We had a parishioner who had a daughter who was killed in that. He was just a great presence to all the people of the parish. He quickly organized a prayer service, and he was great,” she says.
It was while serving at St. Ann Parish that then Monsignor Deeley was elected president of the Canon Law Society of America. Despite the high profile position, Venuti says Bishop Deeley never let it interfere with his work as pastor.
“He did quite a bit of traveling,” she says, “but always had his finger on the pulse of the parish.”
After five years at St. Ann, then-Archbishop Séan O’Malley asked then-Monsignor Deeley to accept an assignment to the Vatican at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One of its major responsibilities in recent years has been examining cases involving clergy sexual abuse.
“We were really saddened that we were losing him, but we knew that work was very important to the Church,” says Venuti. “He was a good man to have in that position, because he is just a very fair person."
The assignment was supposed to be temporary, but after he was there a short time, he was asked to compile a list of people who might be considered as officials of the Congregation. After he submitted it, the prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, inquired as to why Monsignor Deeley’s name wasn’t on it. He would end up serving at the Congregation for seven years.
One of the programs he worked on while in Rome was to help prepare a request that every bishop’s conference in the world prepare a set of guidelines for dealing with the crime of sexual abuse including prevention, punishment, and education,
“Vigilance is something that needs to be maintained at all times because the protection of children has to be our paramount concern in the Church. We can never say that we’ve done everything that needs to be done,” he says. “This horrible crime, unfortunately, is much more present in our society than we wish to acknowledge at times.”
Bishop Deeley served at the Congregation until the summer of 2011 when he was named vicar general and moderator of the curia of the Archdiocese of Boston, working closely with Cardinal Séan O’Malley in the administration of the archdiocese. It included overseeing the archdiocese’s formation of collaboratives, similar to the Diocese of Portland’s clusters, a process which was underway when he returned from Rome.
“It was my job to move it forward and to convince people that what we were called to do and how we were called to be Church was going to be different going forward, but we could rely on the guidance of the Spirit of God,” he says. “I felt that my job was to give those very talented and wonderful people that I worked with in the Archdiocese encouragement to move forward with what we needed to do.”
In November 2012, Pope Benedict named Monsignor Robert Deeley an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, and he was assigned the Titular See of Kearney.
“I pray that God grants me wisdom to continue to do the work He has blessed me with in nearly 40 years of being a priest,” he said at the time of the announcement.
He was ordained a bishop by Cardinal Séan O’Malley on January 4, 2013. He chose as his episcopal motto words taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, “Veritatem facere in caritate,” which he translates as “living the truth in love.”
“For me, these words of Paul are the heart of our challenge in the Church today,” he says. “In his recent apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis reminds of us our responsibility to be evangelizers, to bring the joy of the Gospel to others. Each of us is called to preach what we believe with our lives. In such a way, we invite others to come and know the joy and hope we find in the message of Truth, which we call Jesus Christ.”
Bishop Malone’s episcopal motto was taken from the same Ephesians’ passage, although Bishop Malone translates it a little differently as “Live the Truth in Love.”
“We evidently were both touched by the same inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” says Bishop Deeley.
Some of his inspiration for the motto, Bishop Deeley says, comes from Pope Benedict who also chose to include “truth” in his motto.
“I have enormous respect for Pope Benedict, and the truth is in his teaching as it is in the Church’s teaching. The truth is Jesus Christ. So living the truth is to live as Jesus calls us to live.”
Bishop Deeley says he believes that living the truth in love is the way to bring people back to Jesus and to His Church.
“We inspire people to come to Jesus by our own example and by our own invitation and by our care for them,” he says.
Bishop Deeley says he is looking forward to caring for the people of the Diocese of Portland as their new shepherd. He says he will do so with the knowledge that he is building upon the work of others. He called it a privilege to succeed Bishop Malone.
“He has left a strong legacy for me. I am grateful for his dedication and tireless commitment to the people of this diocese.”
As he begins his ministry as the 12th Bishop of Portland, Bishop Deeley asks for your prayers.
“Pray for me, as I do you, that we may be what the Lord calls us to be, the community of the Church showing forth the love that God has shown us in His Son, Jesus. We will thus become the Church in Maine, which truly is ‘living the truth in love.’”