Fr. Mark Mealey to leave Arlington Diocese this fall

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Father Mark S. Mealey possesses a formidable intellect and firmness that have served him well during his long tenure as vicar general, moderator of the curia and judicial vicar for the Arlington Diocese. But spend just a few minutes with the Oblate of St. Francis de Sales and something else stands out: a gentleness that infuses his words and manner.

"When you're speaking with him about any subject - be it theological, canonical, historical - there's also a pastoral dimension present," said Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde. "He has a pastor's heart."

After a total of more than three decades sharing his mind and heart with the Arlington Diocese, Father Mealey will step down from his responsibilities this fall to revise the Oblates' constitutions in preparation for their general chapter meeting. His new assignment begins Oct. 1.

"I leave with many, many years of happy memories," said Father Mealey during a recent interview in his chancery office. "And those will always go with me, because (the diocese) has been such a formidable part of my formation in the priesthood."

In fact, the Arlington Diocese and Father Mealey have helped form each other.

"I have - the diocese has - learned a great deal from him," said Bishop Loverde, who shared his reflections on his brother priest Sept. 2. "It's a two-way giftedness."

An early start in Arlington

Father Mealey, 65, arrived in the 5-year-old Arlington Diocese less than two months after his ordination in Philadelphia May 19, 1979. He was appointed parochial vicar of the newly founded St. John Neumann Church in Reston by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, the diocese's first bishop.

The young priest brought with him strong academic credentials. After attending the Oblate novitiate in Childs, Md., he earned a bachelor's in social studies from Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa., a master's in theology from De Sales School of Theology in Washington and a master's in history from West Chester State University in Pennsylvania.

Even as a seminarian, the Philly native stood out in both intellect and spirit.

"He was a good student, but also a very good religious, very conscientious, very genuine," said Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Lewis S. Fiorelli, who was an Oblate superior when Father Mealey was a seminarian and now resides with him at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna.

Following six years at St. John Neumann, Father Mealey earned a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, and his Juris Doctor in canon law from St. Paul University in Ottawa.

After a year in the Philadelphia archdiocesan tribunal, Father Mealey returned to Arlington as judicial vicar in September 1990 following the death of the diocese's first judicial vicar, Msgr. Justin D. McClunn.

Father Mealey would serve as judicial vicar for the next 25 years, but for a short time in the early 2000s.

As judicial vicar, Father Mealey has overseen the tribunal - an ecclesiastical (church) court that deals with judicial matters related to canon law. Every diocese is required to have such a court, which primarily addresses marriage nullity cases.

"It's very nice to see people go through the tribunal process, and in most cases to be reconciled with the church," said Father Mealey. "That's been a great joy to see."

Father Thomas P. Ferguson, episcopal vicar for faith formation and a tribunal judge, has known Father Mealey since Father Ferguson was a newly ordained priest working as a tribunal notary.

"It's not exaggerating to say that Father Mealey is not only known in the diocese but also nationally and internationally as an extraordinary judicial vicar and canon lawyer," said Father Ferguson.

First, an Oblate

To understand Father Mealey is to encounter the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, the 17th-century French saint known for his gentle nature and prolific writing that spoke to the heart. Salesian spirituality "is dealing with one another with great care, seeing someone as very precious; it is seeing them in God's image," said Father Fiorelli.

And "that sprit is alive in Father Mealey," Bishop Loverde said.

Father Mealey first was attracted to the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales while attending an Oblate-run high school in Philadelphia.

The Oblate priests and brothers displayed a "beautiful joy" and care for the individual, said Father Mealey. "Despite the large classes, every Oblate was interested in getting to know who you were."

Salesian spirituality is "especially important today when so many people are looking for a spirituality that can accompany them in their workplace, at their home," he said. "The style is to be very supportive and nurturing and caring of individuals, no matter what the issue is. … You begin where they are and you travel with them to where they can be."

Journeying with others

Not long after Bishop Loverde was installed as the diocese's third bishop March 25, 1999, he named Father Mealey moderator of the curia and vicar general.

"It very much became evident to me that this was a priest who ought to be head of the chancery," said Bishop Loverde.

As moderator of the curia, Father Mealey oversees diocesan offices, leading everything from the Finance Office to Catholic Charities.

In his role as vicar general, Father Mealey "is basically second in command of the diocese," said Bishop Loverde. According to the Code of Canon Law, the vicar general "has the executive power over the whole diocese (that) belongs to the diocesan bishop."

Over the years, Father Mealey has attended funeral Masses, office blessings and countless events on behalf of Bishop Loverde.

Art Bennett, Catholic Charities president and chief executive officer, has observed Father Mealey in action frequently as vicar general and moderator of the curia.

"He has been a real visionary in terms of what Catholic Charities is," said Bennett. "He has a genuine care for the poor and is very wise. He can go very deeply into difficult spiritual topics, but he knows how to apply them to get things done."

The Victim Assistance Office also carries Father Mealey's imprint.

Alongside Bishop Loverde, Father Mealey worked to create a victim assistance program that is now "well respected throughout the country," according to Pat Mudd, longtime Victim Assistance Office coordinator.

Father Mealey has offered healing Masses and attended support groups and retreats with the bishop, always apologizing personally to victims and making the time to speak with them one-on-one if they wish.

"Hearing an apology for the abuse coming from a priest, a bishop or a vicar general is huge to people," said Mudd.

"Father Mealey and the bishop come as close as anyone to understanding the abuse," said Norm Riggins, who was abused by a priest as a child. "They listen deeply and process what you say; they don't try to interject."

"It's the kind of empathy that reinforces your healing process," added abuse survivor Bob Ruedisueli.

"Along with the bishop, Father Mealey has laughed, smiled and cried with us," Riggins said. "The abuse hurts them personally, (and) they are both committed to helping people on their journey to healing."

Brother priest, friend

"Father Mealey has been with me since the beginning and has been like a pillar in my life," said Bishop Loverde the day before turning 75. "I'm deeply saddened in his leaving, although I understand perfectly that he has a very strong responsibility to his community."

Every religious community has constitutions, which must be revised periodically and approved by the Holy See. The constitutions describe a community's charism, or unique gifts of the Holy Spirit, the formation process and governance.

Because he is procurator general - a liaison between the Oblates and the Vatican - Father Mealey was asked to relinquish his diocesan responsibilities to revise the Oblates' constitutions in preparation for their general chapter in Annecy, France, in 2018. The gatherings are held every six years for about two weeks and include Oblate delegates from around the world.

"It's a very important thing Father Mealey will be doing, but I'm saddened not only personally but for the diocese," said Bishop Loverde. "The giftedness he has, the institutional memory he possesses, I would have hoped they could be a gift we could give our new bishop."

Canon law requires a bishop to offer his resignation to the pope when he turns 75, although the pope is not required to accept it immediately. Bishop Loverde submitted his letter of resignation Sept. 3.

"When the new bishop comes, it would be so wonderful if we still had Father Mealey," said Bishop Loverde. "But I do believe God provides for us, so I believe the diocese will go on.

"And the fruits of Father Mealey's work will remain … in the atmosphere of the chancery," he said.

It's a legacy that will also remain with the diocese's shepherd.

"I'm grateful for the deep concern he's always had for me as a person, as a fellow priest," said the bishop. "There's no one I'd say who has been more attentive to me in terms of my own welfare."

Looking down at his hands, the bishop added, "I never envisioned him leaving before me, but one has to see the will of God in all circumstances."

Such palpable affection and admiration is mutual.

"To work closely with Bishop Loverde all these years is certainly a great treasure for me that I'll remember always," said Father Mealey. "He is a humble man who really loves people and tries with every fiber of his being to serve (them)."

Father Mealey said he is proud of the diocese he's spent nearly all of his priesthood serving.

"It's a thriving diocese (with) lots of very good people, lots of young priests who are enthusiastic and really love their priestly ministry," he said. "It will be hard to leave."

Father Mealey paraphrased what the Oblates' founder, Blessed Louis Brisson, said when he sent Oblates to all parts of the world as educators:

Those who go remain here in our hearts, while we who remain here go with them in their hearts. So no matter where we are, we are always one.

That's what Father Mealey will remember when he finally says goodbye, he said. "It's just been a beautiful experience."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015