CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. -- Bishop Howard J. Hubbard performed his final Confirmation Mass Saturday as the tenured leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
The service was held at St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Church, 569 Clifton Park Center Road. The sacrament, during which candidates receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, drew several hundred young people and their parents.
Hubbard, 75, has been the leader of the 14-county Albany Diocese since 1977. He will retire officially Thursday when Bishop-elect, Rev. Msgr. Edward Scharfenberger is officially installed as his replacement.
During Saturday’s Mass, Hubbard greeted nearly 100 teen candidates for confirmation as they walked up and knelt at the edge of the pulpit. They came two by two with their sponsors behind them.
Dressed in the scarlet vestments of his position with the zucchetto on his head and pectoral cross on his chest, Hubbard chatted briefly with each. He was animated in his conversation, a light tap on the shoulder for some and an occasional familial jab to the chest with others.
His voice during the more public portions of the service was inviting and warm. The tone was clear and crisp, the words coming rapidly. The boy originally from the ‘burgh (Lansingburgh) never left home and home never left him.
During a conversation after Mass, Hubbard reflected on his 50 years in the priesthood, the last 37 of which he has served as bishop.
"I was the youngest priest when I was ordained and now I am the oldest active tenured priest," he said smiling, fingering his silver papal ring. "It’s been a wonderful 37 years, many joys and occasions. There’s been so many weddings and anniversaries, 10-, 20- and 50-year anniversaries, and many ordinations of priests and deacons. I figure I’ve confirmed 120,000 people. There have been many cherished memories."
Hubbard said he was drawn into the priesthood incrementally. He went to St. Patrick’s, a Catholic elementary school, where he got to know priests as human beings. He saw them personally ministering to the community. He got to know them better by playing CYO baseball and basketball, he said. At 75, Hubbard still moves around gracefully. All those years on the courts and athletic fields apparently have never left him.
"They were pleasant to be around," Hubbard said of the priests. "They were always around after the games to take us out for ice cream or sodas."
As a high school student at La Salle Institute, the brothers recommended he look into becoming a brother himself or go into the priesthood. After applying and attending summer orientation at Siena College, he decided he go to seminary school first. That way, he could find out if he liked the priesthood from the inside rather than waiting four years.
"I thought I might become a journalist or go into law. I had an uncle who was a lawyer," he said. "But once I went to seminary, I never turned back. It was what I wanted. I never had any thought of any other direction."
An internship at an Albany parish church after completing work at Catholic University in Washington D.C., gave him exactly what he wanted, a chance to help people and spiritually serve them.
"Prior to that, I thought I might wind up in social services behind a desk for Catholic Charities or something like that," he said. "Back then all those positions were filled by priests. I wasn’t thrilled at that."
His internship led him to help establish Providence House in Albany’s South End and from that sprang Hope House, a place for heroin addicts to turn their lives around. Hubbard was doing what he wanted across the river from his hometown and was completely happy.
"What’s good about (the) counseling with Hope House is I meet people now who’ve gone through there and have recovered their life and gone on to become productive members of the community."
Looking back on his 50 years in the priesthood, Hubbard said he was fortunate to travel the world and meet so many dignitaries. But he also leaves with some regrets. First and foremost was the clergy abuse scandal and the slowness and lack of transparency that surrounded it.
"I’ll always be apologetic for that," Hubbard said.
He also said he regrets having to close parish schools and churches as the demographics of the Capital Region changed.
"I know it creates spiritual hardship for people. I’m conscious of the sadness it creates in people’s lives," he said.
As Hubbard delved deeper into the makeup of the 14 counties that make up the Albany Diocese, he noted the widening gap between rich and poor, "the have and have nots," he called it. He expressed concern that food pantries have seen a 40 percent increase in their numbers and the more rural counties in the diocese have been hurt terribly by the recession.
Yet, the man who spent all his life in the Capital Region still finds himself amazed at the natural beauty of the diocese.
"We have the Adirondacks, the Mohawk (River), the Hudson (River) and the more rural counties’ landscape is just beautiful," he said. "It’s a beautiful diocese."
During retirement, Hubbard said he will stay active filling in when needed in area churches, ministering in jails and prisons, and perhaps saying Mass in nursing homes, an area that has been hit hard with the reduction in the numbers in the priesthood.
"I’ll be able to do things that are spiritual and pastoral rather than administrative," Hubbard said.