By Chris Donahue |Associate Editor and
Christina Leslie |Correspondent
Funeral services were held July 2 and 3 in St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Old Bridge, for Msgr. John B. Szymanski, vicar general emeritus of the Metuchen Diocese and a native of the Trenton Diocese.
Msgr. Szymanski, 86, died June 28 in St. Peter’s University Hospital, New Brunswick.
Homilists at the liturgies and former parishioners spoke about Msgr. Szymanski’s love for being a priest for Jesus, his brother priests, the faithful he served, especially in St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, where he excercised his priestly ministry for 40 years until he retired in 2007, and the Diocese of Trenton, where he began his priestly ministry in 1957.
Through their reminiscences, they also told of his love of telling jokes and the New York Giants.
Bishop Emeritus Paul G. Bootkoski presided at the July 3 funeral Mass, and Father Robert G. Lynam, pastor of St. Augustine of Canterbury Parish, Kendall Park, preached the homily.
Dozens of priests from the diocese concelebrated and deacons assisted at both liturgies.
Father Lynam began his homily by telling the story of how his longtime friend, Msgr. Szymanski, helped him, when he began to break down while receiving the body of his classmate, Father Jack Casey into St. Thomas Parish. “Monsignor quietly put his hand on my back and gave me a gentle push and that push helped me get through the rite,” he said.
Commending Msgr. Szymanski’s niece, Vicki, for the spiritual support she gave him, Father Lynam said she told him since she was four-years-old she prayed daily that her uncle would be a good priest. “And Vicki, he truly was!” Father Lynam exclaimed, before asking her to stand to be recognized. “Thank you for your prayers for your uncle and all that you did for him.”
Reminding the faithful that the funeral Mass was being celebrated on the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, Father Lynam said, “What an affirmation. St. Thomas is the patron saint of builders, architects, and monsignor truly was a builder within the Body of Christ, the Church.”
“As a young priest in the Trenton Diocese he served as the president of the Priest Senate and as a visionary and an architect helped develop many important life-giving programs for his brother priests and he was very well respected by all,” Father Lynam said.
“He became a monsignor at the age of 40 and was one of the youngest ever appointed a monsignor in the Diocese of Trenton and he was very proud of that.”
He told the parishioners of St. Thomas that Msgr. Szymanski was “so proud to serve as your pastor for so many years.”
Father Lynam admitted that as a young seminarian and a young priest he was “afraid” of Msgr. Szymanski because he could be intimidating, but over the years, a great friendship developed.
“And during his priestly life, he was blessed with the great priest friends,” Father Lynam said. “Msgr. Bill Benwell, was faithful to John to the end and Father Tom Ryan, really took care of monsignor over these last years, taking him many places and always doing it with gentleness.”
Well-known for telling jokes, Msgr. Szymanski had a filing cabinet in his room filled with jokes, Father Lynam said, then suggested that one of the historians of the diocese consider putting them in a book in honor of Msgr. Szymanski.
Regarding Msgr. Szymanski’s loyalty to the Giants, Father Lynam drew laughter when he said, “If you go to his room you would think you’re in a teenager’s room who loves the Giants. Giants are everywhere — bedspreads, blankets, and I’m grateful to Father Ryan, who had Giants cufflinks overnighted so they could be placed on monsignor in his casket.”
Father Lynam concluded by saying, “On this feast of St. Thomas in the Gospel we hear Thomas ask Jesus, ‘Master we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?’
“All of us gathered here today can say with great faith that Msgr. Szymanski knew the way and we know where he is and he is praying for all of us. Monsignor, until we meet again…”
Bishop Bootkoski extended condolences on behalf of Bishop James F. Checchio, who was out of the state, to Msgr. Szymanski’s family, the parish and his brother priests.
Bishop Bootkoski, who served as the fourth bishop of the diocese from 2002 until Pope Francis accepted his resignation in 2016, said he quickly learned about Msgr. Szymanski’s sense of humor on their first encounter. After administering the first of two Sacraments of Confirmation scheduled in one day, Msgr. Szymanski told the bishop he gave “a nice homily but could he shorten it a bit?” The bishop said being a fellow Pole, he made his homily for the second Confirmation service twice as long.
On a serious note, Bishop Bootkoski said, “He truly was a gift to us. He worked collaboratively and beautifully with the laity.”
Mass of Commemoration
The night before the funeral, Father Timothy A. Christy, episcopal vicar, Vicariate for Evangelization and Communication, vicar general and moderator of the curia, presided at the Mass of Commemoration. Msgr. William Benwell, vicar for Canonical Affairs, was homilist.
To describe Msgr. Szymanski’s impact on those he served, Msgr. Benwell used the analogy “if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?”
Msgr. Szymanski was “a sturdy oak, a redwood, even, a tower of strength in the lives of his family and his friends, and in the life of this parish and of this diocese.”
“John Szymanski,” Msgr. Benwell continued, “was the servant in the Gospel parable who receives three talents, and not content for things to remain as they are, uses his creativity and industry to return back to his master twice what he was given…
“Monsignor belonged to what I call the greatest generation of priests: men who were ordained or who entered the seminary to serve in one Church and, after Vatican II, found themselves serving in quite another. It was a new ecclesial world in the late 1960s and ’70s, a Church which caught monsignor’s imagination and in which he thrived. He promoted the idea of the parish as being defined not by its clergy, but as a community of persons with diverse gifts, all valuable.”
Msgr. Benwell noted how he collaborated through parish and finance councils, foresaw the increase in Spanish-speaking Catholics and went to Puerto Rico to learn the language.
In closing, Msgr. Benwell said, “So, John, we leave you to what is truly real, what eternally endures. And don’t worry that we’ll forget you – your generosity and good work are all around us, in many cases indelibly written on our hearts.”
Advocate for Laity
Cele Regan, who had served as the St. Thomas the Apostle’s director of religious education for 20 years, remembered Msgr. Szymanski for his loyalty to the parish and for having great foresight.
“One of his great talents was to figure out what a person could do for the parish and let them do that ministry. He was an advocate for lay ministry. He had a great sense of humor. He loved people. He promoted a sense of community, of celebration. He would do things in the parish so we would feel like a whole community and needed to celebrate,” Regan said.0
Marty Malague of St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral, Metuchen, who served as director, diocesan Office of Personnel for seven years in the 1980s, described Msgr. Szymanski as a boss who trusted the people he hired to do their jobs with little input and was fun to work for.
Tommy Aboussleman, 60, a lifelong member of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, credited Msgr. Szymanski with having a major impact on his life when he was undergoing some personal problems 30 years ago. “It was probably one of a million things he has done for people. He was unassuming,” Aboussleman said. “He reminded me of someone old school because he came from that generation, like my mom and dad. He was tough, but he was fair. We loved him.”