Story by Lois Rogers, Correspondent
To hear his flock tell it June 26, Father Ronald J. Cioffi’s final Mass in Keyport’s St. Joseph Church was much the same as those he celebrated throughout his 35 years of service there.
The message in his homily – like the reflections he has written for the weekly bulletin over the decades – focused on following Jesus in all he asks the faithful to do.
The emphasis on Catholic social teaching, a hallmark of his 47-year ministry, was clearly heard as Father Cioffi told the parishioners that the common good must take priority when pursuing the “Kingdom of God.”
Father Cioffi asked everyone to reflect on the ways in which they pick up the cross and walk with Jesus, who “shows us what it means to be a human being – to live from the heart.”
“This is what we have celebrated for 35 years with each other, you and I,” he said. “And God – who does not force us” to take up this cross, “has been with us every step of the journey.”
Deacon Donald Policastro observed that “Father Ron took the road less traveled and brought us along with him.”
“That,” Deacon Policastro said, “has made all the difference.”
On the Road
Born in Long Branch in 1941 to Harry R. and Jean Cioffi, Father Cioffi was the second of three sons – Henry, longtime councilman and multi-term mayor of the resort town, and Robert, a professor at Morris County Community College, composer and pianist.
In an interview, Henry’s daughter Gina spoke of how fortunate she always felt to have “these three intelligent, interesting and accomplished men” in her life, crediting them with sparking her interest in the arts, politics and, centrally, faith.
“Uncle Ron had a huge impact because of his commitment to social justice,” said his niece, who said she took inspiration from him in her own educational and career choices, attending Catholic college and law school and focusing on working for non-profits.
“When you are questioning your role in the world, it is so important to know there is someone in your life living out his faith. … He was my person for all of that. … Every family should have someone blessed with a mission,” she shared.
In his own reflections, Father Cioffi pointed to the Catholic culture into which he was born as a catalyst to how faith and social activism would meld throughout his life.
He recalled Father Gerald Celentana was pastor of Holy Trinity Parish and Father James Cammisa was associate pastor when Father Cioffi was an altar boy there, both contributing greatly to his growing interest in a priestly vocation.
Also positive, he said, was the awareness of the “work of the Church” gleaned from reading papal biographies, including those on Pius XII, the pope of his boyhood, and other books on Catholic subjects. Especially captivating, he said, was the background these works provided on the Church’s social teaching.
His formative years as a Red Bank Catholic High School student, set against the background of the civil rights and Catholic peace movements, were a particularly inspiring time.
“Growing up, I was always aware of the challenge of being a citizen in a democratic country and taught to see the responsibility to the common good and participate in the work of the community,” he said.
Answering the Call
As his call to serve the Church intensified, he prepared for the priesthood in St. Charles Seminary, Catonsville, Md., and St. Mary Seminary and University, Baltimore.
Ordained a priest May 31, 1969, in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, by Bishop George W. Ahr, Father Cioffi earned a master’s degree in pastoral counseling at Iona College, New Rochelle, and a second master’s in ecumenics from Princeton Technological Seminary while serving as a parochial vicar in St. Joachim Parish, Trenton; St. Leo the Great Parish, Lincroft, and St. Mary Parish, South Amboy.
In 1977, he became a faculty member of St. Mary Seminary, Roland Park, Md., and upon return to the Trenton Diocese in 1981, he was named parochial vicar of the Keyport parish, where he also served as temporary administrator until 1989 Living From the Heart
Parish work dovetailed with the call to Catholic social teaching, said Father Cioffi, who was part-time director for a number of years of the diocesan Office of Social Concerns, where he helped to focus the faithful on bringing an end to the death penalty and other critical issues such as the need for affordable housing.
Along with nourishing the spiritual needs of the parish community, he said the long tenure in St. Joseph allowed him to build commitment to Catholic social teaching there.
“The stability was good – the roots grew deeply,” said Father Cioffi. “Every parish has certain resources they can offer people who live in the neighborhood and beyond. Helping people to share those resources for the benefit of others is an important part of being a pastor.”
Many ministries developed over time, including a vital and active St. Joseph’s Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society – which met 1,500 calls for assistance in 2015 alone – a thriving health ministry and the long-running work of the Haiti Committee to improve lives in that struggling nation.
Personally, he traveled monthly to two Catholic Worker sites in New York to celebrate Mass and deliver clothing and other needed items collected by parishioners for those in need. (The goal of Catholic Worker ministry is to reflect Catholic social teaching.) Father Cioffi was also active with the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi, and was a founding member of Pax Christi in Monmouth County.
On the last week of his tenure in St. Joseph, he shared that his long standing dream of bringing affordable housing to the parish neighborhood is poised to become a reality.
With the support of Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., an agreement has been reached for the Domus Corporation, an affiliate of Catholic Charities in the Newark Archdiocese, to facilitate the construction of 50 units of housing for low income seniors and the disabled on the St. Joseph campus.
John Westervelt, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese, cited Father Cioffi’s dedication to the project as key to its progress.
“We just received the contract signed by the Bishop and Father Cioffi, and we are moving ahead,” said Westervelt. The plans call for the housing to replace the convent and first school building, both of which will be demolished.
“Father Cioffi is a great guy who worked tirelessly to make sure the contract was signed before he retired,” Westervelt said. “He pushed hard to get it done.”
Overall, the housing project and the programs represent the strong commitment to those who rely on the Church, spiritually and socially, Father Cioffi said.
“It’s all about community,” said Father Cioffi. “We are all part of the household of God.”