VATICAN CITY — The special dining room at the Vatican’s Domus Sanctae Marthae was full Wednesday night for a dinner honoring U.S. Msgr. Robert Stern, who recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest.
The guests included cardinals and archbishops, as well as many men and women from lower rungs of the hierarchy who have worked with Msgr. Stern to assist Eastern churches for several decades. As secretary general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and president of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, he has been on the front lines of the church’s efforts to provide moral and material aid to church communities throughout the Middle East and Asia.
These kinds of dinners can be pro forma, but such was not the case this time. The sense of appreciation was real, and at my table, aid experts from the Vatican, Germany and Lebanon spoke of Msgr. Stern as a genuine model of experience, efficiency and fraternity.
After dessert, Msgr. Stern, a native of the Bronx, took the floor and told about his priestly calling. It was not what you might have expected.
As an 18-year-old college student in 1950, he was studying nuclear physics when he heard of a Holy Year pilgrimage to Rome — a thousand fellow students traveling by boat. It sounded like a good thing, so he signed on.
In Rome, he saw Pope Pius XII and was profoundly impressed. Kneeling in St. Peter’s Basilica, he found himself making a small vow: “I promise to serve the pope.” He wasn’t sure himself what that meant.
Returning to his studies, he kept feeling pulled to a priestly vocation. It wasn’t something he ever dreamed of doing, he said, and in some ways it seemed like a “gloomy” choice — no wife or family — but he was more and more convinced that God wanted him to do it. The clincher came when he was trying to convince his roommate to become a Methodist minister, and his roommate responded: “By your arguments, you should become a Catholic priest.”
So he entered the seminary, and was ordained in New York by Cardinal Francis Spellman. As a young priest in Manhattan, he would take Communion on First Fridays to a “lovely lady” on the West Side, who spoke about her nephew, Father Bernie, who worked in the South. That turned out to be Father Bernard F. Law, now a cardinal, who was among the dinner guests Wednesday night.
Among Msgr. Stern’s memories is a vivid recollection of the Second Vatican Council. He was studying in Rome at the time, and saw Pope John XXIII open the first session. Later he signed on as a priest attendant at the council, to get closer to the action. The experience was powerful and has stayed with him.
“The presence of the Holy Spirit was tangible,” he said.
Since then, it’s been “one series of adventures after another,” Msgr. Stern said. He’s traveled extensively, and says the greatest blessing has been the chance to know so many people and go so many places. Although he never became a nuclear physicist, he said working for the Eastern churches has been his greatest education.
PHOTO: Msgr. Robert Stern celebrated Mass in New York last month to mark the 50th anniversary of his ordination. (Photo courtesy Catholic Near East Welfare Association/Maria R. Bastone)