Fond memories of global community echo with bishops' justice advocate

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Dennis Sadowski

(CNS) — A picture of a young Palestinian boy, with dark, soulful eyes and a bit
of a dirty face, hangs on the back wall of Stephen Colecchi’s office at the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops in Washington.

When Colecchi looks at it, he offers a prayer for the nameless
child and the Palestinian people.

“I met
him in a mosque in Gaza on my first trip there (2007) and he hung around me. He
kept smiling at me so I kept smiling at him,” recalled Colecchi, director
of the U.S. bishops’ Office of
International Justice and Peace.

pray for him whenever I look at his picture. I wonder if he’s still alive and
doing OK.”

The boy is
one of countless people Colecchi met during fact-finding trips around the
world. Their struggles inspired Colecchi’s work to protect human life throughout
the 14 years at the USCCB.

best thing about this work, in addition to working with the bishops,” he told
Catholic News Service as he approached his April 30 retirement, “was you get to bring three assets of the church
together: the experience of the church on the ground in every country around
the world; the teaching of the church, the social teaching; and then the
relationships … that help inform what you’re able to bring.”

credit Colecchi with uncounted accomplishments even though he stayed out of the

was a delight to work with. He was a man of great wisdom, integrity and very
collegial,” said retired Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, New
York, who is a past chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International
Justice and Peace.

The bishop
credited Colecchi for doing his homework on vital issues and keeping Scripture
and Catholic social teaching at the forefront of his work.

Bill O’Keefe, vice president for
government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, called
Colecchi a resolute partner in advocacy and a gifted friend who is at ease talking
with policymakers and struggling people alike.

bishops and the wider church have been served incredibly well by Steve and his
determined leadership on raising the voice of the church on a whole host of
international issues,” O’Keefe said.

made a profound difference in shaping the U.S. policy on key issues through
supporting the bishops in their role,” he added. “He combines his
intellect and policy analysis with the ability to connect with people who are
suffering great injustice.”

John Carr, director of the
Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University and
former executive director of
the bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, brought
Colecchi to the USCCB in 2004. Carr credited him for his steadfast pursuit of
justice, citing his leading role in securing reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS
Relief among other critical international aid programs.

are literally millions of people in Africa who are seeing their grandchildren
because of his work and a lot of other people’s work on HIV/AIDS and debt
relief,” Carr said.

“He is
smart. He is faithful. He is persistent. He is good to work with. He is just a
remarkable example of a faithful Catholic who has made a huge difference,”
Carr added.

Colecchi keeps
the accolades in perspective.

church’s teaching is neither left or right,” he told CNS. “Rather it
seeks to be faithful. We should always put our moral principles ahead of our
partisan political positions and be guided by faith.”

Colecchi’s commitment
to peace and justice was formed early in life. Growing up in Leominster, Massachusetts, in
the 1950s and 1960s, Colecchi was active in the youth group at his family’s
parish, Holy Family of

really saw faith and engagement with society as going together,” he said.

At first,
Colecchi thought he would do that as a priest.

As he went
off to the College of the Holy Cross in nearby Worcester, his father urged him
to “do at least a little dating to see if you’re really called to
celibacy,” Colecchi said. In his junior year, Colecchi met his wife,
Cheryl, and thoughts of the priesthood disappeared. They have been married 44

The years
at Holy Cross were formative in other ways. Colecchi became involved in efforts
to end the Vietnam War. It was Jesuit
Father Joseph J. LaBran, associate chaplain, who, after an anti-war
rally, encouraged Colecchi to consider using his leadership skills to serve the
Catholic Church.

Following graduation
in 1973, Colecchi entered Yale Divinity School to work on a master’s degree in
religion. He also worked on low-income housing needs for elderly people.
“That was significant because I saw the struggles of poor, inner city
elderly residents,” he said.

At Yale,
Colecchi met Father Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest who taught pastoral ministry and wrote numerous books and articles on myriad aspects of the church’s vital work.

was a big influence on me, too,” Colecchi said of Father Nouwen. “He
helped me understand that it was important to root myself in some spirituality,
which I have never been very good at. I’ve always been more of an activist.
That’s one of the things I could do better in retirement.”

advanced degree in hand, Colecchi began his career in religious education at Northwest Catholic High School in
West Hartford, Connecticut, where he connected students with outreach to
elderly people. Then it was on to Virginia, the one place where Steve and
Cheryl could find work together, he in parish ministry and she as a teacher.

worked for three years at St.
Joseph Church in rural Martinsville and eight years at St. Bridget Church in Richmond. As
time passed, Cheryl built a career as a clinical psychologist.

By 1988, Colecchi’s
skills were noticed within the Richmond Diocese. Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, a leading social justice advocate
who opposed abortion as much as nuclear weapons, hired him on the spot during an
interview. Colecchi became director of the Office of Justice and Peace
and diocesan director of Catholic Charities.

was a big office because it included an office of migrant ministry on the Eastern Shore. It included an office in Appalachia that worked on issues in
Appalachia. It included refugee resettlement offices in three different metro
areas of the diocese.”

The position
also required regularly meeting with legislators on any number of concerns. He recalled
his most notable legislative achievements as changes in public assistance
policies affecting two-parent families and a prohibition on partial-birth

In 2004,
the USCCB called.

Colecchis were not sure they wanted to move northward. They had two daughters and
Cheryl’s practice was well established. It was their involvement in the Just
Faith program that led them to take the risk. The yearlong program rooted in
social justice concerns ends with a retreat during which participants are
invited to discern how God is calling them to act on behalf of the poor.

we realized we needed to take a greater risk for social justice, we needed to
simplify our lives,” Colecchi recalled.

The moved
turned out well. Colecchi has earned wide praise for his work and Cheryl was
able to build a new practice in Washington’s Virginia suburbs. Both were to retire
together and planned to return to the Richmond area.

said he looks “forward to being a full-time grandpa and a part-time
something else” in retirement. He hopes to line up work as an adviser on
issues such as nuclear disarmament, world poverty and climate change.

think I have something to contribute still.”

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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