When he was named a bishop in 1997, my Uncle Bob chose as his episcopal motto, “My heart is ready, O Lord” (Ps 57:8/108:2). The phrase captures the very essence of this good priest, this caring bishop, and this kind man who always placed his life in God’s hands.
“My heart is ready, O Lord.” In another version, it comes out as “my heart is steadfast.” A more literal translation of the original Latin paratum cor meum Deus is “my heart is prepared…provided for…equipped.” There is a sense of thinking you have what you need and then getting started.
That brings us to a great irony of my uncle’s life captured by his motto. Perhaps he had this in mind when he chose it at age 66. He always thought he was ready for one thing, but God wrote his life down other paths. And here is the key to his ministry: prepared to go one way, my uncle always followed God’s path and not his own.
He was a local boy inclined to stay near home, but as a new priest in 1957 his first assignment was in Dutchess County, which may have well been Mars for a lad from the Bronx. Then-Cardinal Francis Spellman, who at that time was not only Archbishop of New York but also oversaw Catholics in America’s military, asked for chaplains. The plan was a short term of several years. Prepared to be among Catholic New Yorkers for his career, Father Brucato dutifully enlisted in the Air Force in 1960. His brief stint as a chaplain turned into 22 years of service.
Having a heart open to God meant he unexpectedly spent nearly a quarter-century among more Protestants than Catholics, which inclined his heart and mind to ecumenical dialogue and shared ministry. With no experience as a parent, in 1975 he sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family in his home on a Kansas City military base. A few years later, they named their newborn son Robert.
As an Air Force chaplain, he moved around a great deal. He opened our eyes to new ways of seeing God, as when he gave my mother a Japanese image of a Madonna in a kimono with the Christ child strapped to her back. In an age before cell phones and email, our home phone would sometimes ring unexpectedly even in the middle of the night. It was my uncle asking my father to pick him up at the airport—such a novelty in the 1960s and 1970s that we all piled into the car. We got so used to him just showing up but then dashing off again that our usual greeting was, “Hi, Uncle. When are you leaving?”
He was never a man comfortable with ceremony that put him center stage. He joked that as a new Air Force officer, he’d hide in his room because he didn’t know whether to salute back or not. When he was ordained a bishop, relatives who’d known him for decades (even in shorts at backyard barbecues) suddenly wondered how to address him. “What did you call me before?” he asked. They’d invariably say, “Father Bob,” and he’d answer, “Then, that’s what you’ll call me now.”
Despite his frequent and far-flung travels, Uncle Bob always made it home for special occasions and shared the Eucharistic meal—sometimes, in fact, saying Mass quite appropriately at the dining room table in his mother’s house in the Bronx where he’d grown up. Indeed, at the liturgy where he ordained my uncle as a bishop, Cardinal John O’Connor made this very connection. Just as my uncle’s mother had fed him, Cardinal O’Connor preached, Holy Mother Church now fed Uncle Bob in a special way as a new bishop.
He’d always been the family priest, making his way home from somewhere in his Air Force uniform. It began by witnessing my parent’s wedding in 1957, which they intentionally delayed to a few months after his ordination, and then baptizing his niece and nephews that followed. In turn, he witnessed our marriages and baptized our children.
Then, as a bishop, this simple man from the Bronx became a successor to the apostles, charged with preserving and spreading the faith. That faith is our tradition, which comes from the Latin word tradere—to hand over. In one of his last public liturgies, in May 2013, he quite literally handed on the faith to our daughter Grace when he placed the Eucharist into her palm for her First Communion. The oldest in our family handed Jesus to the youngest: past, present and the eternal future became that day’s holy trinity.
Uncle Bob did what he was made to do: he took God’s gifts, he prepared himself to use them and then with an open heart he followed wherever God led. May we always follow the model of this good and faithful servant with ready hearts.
Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is professor of history at Kean University in Union, N.J.