Intelligent, thoughtful and wise, Msgr. Robert Monticello led Church in transition

Msgr. Robert Monticello, 96, a leader in the Archdiocese of Detroit's social service efforts in the years after the Second Vatican Council and a former high-ranking official in the U.S. Catholic Conference, the predecessor of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was known for his wise counsel, steady hand and encouraging demeanor during a time of intense transformation in the Church. Msgr. Monticello died March 21 after 72 years of service in the priesthood. (Archdiocese of Detroit photo)

Trusted priest served in multiple leadership roles for the Archdiocese of Detroit, U.S. Church after the Second Vatican Council

FARMINGTON — Msgr. Robert Monticello witnessed many changes in the Church, and through his ministry in social work, charity and organizational leadership, he was the face of an ever-changing Church.

The former director of Catholic Social Action for the Archdiocese of Detroit, executive director for the Campaign for Human Development and former associate general secretary for the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington, D.C., Msgr. Monticello used his talents and compassion in many different roles in a Church that was becoming more outward looking in the years after the Second Vatican Council.

Msgr. Monticello — more commonly known as “Father Bob” — died March 21. He was 96.

Msgr. Monticello’s intelligence, insight and demeanor were put to use serving those in need, directing the Church's charitable services in the wake of the council's reforms, said Bishop Walter Hurley, the former bishop of Grand Rapids and a former auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“Msgr. Monticello was a bright, well-educated, very prayerful priest,” said Bishop Hurley, who met then-Fr. Monticello when Bishop Hurley was an associate pastor at St. Dorothy Parish in Warren and Fr. Monticello was the deputy delegate for clergy for the archdiocese. “He was very confident in himself without any kind of arrogance about him. He never really sought power or position, always happy with whatever state of life he found himself in, whatever job he had.”

Robert Vincent Monticello was born Oct. 26, 1926, to Vincent H. and Marie C. (nee Hendricks) Monticello. He studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Norwood, Ohio, and St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth.

He was ordained by Cardinal Edward A. Mooney of Detroit at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit on June 2, 1951.

After completing associate pastoral assignments at St. Alphonsus Parish in Dearborn (1951) and Church of the Madonna Parish in Detroit (1951-55), he was sent to New York City for graduate studies at Fordham University, earning a master’s of social services.

He returned to Detroit, where he founded and directed Catholic Social Services of Macomb and Lenawee counties (1957-67), was the chaplain for the St. Francis Home for Boys in Detroit (1961-71), and finished post-theology graduate work at the University of Detroit, earning a master’s in sociology in 1962.

During that time, Fr. Monticello also taught at Sacred Heart Seminary (1962-66) and Mercy College (1963-66), both in Detroit.

“There was a time, shortly after Vatican II, when a group of priests from the archdiocese was invited to be trained in social work,” said Judge Michael Talbot, chair of the Review Board for the Archdiocese of Detroit and a close friend of Msgr. Monticello. “(Msgr.) Bob was one of those who went to Fordham for a master’s in social work, which always influenced his thinking, and his judgment. He’d take on difficult assignments, jobs (other priests) weren’t thrilled about doing. But he’d take it on, always bringing that perspective of a kind heart of a social worker.”

Fr. Monticello was named director of Catholic Social Action for the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1968, through which he established Ryan Homes, housing for low-income seniors operated by the archdiocese, and coached priests to be sensitive to the economic and emotional needs of their parishioners, along with their spiritual needs, Judge Talbot said.

“He loved the work, and it was part of what came out of Vatican II, where your responsibility to your brother and sister in this world was emphasized, even as you were working toward your time in eternity,” Judge Talbot told Detroit Catholic. “(Msgr.) Bob took the time to reorganize some of the functions of the Catholic social department that had gone a bit stale, getting those departments to be more outward looking.”

During Fr. Monticello’s time as director of Catholic Social Action, he was tasked by Cardinal John F. Dearden of Detroit to work as an organizer in the build-up to Synod 69, the archdiocesan synod to implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

“As an expression of his great organizational skills, around the time of Synod 69, he was one of the key organizers who brought together 72,000 people and some 7,000 meetings throughout the diocese to reflect on the Church,” Bishop Hurley said. “He was very instrumental in all of that.”

Fr. Monticello wrote a column in the Oct. 24, 1980, edition of The Michigan Catholic, when Cardinal Dearden retired, on his time as an organizer of Synod 69, organizing the responses from meetings from "Speak Up" sessions dealing with every phase of life and ministry in the Church.

“We considered our relationships with one another, laity, religious, clergy,” Fr. Monticello wrote. “We discussed our celebration of God’s saving mysteries and how to make Gospel values penetrate our lives and the world in which we live. We devoted ourselves to freedom, equality, social justice, brotherhood and economic well-being.

“We looked at our responsibilities to witness and proclaim the Good News, and we sought ways and means to utilize our resources, human and financial, to serve one another and the wider community in which we live,” Fr. Monticello continued. “We tried to clarify what our Christian concerns should be and to find new ways to serve the family of mankind.”

In 1971, Fr. Monticello was released from service in the Archdiocese of Detroit to serve as executive director of the Campaign for Human Development for the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington, D.C., the precursor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Two years later, he was elected associate general secretary of the U.S. Catholic Conference, and from 1974-78, he was assistant treasurer for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as deputy treasurer for Catholic Relief Services.

“He went to Washington to work on the Campaign for Human Development, which provides resources and fundraising for various social justice issues and projects throughout the country,” Bishop Hurley said. “Another important role was associate general secretary and associate treasurer of the bishop’s conference. He had great organizational skills and a degree in social work, so he was very attentive in the involvement of people in various activities.”

Fr. Monticello returned to Detroit in 1979 to serve as coordinator of planning and services for the Archdiocese of Detroit and as an executive assistant to Cardinal Dearden and later Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka of Detroit.

He was given pastoral assignments at St. Martha Parish in Dearborn (1981-85), St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park (1985-88), and St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Farmington Hills (1988-94), where he was named a monsignor in 1990.

After being granted senior status in 1999, he served at St. Owen Parish in Bloomfield Hills and Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Farmington during his retirement.

“He was a priest of the Church who did what he was asked to do and did it in a spirit of joy and gladness, always satisfied with what he was doing, always at peace with where he was in the Church and what was happening in his own life,” Bishop Hurley said. “Later in life, when he was facing various health issues, in particular after the most recent stroke, he never complained about the difficulties he had in life.”

Outside of ministry, Msgr. Monticello was known for being an avid reader and a fantastic cook, often hosting dinners with four or five friends that would involve multiple, usually Sicilian, courses.

“There was a group of us who would gather on a monthly basis, and he was an extraordinarily good cook in the Sicilian tradition,” Bishop Hurley said. “He had this specific ritual where he’d have an appetizer, a salad, a main course, and a dessert, and you could always count on that ritual. He loved to cook, have people over, and engage in conversation."

Bishop Hurley delivered the homily at Msgr. Monticello’s funeral March 28 at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Farmington. His interment took place at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Detroit.

Msgr. Monticello is preceded in death by his parents and a brother, Gerard F. Monticello.

“In thinking about (Msgr.) Bob these last few days, I realize how lucky I was to have known him,” Judge Talbot said. “He was a wonderful resource, very wise. If you brought up a problem and weren’t sure how you were going to handle it, he’d guide you with a soft touch, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”


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