PHOENIX — There was a sense of anticipation beyond the coming celebration of Jesus’ birth at the Diocese’s mother church Sunday.
Parishioners of Ss. Simon and Jude were still getting settled with the news nearly a month ago that the Cathedral Rector, the Very Rev. Fernando Camou is leaving next month.
Saturday afternoon, they learned Bishop John P. Dolan has named Fr. Matt Henry, the current parochial vicar of St. Mary’s Basilica, to succeed him.
Bishop Dolan recently had asked Fr. Camou to join the faculty of Nazareth Seminary, the new, expanded local seminary for local priests-to-be, which is slated to launch full operations in Fall 2026.
“As a priest, it has always been and is today such a great joy and honor to serve where I am sent. I am at peace, knowing this is God’s plan for me at this time,” Fr. Camou told the SSJ community in a video message posted to the parish’s Flocknote site Nov. 15.
Fr. Camou confirmed Bishop Dolan’s selection of Fr. Henry. During Sunday’s Mass Fr. Camou called Fr. Henry a “dear friend,” encouraging the parish to pray for both priests as they take on their new roles.
“We offer him a warm welcome, and congratulations,” Fr. Camou said, smiling broadly.
A HOMECOMING OF SORTS
Fr. Henry is no stranger to Ss. Simon and Jude.
Ordained in 2010, he was assigned by then-Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted to be SSJ’s parochial vicar, a role Fr. Henry filled until 2013, when he left for Rome to pursue further studies. He returned the following year to become pastor at Christ the King Parish in Mesa, where he served through 2016.
Most recently, he was named to the Basilica role in January by Bishop Dolan, who was installed in 2022.
Fr. Henry was hailed as a priest who will bring his own personality of joy and love to SSJ and was described as “very excited” over his new role.
“I’ve known Fr. Matt a long time,” Fr. Camou said. “(SSJ’s community) can expect Father Matt to really love them. He’s just a man with a big heart, and he’s a man who knows true joy and true suffering. He’s a gentle soul.”
Fr. Henry had lost both parents in 2014 and 2015, leading him to eventually take a break from the priesthood.
Bishop Dolan said Fr. Henry’s love for students is evident, an attribute the bishop said will help preserve the relationship fostered by Fr. Camou between the Cathedral, its parish school, and the Diocese.
“We want to make sure that continuity remains and will continue to flow beautifully,” said Bishop Dolan.
“Fr. Matt is ready and willing to do that. He was very excited about the possibility. I thought, ‘Wow, here’s a man who’s jumping right into it, and I’m so happy about it.”
“We’re gaining a wonderful replacement,” he said.
AN IMPORTANT ROLE
While the rector oversees the cathedral, in the Diocese of Phoenix he also pastors the parish, explained Msgr. Peter Dai Bui, the Vicar for Clergy, whose office provides support to priests.
Msgr. Dai Bui noted that the system for cathedral leadership, is directed by the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, the book of ecclesiastical laws developed centuries ago by the Church and formalized in 1917.
“According to Canon 556, the bishop appoints a rector to care for a nonparochial church, such as a cathedral or basilica, which does not typically have parish boundaries. Most cathedrals in the United States are also territorial parishes, with the cathedral rector functioning as a pastor,” the monsignor added.
HISTORY AND HIGH PROFILE
Derived from the Greek “kathedra,” meaning chair, the cathedral contains the bishop’s seat. From this chair, the bishop guides the life of the Church in his diocese. It is his symbol of authority to teach, sanctify and govern the faithful.
Fr. Henry will be the eighth rector, though the first — Fr. Paul P. Smith — initially served as pastor, since Ss. Simon and Jude had yet to be elevated to cathedral status.
Established in 1953 as part of the Diocese of Tucson, the parish was elevated in 1969 by Pope Paul VI when the Holy Father established the Diocese of Phoenix.
Rev. Smith was still pastor at the time.
The Loreto Sisters (Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary), continued to staff the parish school.
The cathedral has welcomed visiting dignitaries, including Arizona governors, and celebrated solemn funerals, among them Bishop James S. Rausch in 1981.
St. John Paul II visited as pope Sept. 14, 1987. In 1989, Mother Theresa was there as the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, began serving Phoenix’s poor and homeless.
‘MY HEART IS FILLED’
Fr. Camou called his nearly three years at the Cathedral “an immense joy” that has not only taught him much but deepened his love for the priesthood.
Perhaps his greatest impression, he said, was the “amazing staff” of both the parish and its school.
“Just the hard work they put in every day and the joy by which they carried out their responsibilities was such a blessing,” he said.
“My heart (also) is filled with gratitude for this community, the way I’ve been loved and supported as a priest.”
“My hope is that I have helped this community recognize the strength it has in its faith in Christ and the Catholic Church.”
Fr. Camou’s last Mass will be Jan. 7, the day after the Feast of the Epiphany — when the Church celebrates the visit of the Magi – or three Wise Men – to the baby Jesus.
For the faithful, Sunday brought a mix of emotions.
“I’m sorry to see Fr. Fernando move on. I know he’ll do wonderful things for our seminary and our diocese. I’m glad he’s passing on that energy of youthfulness to the new rector,” said longtime parishioner Gail Ratti-Curran.
“Fr. Matt was here for three years, and it feels like home to him. I’m excited for what he can bring,” she added.
“I think he’s going to come back with all this growth and development to share with us. I’m happy about that. I’m hoping he will see that we have grown and developed also.”
Kelly McKone has been a part of Ss. Simon and Jude for over 60 years. After growing up there, he and his wife have raised three children in the parish.
McKone said Fr. Camou will be greatly missed.
“He made such a great impact in a short period of time. It was really needed. He brought back the sense of community, a lot of people wanting to come back, to go to church here. It just made it the place it always was. (He projected) just a great sense of community and love from the pulpit.”
“I knew Fr. Matt a little bit when he was here. Everybody is just really, really excited about him being able to carry on what Fr. Camou’s done. Very, very excited he’s coming,” McKone said.
Longtime Dcn. Roy Drapeau remembers Fr. Camou as a baby.
A parishioner with Camou’s parents at St. Helen Parish in Glendale at the time, Drapeau recalled when Camou’s parents first brought the infant Fernando to Mass.
“I remember reaching down and saying, ‘What a cute little baby,’ and pulling his cheek,” Drapeau recalled. “Many years later, the first thing I did was pull his cheek and say, you’re such a cute pastor.”
Fr. Camou will prepare for his Nazareth Seminary role by spending the bulk of his next two years studying in Rome, where he will add to his Licentiate in Liturgical Theology.
He will live at Casa Santa Maria, the residence for American priests and study through the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, where he will focus on research and writing his dissertation.
The seminary expansion, unveiled Oct. 3 by the bishop and the Office of Vocations, will allow all Diocese of Phoenix seminarians to study in Arizona by 2026. https://www.catholicsun.org/2023/10/03/diocese-plans-historic-expansion-of-nazareth-seminary/, and continue an initiative launched by then-Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted in 2019.
Bishop Dolan said having its seminarians study and be formed in the Diocese – close to their homes – will be “huge.”
“I think we’re going to see an uptick in vocations because they know they’re not being sent away from their own family or this community,” he explained after Mass. “They’re going to be able to be formed right here. (We’re) the seventh-largest diocese in the United States.
It’s time we have our own seminary, and it’s time we form our own seminarians with our own guys,” he said.
“I am sad to see you go, but you must go where the Lord sends you, there is a greater purpose for you in God’s plan. God bless you, and always know that all of you are in my prayers daily,” said Joan Capers, a parishioner.
“Any time there’s change, (it’s) difficult,” said Dcn. Drapeau. “But we also look for blessings that come with the change. That’s how we grow. We always have to trust the Holy Spirit.”
Fr. Camou agreed.
“The Lord is good. He’s always going to take care of us. Every (change) has been an opportunity to surrender and give God a blank slate to do whatever He wants in my life, and I think that’s what we’re made for.”