Richard and Marilyn Neil are products of a Catholic life. Married 51 years and longtime parishioners of St. Louis Church in downtown Buffalo, the Neils involve themselves in giving back to the causes they care about.
"We like participating in what it means to be Catholic," Marilyn Neil said. "It's brought us many friends. It's brought us great opportunity. I'll be selfish. It feels good to participate. It does."
For 20 years, they have been members of the Bishop's Council of the Laity where they support projects near and dear to their hearts, such as Catholic education and Catholic Charities' refugee resettlement program.
Founded in 1949 by Joseph Deck and a few men who wanted to talk to the bishop, the council allows lay members to dialogue with the bishop in an informal matter.
The people bring their concerns to the bishop, who in turn reaches out to the members to support his goals and projects. They also take part in vespers with the bishop during Lent at the cathedral, participate in an All Soul's Day Mass at the cathedral, and have a summer gathering at the bishop's residence.
The annual dues that couples pay go to fund special projects that the bishop has. One year, they remodeled the Our Lady Chapel at St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo. Part of the budget goes to sponsor the annual Gala 22:6 education dinner.
"It's a nice opportunity to have a dialogue with the bishop and to be with like-minded people who want to participate in the process of the diocese. That's how we saw it," said Marilyn.
"It's not a secret society. It's there, out in public, but it's sort of behind the scenes," added Richard.
"The bishop needs a place to go when he needs some help - getting used to the community that he's been transferred to, what kind of organizations they have, what kind of infrastructure they have," Richard said. "These bishops come here and people expect them to hit the floor running like they've been here their whole lives. They do a good job."
Richard pulls out a copy of the Western New York Catholic and points to the Bishop's Calendar of Public Events which includes 29 meetings and Masses in February).
"It's an aid," Richard said. "It's a help. A lot of people have special skills. They might be able to help out with certain organizations."
During the one annual semi-formal meeting members have, the bishop discusses projects and programs he wants completed in the diocese, and the members offer their resources. The annual dues go to fund the projects, but the members sometimes can pitch in. Committees form. Advice is offered. Ideas are shared.
"It's really about networking," Marilyn said. "It comes down to a network of people who want to help one another at all levels. It's all working together. That, seems to me, is how to get the job done. Call up the people you know who have a resource and you say, 'Ann Brittain needs something' or 'The bishop would like some help with this.' Somehow, it seems you start to have your wheels turning. 'I know someone who can help with this.'"
When Brittain, director of Catholic Charities Immigration & Refugee Assistance Program, needed a place to store donated furniture, Richard, a commercial real estate developer, found her a warehouse.
Products of a Catholic education themselves, the Neils have a special interest in providing a Catholic education for those who want it, so they got involved in the annual education dinner and BISON Fund.
Through the recently announced Upon This Rock capital campaign, they have invested in the Mother Teresa House, a temporary home for pregnant homeless women.
"When it was presented to us, it presented a wonderful opportunity because we're also involved in the pro-life movement here. With my medical background, the pro-life issue is an important one," said Marilyn, a former nurse and patient advocate for Sisters of Charity Hospital.
"You help get these things off the ground and you give advice on your particular expertise on how you can get it going," Richard said. "It doesn't get involved in a lot of the legal and procedural areas."
The Neils joined the council 20 years ago, after being invited by friends to become members. The access to the bishop, at the time Henry J. Mansell, appealed to them. Marilyn remembers buying an ad in her son's yearbook, putting in the quote, "To whom much is given, much is required," from the Gospel of Luke. That is the quote that motivates her and her husband.
"We've been given much - opportunities, grace. It presents itself and you have to cooperate with it," she said. "We are called to give back. These are things we've heard from the pulpit, we've heard in schools, from the people who taught us, we've heard from our parents. You know, share."
Certain words remind Marilyn what she is called to be. Generosity, graciousness, hospitality, charity.
"Those are nice words," she said. "Now I try to live them. Sometimes when they are placed in front of you, you think of them and ask, "Am I doing that?'"
Now working with their third bishop, fourth if you count Richard's work with Catholic Charities under Bishop Edward D. Head, the Neils remain in the council to have the bishop's ear.
"We need a forum for dialogue," Marilyn said. "Any forum for dialogue, I think, is beneficial. And I mean dialogue, where they is a give and a take, a back and a forth, you can ask questions, and you get answers,". "(Bishop Richard J. Malone) is very open to dialogue. He will greet you face to face and he will listen. He has a beautiful quality of listening. We appreciate his openness to communication."