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From pilot to priest: Bishop-elect Ned Shlesinger is known for his service, humility

05-15-2017

Father Ned Shlesinger knew there was chance he’d witness history. But the odds weren’t in his favor.

It was March 2013. As vocations director for the Diocese of Raleigh, he was visiting seminarians at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He had planned the trip five months earlier, not knowing that a conclave to elect a new pope would be happening during his visit.       

But once events had been set into motion with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Father Ned took another look at his itinerary.

“I knew I had a good chance to be there during conclave,” he said during an interview that year. “But, you think, percentage wise, what’s the chance that I’m going to see the election of a pope while I’m in Rome?”

He didn’t expect to see smoke rising from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. But there it was. Black smoke, which signaled that votes had been cast but that a new pope had not been elected, billowed first. And then white.

“All of a sudden … it was a rainy evening … the smoke came out and I was just overjoyed. I said, ‘What a moment to be here in Rome … what a privilege,’” he said.   

Little did he know that four years later Pope Francis, who was elected that rainy night, would appoint him a bishop-elect for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. And, once again, Father Ned would be feeling overjoyed.

During a May 15 press conference in Atlanta, Bishop-elect Ned Shlesinger expressed gratitude to many, including Pope Francis. He also expressed the shock he felt when he first learned of the appointment.

“I’m overwhelmed … that would be an understatement,” he said, smiling as reporters looked on.

Bishop-elect Shlesinger, who appeared at the press conference alongside Atlanta’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Auxiliary Bishop Luis Zarama, commented on the timing of the May 15 announcement, which coincided with what would have been his mother’s 96th birthday. (His mother, Rita Jan Belmont Shlesinger, died April 1.)

“I know that this would have been a great birthday gift to her. She’d have been more happy than me,” he laughed.

Bishop-elect Shlesinger was born December 17, 1960 in Washington, D.C. His father, B. Edward Shlesinger, Jr., spent his career as a patent, trademark and copyright attorney. His mother was a bookkeeper.

He was raised in Annandale and, later, Mt. Vernon, Virginia with his six brothers and sisters. He attended Virginia Tech, where he belonged to the R.O.T.C. program and studied engineering. After his 1983 graduation, he served the U.S. Air Force until 1990 as a pilot, during which time he was stationed at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina.

He graduated from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 1995, and was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Raleigh by Bishop F. Joseph Gossman June 22, 1996 at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Wilmington.

In a 1996 N.C. Catholic newspaper article, Father Ned, who was 35 at the time, credited St. Patrick Church in Fayetteville, where he worshiped while stationed at Pope A.F.B., for helping him to hear God’s call.

At the time he said, “North Carolina was very impressive to me … [and] there is great need here. I had always thought it would be great to be a missionary.”

He added that the priesthood was a great gift in his life. “I have a sense of great freedom and joy,” he said. “The priesthood is a way of life … it’s not a career that you chose, one from another. It’s a matter of responding to the call.”

After his ordination, the priesthood took him to parish life at St. Mary Church in Wilmington (1996 – 1998), Our Lady of Guadalupe in Newton Grove (1998 – 2000) Maria, Reina de las Americas Parish in Mt. Olive and Mission Churches of Santa Teresa del Nino Jesus & Santa Clara (2010-2012.)

While he studied Spanish during high school and, later, during an eight-week language course in Mexico, he said he truly learned the language while interacting with Spanish speakers. 

He served as assistant director of vocations (1998 – 2001) and director of vocations (2007 – 2013) for the diocese. In 2013 he joined the faculty of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary as the director of Spiritual Formation for the Theologate.

Deacon James Magee, who began priestly formation when Father Ned was director of vocations, said he was a director whose primary goal was to help men “find where the Lord is calling.”

The transitional deacon, who graduates this year from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, said Bishop-elect Shlesinger is a holy, prayerful priest who is always first to the chapel in the mornings for prayer.

“The way he lives his life makes people want to find that same holiness,” Deacon Magee said. “You always hear about Gospel joy, but you see it embodied in the way he lives.”

Deacon Magee added that when he first learned the news about the appointment he was excited and wanted to congratulate the man who helped him discern a vocation to the priesthood. 

“I was going to find him and knock on his door [at seminary] … and then I realized ‘he’s not here,’” Deacon Magee laughed.      

According to his statements at the press conference, Bishop-elect Shlesinger will be in Atlanta until Thursday, May 18. A date for his ordination hasn’t been set. Once ordained, he will serve as an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

He’s the sixth priest originally ordained for the Diocese of Raleigh to be named a bishop.

Raleigh’s Father Joseph Lennox Federal was appointed auxiliary bishop of Salt Lake City in 1951. (He would later become bishop of that diocese.) Father Charles B. McLaughlin was named auxiliary bishop of Raleigh in 1964, and bishop of the Diocese of St. Peteresburg in 1979. Father George Edward Lynch was appointed auxiliary bishop of Raleigh in 1969. In 1972 Father Michael Joseph Begley became the first bishop of the Diocese of Charlotte. Later that same year Father Joseph Lawson Howze was named auxiliary bishop of Natchez-Jackson. (He would later become the first bishop of the Diocese of Biloxi.)

-Kate Turgeon Watson, editor of NC Catholics