A native of Poland whose journey to the priesthood was inspired by his countryman Karol Jozef Wojtyla's rise to the papacy was named an auxiliary bishop Tuesday by Pope Francis, becoming the first immigrant to hold the post in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
Bishop-elect Andrzej Jerzy Zglejszewski, 52, who has a top diocesan position as co-chancellor, joins two other auxiliary bishops in the diocese, both named by Pope Benedict XVI. The diocese is the sixth-largest in the United States and home to 1.5 million Catholics.
Growing up in Communist Poland, Zglejszewski decided to become a priest in the 1970s. He traveled to the United States in 1987, expecting to stay a few weeks for vacation. But he never left, finishing his studies at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Lloyd Harbor.
He said he was stunned and elated by Pope Francis' decision, announced by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, in Washington, D.C.
"I think that everyone is very surprised, like I am this morning, by the news coming from Rome, and will understand why my heart and mind turns into both wonder and joy," Zglejszewski said at a news conference.
"I am humbled by the Holy Father's appointment, and even though I always wanted to serve God and the church in the best way I can, I am overwhelmed with the sense of my unworthiness," he said. "For that reason, I turn all my emotions and wonders into a song of gratitude."
The appointment broadens the diversity among Bishop William Murphy's auxiliary bishops, who assist him in such duties as overseeing confirmations and visiting local parishes. In June 2012, Benedict named Nelson Perez, a Cuban-American, an auxiliary bishop. He is the first Latino to hold the post since the diocese was created in 1957.
The other auxiliary bishop, Robert Brennan, speaks fluent Spanish. Latinos account for an estimated 25 percent of Catholics in the diocese.
Murphy said he was delighted with the appointment.
"I am very grateful to the Holy Father for giving our diocese this good and holy priest of many talents to assist me in the pastoral care of the 1.5 million Catholics of our diocese," he said. "We are blessed with a bishop who will serve this church as a bishop just as he has served it so well as a priest."
Zglejszewski also is director of the diocese's Office of Worship and was its point man for introducing a controversial new translation of prayers and psalms used in Mass that went into effect in English-speaking countries worldwide in late 2011.
Church leaders said the translation was more faithful to the original Latin and would help spur a religious renewal. Critics called it confusing and a waste of time when the world, and the Roman Catholic Church, faced more pressing concerns.
Murphy said Tuesday that Zglejszewski carried out that mission "with great success. Since that time, he has been indefatigable -- offering workshops, seminars, study days and practical courses on all aspects of liturgy and liturgical roles for the clergy and laity of our diocese."
On Tuesday, he remembered his days as a student in a government-run high school and being mesmerized in 1978 when Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II.
"That was a turning point in my life," he said. "It made me think differently about the church. He was definitely the one who inspired my heart and my mind."
Zglejszewski entered the seminary at 19. In 1983, he and seven other seminarians managed to get visas from the Communist government to visit Rome. They met with John Paul II three times, with the pontiff seemingly amazed and excited they had gotten out of Poland, he said.
His message was "Don't be afraid," Zglejszewski said.
They first met the pope at a large general audience at the Vatican, and he invited them to a Mass in his private chapel a couple of days later, he said.
"That was very powerful," Zglejszewski said. "I would even call it a mystical experience."
He said when they arrived at the chapel, the pope was deep in prayer and silent contemplation. He stayed that way for nearly 45 minutes until the Mass began, he said.
Afterward, the pope invited the seminarians to his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, and three days later they were part of a larger group of guests who attended an audience with him, Zglejszewski said.
In late 1987, after he had completed his theology and philosophy studies in the seminary but was not yet ordained, Zglejszewski visited New York for what he expected would be a few weeks around Christmastime. When he arrived, he knew only two words of English, he said: "Good morning."
His first meal, he added, was Thanksgiving leftovers.
He became enchanted with the region's ethnic and cultural diversity, he said, and decided to stay and become a priest for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, finishing his preparation for the priesthood at the Huntington seminary.
"Being away from my home in Poland for more than half of my life now, today I can say that I am home," Zglejszewski said. "A home made of open hearts, which gently accepted me here not as a stranger, another emigrant with a hard accent to understand, but as a brother and friend."