CAMDEN, N.J. — Martin McKernan, legal counsel for the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, since 1978, is being remembered as a “a true Catholic layman” and well-respected lawyer known throughout New Jersey “and beyond” for his devotion to the law and “the good of the church.”
McKernan died Aug. 3 at age 75 after a short illness. He was chief legal counsel to five Camden bishops and senior partner in the law firm of McKernan, McKernan & Godino.
Family, friends, and faith and political dignitaries gathered to celebrated his life during his funeral Mass Aug. 7 at Christ Our Light Church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, which was livestreamed. Interment followed at Calvary Cemetery in Cherry Hill.
Camden Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan was the principal celebrant of the Mass. It was concelebrated by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, who was Camden’s bishop 1999-2003; and Bishop James F. Checchio of Metuchen, New Jersey, and priests of the diocese. Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, presided in the choir and prayed the final commendation.
Deacons and seminarians of the Camden Diocese also attended the Mass.
“As a Catholic lawyer, he served with distinction and fidelity the law, the church in Camden, the church in New Jersey and yes, the church in the United States,” Bishop Sullivan said of McKernan.
“Martin, you have been such a blessing to us,” the bishop said. “Rest in peace, rest in God’s peace forever.”
In his homily, Msgr. Peter Joyce, pastor of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Marmora, New Jersey, reflected on the Gospel of Luke 24:13-35, when Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The disciples were dejected after witnessing his death, but Jesus walked with the two, opening their eyes to his presence.
“He moved them from witnesses to his death to witnesses of his Resurrection, and they, transformed by this encounter, return to Jerusalem in time to hear the Easter proclamation: ‘It is true. It is true,'” Msgr. Joyce preached.
“Martin based his life on this assertion, and he taught us that while there are no words for truth … that can fully capture its essence, it does not mean that truth cannot be known or that truth does not exist,” the priest said. “Through Martin … we can see the just expression of some of truth’s great attributes.”
He noted McKernan’s “remarkable and humble generosity,” and said that in his actions, McKernan “gave a concrete expression to the belief that his talents, which were many, and his time, which was often stretched, were not his own, but rather gifts to be used in service for God and his people.”
McKernan, a parishioner of Camden’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, grew up in Camden and Haddonfield, New Jersey.
Born in Philadelphia Sept. 24, 1945, Mr. McKernan attended St. Mary’s Catholic School in Camden and graduated from St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia in 1963. He entered St. Francis Seminary in Loretto, Pennsylvania, that year.
He left the seminary to attend Jesuit-run St. Joseph’s University, graduating from there in 1968. He earned his law degree in 1971 from Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington.
Like his father, McKernan soon found himself working as a lawyer in service to the church.
McKernan was named a Knight of St. Gregory by St. John Paul II in 2003. In 1982, he received the papal gold cross “Pro Ecclesia et Pontificte.”
He was a former board member and general counsel to the National Right to Life Committee and in 1974 helped found the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment. He was a member of the executive committee of the National Diocesan Attorneys Association.
“As one of the founding members of National Right to Life, Martin McKernan will be remembered for his impact on the pro-life movement,” said Carol Tobias, the organization’s president.
“Martin never forgot the spiritual nature of our mission as church,” Bishop Sullivan said in an Aug. 4 interview with the Catholic Star Herald, Camden’s diocesan newspaper.
“He understood that law and faith intersect, even in our country that embraces the separation between church and state,” the bishop said. “His reputation as a Catholic lawyer was so great that he was called upon to assist in neighboring dioceses and dioceses around the country. The excellence of his service has been a gift to the church.”
Bishop DiMarzio said McKernan was “a true Catholic layman,” and he praised his devotion to the law and “the good of the church.”
“During my tenure as bishop of Camden, I counted him as consultant and friend in good times and in difficult times, most especially during the beginning of the sexual abuse crisis,” he said.
For decades, McKernan was integral to the Camden Diocese’s efforts to address the needs of survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
He “was always available when needed — calm, balanced and precise in his evaluation of legal issues,” Bishop DiMarzio added. “He will be greatly missed by so many, most especially his beloved family, colleagues at the law firm and countless friends.”
Cardinal Tobin said McKernan “was an unabashedly dedicated Catholic, a brilliant lawyer and a gentleman. He loved his family, faith community and justice. I shall miss him greatly and pray for the consolation of all who were touched by him, especially the Diocese of Camden.”
Bishop Checchio said it was evident the attorney’s life was given fully to serving Christ and the church.
“He was a strong supporter and an unwavering presence in the community, where he always desired to promote the common good,” he said. “His impact there will endure and his legacy will long be remembered, in particular, for his work to promote the right to life for the unborn, his assistance to the New Jersey Catholic Conference and his work helping to sustain Catholic education.”
He added, “I am grateful to have collaborated with him, to have learned from him, and to have counted him as one of my personal friends.”
McKernan was predeceased by his sister Monica Holland. He is survived by his sisters Theresa (Thomas) Donahue, of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and Regina (Christopher) Harm, of Pittsburgh, as well as by 12 nieces and nephews, and 10 greatnieces and greatnephews.
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Mauro is managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Camden.