Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., and other U.S. bishops from New Jersey and Pennsylvania concelebrate Mass in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 29. CNS photo/Paul Haring
Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., and other U.S. bishops from New Jersey and Pennsylvania concelebrate Mass in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 29. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., recounts busy day of meetings on Catholic education, protection of minors

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 29

The last day of our ad limina visit, we gathered for 7:30 a.m. Mass at the tomb of St. Peter.  For me personally, this was the most moving event of the week.  The Church refers to its bishops as “Successors to the Apostles,” and here we were at the burial place of the first head of the Apostles, St. Peter, martyred in imitation of the Lord Jesus for following him. 

Yesterday, we were privileged to spend time with the Successor to St. Peter, and today we stood before St. Peter’s very remains in silence and in prayer. We chanted “credo in unum Deum,” and following Mass celebrated by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, each one of us prayed privately at the tomb.  My intention at that moment was the priests, deacons, religious, seminarians and lay faithful of the Diocese.  I also prayed for the Holy Father and all successors to the Apostles, that we might be loving and faithful shepherds for our beloved people.

Photo Gallery: Bishop's 2019 ad limina visit to Rome

Photo Gallery: Region III bishops' ad limina visit

From that sacred place, I walked a few steps to the tomb of Pope St. Paul VI, to whom I have great devotion, and offered prayers for his intercession with many intentions.  Before climbing the stairs to return to the sacristy, I paused at one of the newer altars, this one decorated with a mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to pray for our Latino communities in the Diocese, the fastest growing population here and in the U.S., as we anticipate her great feast day celebration. 

From those holy moments, the rest of the day provided us with a choice of several meetings to attend.  Since I was the “capo,” or presenter at the Congregation for Catholic Education, I walked to its offices for a 10:30 a.m. meeting.  As you look at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Catholic Education dicastery is in the Vatican building on the right, third floor.  I had been in this office many times over the years during my work in Catholic universities.  I also served two five-year terms as a consultor.  The prefect and the secretary were away from Rome today, so we were welcomed by another official, an Austrian priest who belonged to the Spiritan Fathers.

The meeting began with a prayer, and we introduced ourselves.  I began the conversation by noting the importance of Catholic Education to the mission of the Church, with our Catholic schools and colleges as privileged places to encounter the Lord Jesus.  Having consulted with various superintendents from Region III and based on my own professional experience and interests, I shared with members of the Congregation both successes and challenges associated with Catholic schools today. 

I referred to declining enrollments across the board in the region and the financial strains felt by the schools and their sponsors.  There are many reasons for these challenges and I lamented how painful it is to close a Catholic school.  While Catholic schools have proven records of academic excellence with verifiable results when compared with their non-Catholic counterparts, the difference made by instruction in the Catholic faith and the values associated with it do not seem to be a significant draw within Catholic communities.  There is much good news and many bragging points about and within our Catholic schools and there continues to be a need to market their potential.

I also spoke about parish-based Catholic religious education programs and Catholic home schooling as important sources for the transmission of faith.  My final comments were about Catholic higher education and the preservation and communication of Catholic identity there.  Even they, however, are facing the prospect of mergers and closures for the first time in my memory.

The other bishops of the region in attendance were quick to offer observations and questions to the Congregation staff.  One import concern voiced a few times was the impact and consequence of cultural, societal and legal changes with regard to the employment of teachers and employees in our Catholic schools, and the responsibilities of bishops, boards of trustees and administrators in handling issues before they arise. The meeting ended with the recitation of the Angelus.

After the meeting, attending bishops dispersed to other meetings or lunch.  The group reunited at 3:30 p.m. for a visit with American priest and canon lawyer, Father Robert Oliver of the Vatican Office for the Protection of Minors.  All bishops were required to attend.

The meeting was instructive, with Father Oliver citing successes in diocesan and national efforts in the Church to protect the young in Catholic environments and challenges still to be met in dealing with the consequences of abuse and the offenders among the clergy.  Further changes in Church legislation are being drafted or implemented.

It should be noted that the crisis and scandal involving clergy sexual abuse of minors was addressed in every single meeting with every single dicastery throughout the week, including the meeting with the Pope.

After a short break, the final meeting of the week was held at the offices of the Vatican Secretariat of State.  The Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and his assistant Archbishop Paul Gallagher briefed the bishops on matters of importance to the Holy See and responded to some of the questions raised by bishops through the capo, Archbishop Chaput.  The meeting went longer than expected and covered much territory, literally and figuratively.  After prayer, the bishops returned to their residences for dinner and packing.  I didn’t hear any complaints about going home to our dioceses!