Parishioners of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, pray on Good Friday 2021.  Joe Moore photo
Parishioners of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, pray on Good Friday 2021. Joe Moore photo

It is customary, as we ring in a new year, to look back on the year we are leaving behind, not so much for nostalgia’s sake, but as a measure of our growth. As I reflect on life in the Diocese of Trenton over the past year, two things immediately come to mind: the ongoing COVID pandemic and the beginning of the Diocesan phase of the 16th Ordinary Synod of Bishops. 

2021, like the year preceding it, told the story of how the COVID pandemic refused to release its grip on virtually every part of the world. The United States had the unenviable distinction of reporting the largest number of cases and deaths in the world last year. The COVID variants delta and omicron have kept the pandemic alive and unrelenting into the present moment.  New Jersey remained fairly consistently among the top ten states reporting the highest number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Within the Diocese of Trenton, numbers equaling approximately half of the registered Catholic population have been personally affected by COVID, with cases in Monmouth and Ocean counties taking the lead.

Before delta and omicron reared their ugly heads earlier in 2021, I ended the unprecedented 2020 dispensation from Sunday/Holy Day Mass obligation in the Diocese of Trenton on June 6, 2021, while our parishes continued to livestream Masses for the benefit of the sick and those who were afraid to gather in parish Churches.  (FYI, those who are sick have been and always are dispensed from their Mass obligation.)

The Diocese also modified many of its pandemic protocols and restrictions on May 26, 2021, while maintaining a link tracking the historic impact of the pandemic on the Diocese since March 2020, “Pandemic Directives Are Changing” at www.dioceseoftrenton.org. It’s worth a look to see “where we’ve been” throughout this difficult time.

Since the development and availability of COVID vaccines, 70 percent of the total adult population of New Jersey has taken advantage of the protections they offer as the state moved toward what public health officials refer to as “herd immunity.”  In the Diocese of Trenton, 63.35 percent of adults have been fully vaccinated. The number of those who have received booster shots has not yet been calculated. And the wearing of masks in public places simply became part of our everyday life.

The Diocese in the past year, heeding the advice of national and state public health agencies, encouraged the clergy and faithful to get vaccinated and to wear masks at Masses and other diocesan gatherings and continues to do so. Priests, deacons and other ministers are still required to wear masks and to sanitize their hands before and after distributing Holy Communion during Mass and before and after distributing other Sacraments or visiting parishioners in the hospital or homes. 

Many other diocesan gatherings were cancelled or postponed during 2021 and some planned for 2022 have also been postponed due to the resurgence of COVID and its variants.

Parishes throughout the four counties of the Diocese reported that Mass attendance in 2021 was gradually – very gradually – returning to pre-pandemic levels at a rate of approximately 65 percent by the year’s end. The 2021 delta and, more recently, the omicron variants negatively influenced that reported percentage in late fall.  Omicron, in particular – although less symptomatic but more transmissible and contagious than delta – took a visible toll on attendance at Masses during the 2021 Christmas season, with parishes indicating a drop in attendance of between 10 and 15 percent in comparison with earlier reported 2021 levels. That is understandable given the constant media attention given to the pandemic.

As Bishop, I join many of our clergy and faithful who are tempted to wonder “will the absent faithful ever return?” The eternal optimist in me says “yes,” but it is a legitimate question.

The Diocese, throughout 2020 and 2021, took and continues to take the ongoing pandemic very seriously, following the advice of national and state agencies responsible for protecting the public health of the people of New Jersey. 

Catholic schools and religious education programs in the Diocese followed similar advice for their students and staffs as they moved from virtual to “in person” instruction. At present, some have decided to temporarily continue operating virtually.

The Diocese, its parishes, organizations and schools have made every reasonable attempt to keep its members healthy and safe, given the best advice we regularly seek and receive. On the issue of vaccines, the Holy Father, the Offices of the Holy See, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and I have addressed the moral permissibility and advisability of pandemic vaccines.  Pope Francis has been especially strong in his advocacy of receiving these vaccinations. At the same time, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made clear in its December 21, 2020 statement on the topic, “… vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary. In any case, from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good.”

I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge that, throughout the pandemic, there has been and continues to be strong differences of opinion in the Diocese and beyond regarding what constitutes an appropriate response to COVID. At the same time, whatever one’s opinion may be, no reasonable person can deny that the pandemic has changed the world. Looking to the future, the challenge for all of us in the Church and Diocese remains to respond and adapt to the change with prudence, courage, hope and resiliency! As Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, I believe we can do it! I believe God will see us through all of this.

Despite the pandemic, there is some good news that we witnessed in the Church during the last year. On April 24, 2021, His Holiness Pope Francis announced the convocation of the Sixteenth Ordinary Synod with a Diocesan Synod scheduled to begin on October 17, 2021. Coinciding with the 140th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Trenton, I celebrated a beautiful Mass in our Cathedral in Trenton for the opening of the Diocesan Phase of the Synod. To coordinate all Diocesan activities related to the Synod, I appointed Mary Liz Ivins, former long-time principal and president of Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, and Deacon Patrick Brannigan, former Executive Director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference and deacon at St. James Parish in Pennington. They began their work immediately and I am grateful to them.

The Holy Father chose as the theme for the two-year, three-part Synod: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation (and) Mission.”  Synods are not new to the Church and have been present periodically throughout its long history. In 1965, Pope St. Paul VI officially established the “Synods of Bishops” as a “permanent institution” in the Church with a Vatican office responsible for arranging and conducting them.  Bishops elected or appointed from around the world are chosen to join with the Pope in discussing topics vital to the life of the Church, for example the Catholic faith, the priesthood and the episcopacy, the Eucharist, the Bible, the family and so on.

Pope Francis has taken a keen interest in these synodal gatherings as a means to “hear” what is going on throughout the universal Church and to make recommendations and provide direction for the Church’s pastoral outreach to the clergy and faithful throughout the world.  Recognizing that the global Church – One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic as we profess in the Creed at Sunday and Holy Day Masses – is comprised of different cultures and communities expressing their Catholic faith in many and varied ways, Pope Francis decided to expand participation in Church synods more broadly to include their voices in synodal deliberations. Consequently, he has invited the involvement of the entire Catholic world in “journeying together” through the current synodal process.  To accomplish this goal, he has asked that the current synod take place in three phases: a diocesan phase, a national phase and a universal phase.  In our Diocese, the first part of the Sixteenth Ordinary Synod of Bishops has already begun its work with “listening sessions” scheduled throughout the four counties in the current year. As you can imagine, this is no easy task. Our Synod coordinators have been conducting programmatic training sessions in parishes to assist in the process of “listening” to the clergy and faithful.

It is important to note that the Synod has not been designed to change Church doctrine, as the Holy Father has explained. Nor are “listening sessions” intended to be “town hall meetings” where Church teachings, practices and policies are debated with a view toward advocating such change. True dialogue about Church life cannot take place without first “listening” to the people and communities called by their baptism to “live” and “journey together” in the Church. The hoped-for purpose and goal of the Synod is to express dreams, to inspire trust, to bind up and heal wounds by acknowledging and sharing them and to awaken new hopes for the Church through understanding its Gospel mission as we learn from one another. 

On October 17, 2021, I issued a pastoral letter on the Synod as well as a decree opening the Diocesan Phase of the Synod. These documents are accessible on the diocesan website along with my video-taped message explaining the synodal process at www.dioceseoftrenton.org.

With 2021 behind us, I encourage the clergy and faithful of the Diocese to take advantage of these resources and to participate in the “listening sessions” during the new year in your parishes or other places where they are scheduled. If possible, invite someone you know who may feel alienated by the Church to come with you. I realize that some people may react with cynicism at what the Church is attempting to accomplish here. As your Bishop, I ask them/you to temper that reaction, and to respond with openness and true Christian faith, hope and charity to the invitation of our Holy Father.

Remember the words of the angel to Mary at the Annunciation, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). Let’s put our hope and trust in God.

As we continue to celebrate our 140th anniversary, may God bless the Diocese of Trenton in the year ahead!