A pilgrim from the Diocese raises his hand to signal he would like to ask a question as Bishop O’Connell leads an informal chat with members of his flock who took part in the pilgrimage. Ken Falls photos

A pilgrim from the Diocese raises his hand to signal he would like to ask a question as Bishop O’Connell leads an informal chat with members of his flock who took part in the pilgrimage. Ken Falls photos

By Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor

For one hour Nov. 4, a section in the Basilica’s Memorial Hall became a chat room of a sort.

As part of the itinerary during the diocesan pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., and much to the delight of pilgrims, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., led an informal forum during which he shared highlights of his priesthood, appointment as Bishop of Trenton and current initiatives taking place in the Diocese. The Bishop also entertained a number of questions and concerns from his flock.

Injecting candor and humor into his remarks, the Bishop gave an overview on the Basilica and noted some of the nearby Catholic institutions, namely The Catholic University of America, which is adjacent to the Basilica and where he served as president from 1998 to 2010; the headquarters for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is about a half-mile away; the St. John Paul II National Shrine and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America.

Bishop O’Connell noted a number of achievements during his 12-year tenure as president of CUA, including the increase in enrollment and the expansion of campus property and construction of buildings. Most important, he said, was his determination to uphold the vision of CUA and promote its being an authentically Catholic institution. For Bishop O’Connell, the pinnacle of his tenure was in 2008, when he hosted a visit by Pope Benedict XVI, who addressed more than 400 educators representing various Catholic institutions from around the country.

Bishop O’Connell smiled as he recalled his appointment as Coadjutor Bishop of Trenton in 2010.  Though it had been his intention to retire from CUA and go on a sabbatical “so I could write my book,” the Holy Father – and God – had other plans in mind.

As the seventh anniversary of his episcopacy approaches Dec. 1, Bishop O’Connell reviewed a number of recent major initiatives in the Diocese, including the pastoral planning process Faith In Our Future, and presented an honest assessment of the need for some parishes to experience mergers and for some schools to close, mainly due to declining enrollment and the inability to sustain themselves financially.

“We have been trying to do everything possible to keep them going,” he said, but added that such efforts could not continue in the long term.

The Bishop also addressed the decline in Church attendance, the number of marriages taking place in the Catholic Church and the diocesan Plan for Strengthening Marriages, including the importance for laity to be directly involved in such initiatives, which he said, will ultimately help strengthen parishes in the Diocese.

Among the impromptu comments and questions the Bishop fielded pertained to how his monthly radio program, “The Shepherd’s Voice” evolved. He gratefully received compliments on the “carpool karaoke” video he starred in ahead of the 2017 Diocesan Youth Conference.

Mimma Finger of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral Parish, Freehold, said she enjoyed hearing the Bishop’s various experiences and viewpoints, adding that she found him to be “very friendly and down to earth” in his presentation.

Dr. Dan Rossi of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, and director of the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus, said he thought the session with Bishop O’Connell was “one of the highlights of a truly wonderful and enriching day.”

“While the Bishop has tried to make himself available in many different ways, given his schedule, it is just not possible to reach many members of the Diocese,” Rossi said. “Having the opportunity to meet and have unscripted time with our Bishop was very special. He appeared to be very comfortable and natural in this type of setting and seemed to enjoy it, as I know many of the attendees did.”