By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor
“I’m a firm believer that together, we are much stronger,” Msgr. Michael J. Walsh says when speaking of the three linked parishes he shepherds that comprise the Catholic Community of Hopewell Valley.
That sentiment may apply to his Cohort, Cohort 8, established in the diocesan Faith in Our Future initiative, but it’s also a familiar theme expressed by those across the Diocese who are dedicated to strengthening the Church of Trenton.
“Faith in Our Future is an important planning tool that we need to respect and engage with on so many levels,” says Father James Grogan, pastor of Nativity Parish, Fair Haven, in Cohort 16. “It’s just not the Diocese and pastors doing the planning, parishioners have to actively engage to have a say in what the Diocese will look like in five, 10, 15 years. Now is the time to plan, and Faith in Our Future gives us a mechanism to guide that planning forward.”
Faith in Our Future began in 2015 as a five-year process to bolster the Diocese and respond to growing trends facing the U.S. Church, such as a declining number of Catholics and number of vocations to religious life.
In the Diocese of Trenton, for example, there are 244 priests in active assignments, down 19 percent in six years. There are four priests retiring this summer; no new priests are being ordained in 2019. An average of 124,705 Catholics attend Mass on a given weekend in Ordinary Time in the 99 parishes of the Diocese. This is among an estimated 733,000 Catholics who reside in the Diocese.
After two years of planning, followed by two years of implementation, the Diocese is about to enter the final year of the three-year implementation process, starting in July.
Discussing the past year, which included mergers and linkages, and the year ahead, those involved in the process tout the many successes of collaboration but admit to challenges, too.
When it comes to revitalizing and reorganizing the Diocese, Cohorts are staying true to the goals laid out by Faith in Our Future: strengthening parishes, new models of leadership, collaboration for evangelization, improving Hispanic ministry and stewardship.
Collaboration, many say, is key.
“We have spent a lot of time talking about the difference between cooperation and collaboration. There is a difference,” says Thomas Mullooly, Cohort 19 chairman. “When you cooperate on something, you and I can work together so that you can achieve a goal and I can achieve a goal. But when we collaborate, we’re working side by side to achieve one goal.”
To that end, in May, there was a luncheon held for all office administration in Cohort 19, which includes St. Rose, Belmar; St. Mark, Sea Girt; St Catharine-St. Margaret, Spring Lake, and St. Teresa of Calcutta, Avon-by-the-Sea, a merged parish as of July 2018.
“We wanted to start with the people who work on the front lines, who answer the phones, see the people coming into the office,” Mullooly said. “I’m sure they receive tons of questions about the Cohorts and Faith in Our Future.”
The luncheon was a success, he said. “It was an opportunity for folks to discuss common problems and run through new projects.”
Among those new projects is the website GatheredAsOne.com, which includes news from the Cohort parishes, and a Facebook page to build more participation.
A one-stop website is something the Catholic Community of Hopewell Valley has instituted, too. The parishes of St. James, Pennington, St. George, Titusville, and St. Alphonsus, Hopewell, have been linked for three years through Faith in Our Future. Their website – thecatholiccommunityofhopewellvalley.org – has links to the three parishes and a downloadable combined bulletin that is color-coded by parish.
“It’s a healthy direction to be taking, developing relationships between parishes and establishing working efforts to build pastoral relationships,” Msgr. Walsh said of Cohort 8.
Paul Kimaid, Cohort 8 chairman, explained how working together is showing success, especially when it comes to combining ministries. Under the Cohort’s religious education model, for example, all three parishes use the same curriculum and textbooks, meaning if someone misses a lesson at one location, he or she can attend another site for a similar lesson.
The Cohort has also instituted a family catechesis model, where parents of religious education students agree to meet once a month, usually before Sunday Mass, with a deacon for educational training. The idea, Kimaid said, is “for parents to be educated as well so they can talk to their children about what they are learning in religious education classes.”
In an effort to promote evangelization and camaraderie, the Cohort held its inaugural Festa Italiana dinner in March.
“That was our major linked social event,” Kimaid said, explaining that it’s already on the calendar for next year. “What was so important about the dinner is the way we put it together. We had more than 275 volunteers. The best way to meet people is by volunteering. The volunteerism of the event was just as important as the meal itself.”
Collaborative evangelization is another area of success across the Cohorts.
Bill Pierotti, chairman of Cohort 12, explained how the parishes worked together last year to host a four-day Cohort mission featuring well-known retreat leader Father Larry Richards. The retreat drew more than 1,000 people each night and more than 20 priests from within the Cohort and beyond.
“From an evangelization standpoint, it was a great win,” he said. “Plus, it makes you more financially efficient since he came in for all the churches instead of just one.”
Another area of continued success for the Cohort – which comprises the parishes of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, St. Thomas More, Manalapan, St. Rose of Lima, Freehold, and St. Joseph, Millstone – has been Catholic education. All four parishes have representation on the St. Rose of Lima School Board.
“There has been substantial forward momentum,” Pierotti said. “The parishes have coordinated with the acting principal to have open houses for recruiting after Masses and support with announcements, bulletins and webpages.”
He continued, “Everyone wants to see Catholic schools succeed. The more people are educated and involved in their religion, the more it’s going to help with the growth and stability of the Church.”
The parishes in Cohort 5 – St. Katharine Drexel, Burlington, and Mary, Mother of the Church, Bordentown – know all about collaborative evangelization. After a linkage and then merger, the Cohort continues to work at bringing its faithful together.
This past Lent, the Cohort held a Soup and Scripture series at noon every Wednesday, which traveled around the Cohort’s different worship sites. More than 100 people were attending by the end of the series, said Father Martin O’Reilly, pastor in Mary, Mother of the Church Parish.
“One of the purposes of Soup and Scripture was to encourage seniors to attend. A lot of events are held in the evening or for youth, but we don’t want to forget about our senior members of our parishes,” he said, adding that a 102-year-old parishioner and her 95-year-old sister attended one of the events.
“It was a sense of fellowship that gave people who hadn’t been out in a while the opportunity to come together.”
“The best way to go is to do simple things well,” he added. “That oftentimes builds self-esteem and confidence.”
Opportunities to Serve
Deacon John Wedemeyer is among those who serve on the Faith in Our Future Project Management Team, representing the Department of Pastoral Planning when assisting the Cohorts with their work. He, too, cites prayer as crucial in Faith in Our Future’s progress.
“Coming together in prayer is very important because we tend to be very focused on our own parishes. When you come together with people from other parishes, however, you realize we are in this together,” he said. “The walls come down, and we realize that we share the same faith, a sense of evangelization, which is what the Bishop has emphasized from the very beginning of this process.”
He also stresses the importance of laity in the process as the number of priests and religious continue to decrease.
“The laity need to know they are empowered, that they have a very important place in the Church,” Deacon Wedemeyer said. “I’ve seen in the Cohorts how people have stepped up and worked very hard in the committees they are involved in, and it’s wonderful to see pastors empower the people in their parish.”
Father Grogan agreed. “The collaboration between priest and laity has always yielded fruits. We can’t ignore the fact that this year, we have no men ordained to the priesthood and a number of pastors who are retiring. Many priests, out of their generosity and kindness, have come out of retirement for special projects, but eventually, we’ll have no one else to ask.”
“The role of laity in the Church is changing and continues to change,” he said. For decades, “the Church has been encouraging unique roles for lay people to step into, different ministries, parish activities – and for people to carry their faith into the marketplace, into their jobs. We need good Catholic men and women to be active in these roles and be recognized. It can’t be something that we keep hidden.”
Parishioners have risen to that challenge in Cohort 22, where a homelessness subcommittee has been formed to address the rising number of homeless men, women and families in Ocean County.
John Romando, co-chair of the subcommittee out of St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Lakewood, has been instrumental in not only getting the word out about homelessness, but making sure written articles appear in the church bulletins.
Cohort 22 consists of St. Mary of the Lake, St. Anthony Claret, also Lakewood, and Visitation and St. Dominic Parishes, both Brick. The two Lakewood parishes have been sharing services since July 2018, with an official linkage set for this summer and a merger in 2020.
Project Management Team member Dick Smith is familiar with Cohort 22 and its diverse community of Anglo, Hispanic and Polish parishioners. One way laity has been taking an active role in the future is by having representatives of all three communities be active in the Cohort.
“Through that effort, we have been able to keep everybody together and in general agreement as to directionally where we were headed into the linkage this year and merger next year,” he said. “It’s important to make sure everyone is heard, to resolve conflict and come to consensus through good dialogue.”
“This linkage-merger model is really about answering the call of the Faith in Our Future process,” he added. “We have to consolidate our resources and economize in order to keep the Church strong and service the parishioners the best we can with the Sacraments and liturgies.”
Smith acknowledges that change can be difficult, however, “We need to embrace this new model in an effort to keep the Church alive and well. It’s tough to accept, but this is the only viable alternative.”
Ron Chamberlain, chairman of Cohort 25, knows firsthand about challenges, too. The Cohort’s five parishes – St. Barnabas, Bayville; St. Pius X, Forked River; St. Mary, Barnegat; St. Francis of Assisi, Brant Beach, and St. Theresa, Little Egg Harbor, are geographically separated by about 30 miles in southern Ocean County.
“As a Cohort, we are fortunate that our pastors have a good work-sharing relationship and have for many years,” he said. “But due to distance, we have a problem of getting parishioners to participate at the same level. It’s hard to get people to get out of their parish.”
Among the deterrents cited is weather – slippery roads in the winter and Shore traffic in the summer.
There have been inroads, such as with teen ministries, as various youth-related Cohort events have seen high turnouts. There’s also the Legacy of Virtue communion breakfast for fathers and sons that was born out of the mens’ ministries in St. Mary Parish. In its second year, held this spring, the event was promoted and advertised in the Cohort parishes.
“After that took place, St. Barnabas asked, ‘Can we join you in putting on this project?’” Chamberlain said, encouraged that the event could find a larger audience.
As year two of implementation comes to an end, there’s a lot of faith in the Diocese’s future.
Mercer County’s Cohort 6 is being nominated for an interfaith award from the county. Cohorts 24 and 11, Ocean and Monmouth Counties respectively, have built a strong relationship in which Cohort 24’s ministry collaboration event was picked up by Cohort 11 a few months later.
“Collaboration does not dilute parish identity,” stressed Deacon Patrick Stokely of the Project Management Team.
Said Mullooly, “We’re at a stage in 2019 that we need to start thinking about how we can be the disciples. To do that, we have to break down silos. Why not share some ideas and get to know those in the parish next to you? Only good things can come from that.”
Deacon Wedemeyer agreed. “We are using the gifts and talents of all the Church’s people.”
For parishes in a linkage or merger model, Msgr. Walsh has this advice: “Talk to each other a lot, pray for each other a lot, and eat together a lot.”