At this time of year, we hear from our government leaders about the “State of the Union,” the “State of the State,” and so forth. The Diocese of Trenton is no exception and, so, as your Bishop, I would like to share some thoughts on the “State of the Diocese.”
My primary concern has been and remains the transmission of faith to and within the local Church. That process occurs on many levels within the Diocese and only with the generous assistance and collaboration of many people. I have often said and firmly believe that “the Diocese” lives and breathes within its parishes and among the people of God. “The Diocese” as an institutional, religious structure, along with its related agencies, exists to guide and be of assistance to the communities of faith scattered throughout the four counties of central New Jersey.
The New Evangelization
I continue to feel privileged to serve as Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton. In all my activities and travels, I find our 109 parishes alive and full of faith. Some, of course, have more ministries and activities than others but all evidence a commitment to witnessing to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ as it comes to us through the Catholic Church.
I have spoken and written in The Monitor extensively about the “new evangelization.” Recently, during a pilgrimage to Rome with 23 of our priests, we had the opportunity to visit the Vatican offices of Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, and to hear his advice on this important topic. He encouraged us to continue every effort possible to reach out to Catholics whose participation in the Church has diminished by using our best and most creative imagination. At the same time, he emphasized the importance of effective preaching in our parishes and keeping Catholics interested and informed accurately and enthusiastically. He referred to the “Year of Faith” that just ended on November 24, 2013 as something that we should extend through lively parish activities promoting our Catholic faith.
While the financial condition of the Diocese is healthy, it has become evident that we must develop a sustainable strategy to fund the ministries of the diocese as we move forward. We are fortunate to have an increasing number of seminarians — 35 at present — and the funding for their formation will soon exceed $2 million per year. Additionally, we have a rapidly aging population of priests who, after a lifetime of priestly service, require support for health care and living expenses. With these needs as well as supporting a sustainable future for our parishes, Catholic Education and Social Services in mind, we will be undertaking a capital campaign --- the first since 1992 --- to ensure that the Catholic Church in Trenton remains vibrant well into the future.
No one likes to talk about money all the time. I certainly don’t. And parishioners don’t like hearing about it. But, as every parent and family knows, it is necessary to focus attention on financial resources often as a means of supporting essential needs. The “family of faith” that is the Diocese of Trenton and your parish are no exceptions. For over a decade, the Diocese and its parishes have sponsored and supported the “Annual Bishop’s Appeal” which touches virtually every ministry within the Diocese. This coming year, the name of that appeal has been changed to the “Annual Catholic Appeal” to make its wide reach clearer and to avoid any perception of creating a fund solely for the use of the Bishop. I am so grateful to all the members of the Diocese who have been so generous, especially during this past year’s appeal which is approaching its goal.
Speaking of funds and families, the Diocese did receive the first portion — $267,000 — of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ $664,581.65 grant for Hurricane Sandy Relief on January 5, 2014. We are back up with our effort of assisting families and individuals still impacted by Sandy. We are keeping within the parameters that were set out in the beginning, using funds primarily for rent, utilities and household items, with some limited funding available for food, clothing and special needs. The funds are being distributed through our Catholic Social Service agencies, parish social concerns groups and the St. Vincent de Paul Society Conferences who have agreed to work with the diocese in the distribution of funds, utilizing the processes and parameters that are in place. Sr. Joanne Dress, D.C., Executive Director for Catholic Social Services, is the diocesan contact for questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, I am so grateful to members of the Diocese who reached out to one another in such dramatically generous ways.
New Pope, New Initiatives
One of the most important and most compelling events of the past year has been, without a doubt, the election of Pope Francis.
He has taken the world by storm, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I was blessed to have several conversations with him during my recent visit to Rome. He is an incredibly humble, simple and holy man. But, lest anyone confuse his humility for weakness, I can assure you he is very focused and strong. In one beautiful exchange with him, the Holy Father extended his blessing to our Diocese and asked for our prayers.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis announced an extraordinary “Synod (gathering of cardinals and selected bishops) on the Family” scheduled for October 2014. Synods occur regularly but an “extraordinary” synod is only convened to address matters of special urgency. With all the controversies and differences of opinion on matters related to marriage and family life in recent times, the Holy Father clearly believes that the Church must respond in faith and express its voice. In an unprecedented move, the Vatican office entrusted with preparing for the extraordinary synod conducted a universal consultation with a series of 38 questions related to its principal theme.
This Vatican questionnaire was made available to the entire Diocese of Trenton on November 18 by my request: (1) on the Diocesan website; (2) on the website of The Monitor, the Diocesan newspaper; and (3) through Diocesan social media and other links made available through dissemination in parish bulletins and announcements. The entire questionnaire was also published in The Monitor’s Nov. 21, 2013 print edition, providing information to readers on how to respond to the questionnaire. The deadline for responses was announced as Dec. 13, 2013.
Just over 1,000 people (1,007 to be exact) from the Diocese of Trenton responded to the questionnaire:
22.44% or 226 responses were registered from Burlington County
18.57% or 187 responses were registered from Mercer County
36.54% or 368 responses were registered from Monmouth County
22.44% or 226 responses were registered from Ocean County
39.71% or 378 respondents were male
57.46% or 547 respondents were female
2.84% or 27 preferred not to answer
18.21% or 167 respondents were never married
66.52% or 610 respondents were married within the Catholic Church
4.58% or 42 respondents were married outside the Catholic Church
4.58% or 42 respondents were separated/divorced
2.84% or 26 respondents were remarried/blessed by the Catholic Church
3.27% or 30 respondents were remarried/never blessed by the Catholic Church
4.28% or 40 respondents were priests
69.59% or 650 respondents were lay persons
36.30% or 339 respondents were parents
6.21% or 58 respondents were deacons
2.46% or 23 respondents were professed religious
16.49% or 154 respondents were teachers/catechists
1.93% or 18 respondents were pastoral associates
0.43% or 4 respondents were seminarians
0.96% or 9 respondents were hospital or prison chaplains
6.42% or 60 respondents were members of lay associations or movements
The Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) requested that responses to the questionnaire be reported in summary form by the bishop of each diocese to the USCCB which, in turn, would prepare a summary document of the bishops/dioceses reporting for submission to the Vatican Office for the Extraordinary Synod.
The responses represented .118% of the Diocese of Trenton. In almost every instance less than 50% responded to the actual question posed. Although some answered questions in an articulate and knowledgeable way, it became clear that most were unfamiliar with the concept of natural law or specified magisterial documents (with the exception of Humanae Vitae), answering “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand the question,” and so forth. Formation in the value of marriage and family came mostly from lived personal experience, homilies in parishes or parish programs like pre-Cana. Some felt Church teachings were not sufficiently explained while some few others considered Church teachings irrelevant.
Respondents reported that many Church teachings are followed but a majority voiced their opposition to the Church’s ban on contraception. Similarly, a significant number of respondents raised questions about the Church’s position on same sex marriage, many expressing sympathy for those with a homosexual orientation. As far as family programs at the national, diocesan or parish level, most respondents were only aware of parish programs aimed at promoting family life.
Most responses indicated a lack of familiarity with the concept of natural law. Some few felt natural law is misunderstood or irrelevant as presented by the Church. Most did not address parts of questions dealing with it.
Most responses accepted marriage as a union of man and woman but made no reference to natural law. Many spoke positively about parish Pre-Cana programs while some few found them unhelpful.
Most respondents referred to experiences of “family prayer” but some few indicated that they never pray together as a family.
Most respondents stated that divorced and remarried Catholics felt “unwelcome in the Church” and many advocated an easier process for obtaining marriage annulments.
Many respondents felt that the Church offered effective pastoral assistance to married couples in crisis.
A majority of respondents expressed the belief that cohabitation before marriage is widespread and accepted in today’s society but that it was not necessarily a good thing. Some few felt that the Church should be more progressive about such matters.
A majority of respondents admitted seeing a value to the Sacrament of Reconciliation but admitted they rarely take advantage of it. A majority also acknowledged that, if and when they attend Mass, they receive the Eucharist regardless of their going to Confession.
As far as other challenges in the Church, these were among the most frequently mentioned: the sexual abuse crisis and the Church’s response to it, married priesthood, ordination of women and treatment of women in general, the quality of preaching, declining vocations, and lack of a lay voice in Church decision making.
Although the task of reading the voluminous pages of responses to the questionnaire was arduous, it did provide a snapshot — albeit very small — into some of the trends in Catholic thinking. What impact the questionnaire will have on the extraordinary synod itself remains to be seen. As Bishop, I did feel that I should offer some sense of the information gleaned from my review.
Education and Communication
In these days, people have suggested that Catholics receive most of their Church information through the internet, websites and other social media. A recent research study, however, reported that most Catholics continue to use parish bulletins or Diocesan newspapers as their principal resource. The Monitor is, in my opinion, a very fine Diocesan publication that is objective,
Diocesan publication that is objective, informative and educative and I strongly encourage parishes, schools and members of the Diocese to subscribe to it in print or electronic form.
Our Catholic schools, especially our parish primary schools and one or two high schools, continue to be a concern to me from the perspective of enrollment and financial viability. This past year, the Diocese conducted a comprehensive study through a Sustainability Commission I created on the state of Catholic education at the grammar school level. Its final report was made available to all principals and pastors and discussed in The Monitor.
This past fall, along with officials from our Diocesan Office of Catholic Education, I visited 10 schools determined by the Sustainability Commission to be “at risk.” In those visits, we advised principals and pastors about the Sustainability Commission’s criteria and recommendations for strengthening their schools. I determined that the Diocese will not approve any more closing of schools until 2015, after attempts at implementing those recommendations are tested.
The reality that we all have to face, however, is that some schools may close due to lack of enrollment and financial solvency. Such decisions are never easy and always fraught with negative public controversy. Unfortunately, our Diocese must face what other dioceses throughout the country have been facing, as difficult as it may be.
Our Faith Experience
Despite the Church’s longstanding obligation that all baptized Catholics participate in Mass every Saturday evening or Sunday, recent research studies have shown that a majority of Catholics registered in parishes in the United States consider “regular” participation in Mass as being “once a month.” That is a sad and unfortunate conclusion.
In the Diocese of Trenton, as a result of the “October headcount” that we conduct annually, we estimate weekly Mass attendance on the weekend to be between 18 and 20 percent of our registered Catholic population. The national average is in the low to mid 20 percent range. Neither set of numbers is good.
Personally, I do not believe that Catholics deliberately choose not to go to Mass but, rather, that they have fallen out of the practice or have allowed other activities to take precedence. We need to make a sustained, concerted effort to welcome people back to Church. The Eucharist is, as Vatican II affirmed, “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Without Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, our spiritual lives will starve.
Let me conclude my reflections here by going back to the beginning, to the transmission of faith. It is our personal encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ that is the single most important thing in our lives. We should let no person or situation or circumstance get in the way of that.
The Catholic Church provides us with that opportunity through prayer, worship, sacraments, teachings and active participation in parish life. Faith in Jesus Christ gives us hope in this world and access to life eternal. Faith in Jesus Christ and the hope he brings leads us to charity and the love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness that are his gifts to us and our gifts to one another. Faith in Jesus Christ and the hope and love he brings is the heart of what it means to be Catholic.
Consider the words of Pope Francis, “Although the life of a person is in a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”
Make that space; have that trust; grow in that faith and hope and love. May God bless us in the Diocese of Trenton.
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton