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home : from the bishop : from the bishop February 21, 2019

A message from Bishop David M. O' Connell, C.M. -- The Catholic Church and the 21st Century
Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M.

Most Catholics religiously identify with their parish rather than the diocese to which it belongs. That is certainly understandable since most Catholics live their religious life, receive their Sacraments and worship in their own territorial parish. The "parish" is a more concrete reality than the "diocese," which is more abstract. For most Catholics, the parish is “the Church.”

The fact of the matter is that Catholics belong to “both/and” parish/diocese, not “either/or.” In canon law, a parish is defined as "a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church (diocese) whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor under the authority of the diocesan bishop (canon 515.1)."

Canon law defines a diocese as "a portion of the people of God which is entrusted to a bishop for him to shepherd with the cooperation of the presbyterium (priests) so that, adhering to its pastor (in this case the bishop) and gathered by him in the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and the Eucharist, it constitutes a particular church in which the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative (canon 369)." The terms “local Church” or “particular Church” are synonymous with “diocese.”

 There is not ― nor should there be ― any rivalry, competition, antagonism or animosity between a parish and the diocese of which it is a part. The diocese truly lives in its parishes and parishes together make up the diocese. The pastor and clergy of a parish are responsible and accountable to the diocesan bishop. The diocesan bishop, in turn, exercises responsibility and care for, supervision of and authority over his clergy. At their ordination, clergy (priests and deacons) promise "respect and obedience" to their diocesan bishop and his successors.  That does not mean that they will always agree on everything, but in the spirit of their ordination, disagreement should always be respectful. And respect must go both ways!

When appropriate to the situation, the diocesan bishop has final say over those matters relevant to his Office as pastor or shepherd of the local or particular Church.

That does not mean the diocesan bishop needs to "micro-manage" his pastors. He assigns pastors to parishes with confidence and trust that they have the knowledge and competence to administer the parish, its facilities, assets and programs, all in service to the pastoral care of its people. The diocese through its bishop brings the universal Church into the everyday experience of Catholics on the local level, and provides guidance and direction to its parishes through diocesan laws, policies and practices. The parish, pastor and priests, in turn, apply this guidance and direction through policies and practices they develop as a parish, none of which should contradict universal or diocesan laws, policies and practices.

The common good and spiritual well-being of the entire people of God, within the diocese and parish, support collaboration and cooperation so that, as St. John's Gospel reminds us, "there shall be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:16)." That just makes good sense for any intentional community with a common purpose, goal and reason for being. That makes especially good sense for the Church, its dioceses and parishes.

In a perfect world, the ebb and flow of life would proceed without interruption or distraction. But we do not live in a perfect world, and that includes the Church, its dioceses and parishes. Sometimes there is more ebb than flow or vice-versa in the diocese or parish. When that happens, Catholics need to rely on the best judgment of their bishop, priests, deacons and other pastoral ministers regarding what will support the common good and spiritual well-being of the people of God, on all levels and in the ministries they exercise.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the rationale for transferring clergy from one parish to another. A few weeks from now, I will write about future planning in the Diocese of Trenton that will require reorganization and changes among and within our parishes. I have said often in the almost five years of my episcopacy that we can no longer count on or expect “business as usual.”

The demographics of the Diocese are shifting rapidly, which affects the parishes and other Catholic institutions. Our personnel throughout the Diocese ― both clergy and lay ― are stretched pretty thin, which affects the parishes and other Catholic institutions. The available resources of the Diocese to support its many ministries, works, obligations and responsibilities require constant analysis and re-evaluation. This is simply “reality as it is” and is not unique to the Diocese of Trenton; it’s happening everywhere.

While some may lament the situation, I see it as an opportunity ― a grace-filled moment ― for us in the Diocese and parishes of Trenton; a time, not to re-invent the Church but, rather, to re-position ourselves for the future. The 21st century is already 15 years old! The Catholic Church is almost 2,000 years old! Culture, society and their institutions and organizations could learn a lesson from its longevity and endurance.

As Diocesan Bishop, I am not interested in fitting into or adapting the Catholic Church to the 21st century. No, now is the time for us as Catholics to adapt the 21st century into the living and dynamic faith of the People of God. What lies ahead of us in the Diocese and its parishes is not a sprint but, rather, a marathon. It’s an exciting time to be Catholic! Let’s take all that the Church has been for us and has given us in the past, and pay it forward well into the future!

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