Compiled by Mary Morrell | Managing Editor
In an ancient tradition of the Church, bishops journey every five years to pray at the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul. During this pilgrimage, the bishops meet with the pope as the Chief Shepherd of the Church and present to him a report on the status of their dioceses. This pilgrimage is called the “ad limina Apostolorum” – which means, “to the threshold of the Apostles.”
Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., made his first 10-day “ad limina” visit as Chief Shepherd of the Diocese of Trenton, Nov. 30 – Dec. 9, along with the bishops of the (arch) dioceses of New Jersey and Pennsylvania and a number of Trenton diocesan officials. The group was one of 15 groups of United States bishops scheduled to make their ad limina visits to the Vatican during a several month period, which began in November with the visit of the New England bishops.
The Diocese of Trenton last made an “ad limina” visit in 2004 for the period 1998 through 2003, a “quinquennial” period of five years, and was actually due for its next visit in 2009. However, the death of Pope John Paul II and the elevation of Pope Benedict XVI to the papacy in that year resulted in a delay in the regular schedule. Bishop O’Connell’s visit was really a report on the state of the diocese for a seven-year period, 2004 through 2010.
The Quinquennial Report presented to Pope Benedict XVI is a comprehensive view of the state of the diocese for the prescribed period, and includes a three- to four-page summary section in which the bishop provides an overview of the diocese, the priorities, the challenges, and a general blueprint for the future. Since Bishop O’Connell was the diocesan bishop for only one month of the seven-year period, the report reflected more on his plans for the future.
Other sections, to name a few, report on efforts put in place in the diocese in the areas of liturgical and sacramental life; Catholic education; catechesis; life and ministry of the clergy; the laity; pastoral care of the family; social communications; social justice, and Christian charity. The report also includes a financial State of the Diocese and a General Assessment and Outlook for the Future.
Key to the Quinquennial Report is a side-by-side comparison of statistics and other measurable indicators from January 2004 and December 2010, points at the beginning and end of the seven-year period. The statistics reflect trends, growth and changes in the four counties of the Diocese of Trenton – Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean.
In his preliminary observations, Bishop O’Connell recounts having spent most of his time during the first 11 months of his service to the diocese in visiting parishes and schools, and has made Catholic education a pastoral priority, stating, “Catholic education is integral to carrying out the mission of the Church. It is our foundation and our future.”
In addition, the bishop identified vocations to the diocesan priesthood and the transmission of faith through proper catechesis and evangelization, as two additional pressing priorities, noting that current reports demonstrate that Mass attendance and reception of the sacraments has decreased, with only 25 percent of the Catholic population in the diocese attending Mass. The notable exception was adult Baptisms which increased by 239 percent.
The Quinquennial Report notes that the Catholic population in the diocese increased from 780,925 to 831,707, a growth of 6. 5 percent, while the number of diocesan priests decreased from 202 to 194 and the number of religious priests decreased from 51 to 32. The trend is similar for religious women, whose numbers decreased from 405 to 321. Conversely, the number of seminarians increased from 24 to 35.
The report also indicates that, in spite of New Jersey’s ranking as having one of the highest per capita incomes in the United States, there are many immigrants and minorities residing here who suffer from poverty due to the high cost of living in this area of the country and to a lack of educational skills in a technologically advanced work environment.
Among the Catholic population in the diocese is an increasing number of immigrants, including current refugee populations of Iraqis, Bhutanese from Nepal and the Karen and Karenni Burmese from Thailand who are being resettled.
To meet the needs of increasingly diverse ethnic and cultural populations, including a growing Hispanic and Latino population, a significant number of parishes offer liturgies and the sacraments in native languages, bilingual programs, as well as social and economic assistance.
In response to shifting populations, a decline in the number of priests and an influx of new Catholic immigrants, a number of parish communities entered into consultative processes to study how parish restructuring would ensure a vibrant Catholic presence in their communities into the future. These parish studies resulted in recommendations for parish mergers or suppression which decreased the number of parishes from 127 to 111.
In spite of the increased number of Catholics in the diocese, Catholic schools have decreased in number. The rising cost of tuition, low enrollment and limited parish resources are all factors impacting the schools, and leading to a significant decline in students attending Catholic schools and receiving a Catholic education.
During the reporting period, 13 Catholic schools closed due to declining enrollment, leaving 39 elementary and 11 secondary Catholic schools (including diocesan, regional, parish and private). Enrollment during this period decreased from 26,410 to 20,631, with attendance in elementary and secondary religious education also experiencing a 7 percent decline. Children receiving parish religious education has decreased from 68,194 to 63,389.
With tuition a challenge for many Catholic families, especially the poor, efforts continue to find ways to make Catholic schools available and affordable.
According to the report, disappointing trends within society are reflected among Catholics and include such things as a disregard for the sanctity of life and the failure to embrace Church teachings on issues of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, artificial contraception, in vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research.
Catholic-Christian norms, standing against a secular and materialistic mentality, are viewed as out-of date, a trend which continues to affect marriage and family values. The divorce rate among diocesan Catholics is 6.7 percent. In addition, 30 percent of couples are in civil, and not sacramental, marriages. To provide support in this area, and in collaboration with all the dioceses of New Jersey, the Diocese of Trenton has renewed its efforts in the area of marital preparation through the revision of the Common Policy for Marriage Formation and Preparation.
In further moves to counter the effects of societal trends on diocesan Catholics, the diocese developed and promulgated a pastoral plan in 2009 with seven priorities for mission and ministry within the diocese: Sunday Mass; Living as Disciples; Growing in Faith; Leadership; Charity and Justice; Youth and Young Adults, and Ethnic Diversity.
There has also been an increase in diocesan youth and young adult outreach, and adult faith formation efforts, with an action plan for adult faith formation implemented in 2005. Forty-five parishes participated in a diocesan process of adult faith formation designed to initiate and sustain their catechetical efforts.
Continuing formation of priests has been a high priority, as well, with the diocese conducting clergy study days, a yearly convocation of priests and the encouraging of personal study weeks.
In a closing summary of the report, Bishop O’Connell noted that the diocese enjoys responsible financial health and oversight, good and dedicated priests, deacons and religious and generous lay people who are eager and willing to advance their own baptismal calling and commitment to build the Kingdom of God.[[In-content Ad]]