“As priests, on our own pilgrim way, what do we cling to, what baggage are we dragging along on our journey? What holds us back from living the conviction that Christ is – or should be – ‘everything in all of you?’”
This was one question Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., asked his priests to reflect on during the annual Priest Convocation held Sept. 12-14 in Galloway Township.
The convocation, which was attended by more than 130 priests this year, offers them time away from parish and diocesan assignments to pray and celebrate Mass together, hear talks and get opportunities to rest and renew.
PHOTO GALLERY: Convocation of Priests
“People often seek God with greater energy when their need is greater, whether individually or in society,” Bishop O’Connell said, reflecting on the Readings proclaimed during the Mass he celebrated Sept. 13.
“We come before the Lord in our poverty, our hunger, our sadness because in such times we realize that we are not self-sufficient. It is when we recognize and admit our weakness that grace is at its strongest,” he said. “It’s worth thinking about.”
Words of Encouragement
A highlight of the gathering was a series of talks given by Capuchin Franciscan Father Thomas Betz, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Philadelphia. Using biblical stories and personal experiences, Father Betz addressed the theme of “The Catholic Priest in 2023: Keeping Faith, Living in Hope, Abiding in Love.”
Father Betz drew an analogy between present day challenges facing priests and the experience of the prophet Elijah who lived during a turbulent time in Israel’s history when the people were worshipping false gods. Elijah was sent to confront the people about their wrongdoings and encourage them to return to God, and was ultimately victorious in his battle.
“True faith won,” Father Betz said. “The way God remained with Elijah, he will remain with us in spite of all the challenges and upsets.
“God promises to be faithful to the Church,” Father Betz said, “and he will be faithful to you.
“My brothers, remember that God chose you for this time to be a priest,” Father Betz said. “The Catholic Church does good all over the world. The Church stands as a great beacon of light. Your job is to make the Church a great beacon of light here in the Diocese of Trenton.”
Father Betz, who holds a law degree and had worked as a law clerk and an associate lawyer before he was ordained a priest, shared how he has been able to use his law background in his various priestly assignments especially with the poor and immigrant populations.
When speaking about serving the poor, Father Betz asked the priests to reflect on how they make the poor a priority in their ministry.
“The ministry of priests is about “other-serving, not self-serving,” he emphasized.
“Jesus did not serve himself, he served others,” he said.
After sharing his own experiences working with the immigrant population that included serving as an associate pastor of a Chinese Catholic Church in Philadelphia, Father Betz touched on the need for priests to provide pastoral care for immigrants in their communities.
“Here in the United States, we welcome and embrace people from all over the world,” he said, “and we Catholics have the opportunity to experience and serve the universal Church right here in our country,” he said.
The convocation was an opportunity for Bishop O’Connell to present his customary annual State of the Diocese report in which he reviewed some of the most current statistical information and data drawn from various sources throughout the four counties. When speaking about the financial situation of the Diocese and its most recent audit, the Bishop was happy to present a positive, healthy outlook on diocesan revenues and expenditures.
The Bishop also spoke about pastoral life in the Diocese and ways to encourage the faithful and also spoke of formation from the Holy See, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the New Jersey Catholic Conference and diocesan offices.
Lastly, the Bishop highlighted important dates for the priests to keep in mind for the fall of 2023 and invited his brothers to ask any questions or raise any concerns. Bishop O’Connell announced that two priests were incardinated into the Diocese – Father John Paul Rosario, parochial vicar of St. Rose Parish, Belmar, and Father Paul Janvier, parochial vicar of Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park. He also acknowledged three priests who were recently awarded doctoral degrees – Father del Rosario, Father Zachary Swantek, director and Catholic chaplain of the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Life on the campus of Princeton University, and Father Neiser Cardenas, parochial vicar of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River.
The convocation presentations resonated with Msgr. Thomas Mullelly, diocesan vicar for clergy and consecrated life and director of seminarians.
“We need to keep the faith and have hope even when we find our priesthood challenging,” he said. “We are called to minister today and remember that God is with us at all times.”
For Father Mark Nillo, parochial vicar of St. Mary Parish, Middletown, attending the annual convocation “sets the tone for me for the entire year,” he said. “It’s nice to gather with my brother priests and hearing the speakers and their topics gives us guidance and makes us grounded.
“I hope the convocation continues for many years to come. It’s a privilege to attend and I thank God for the opportunity,” Father Nillo said. “I am blessed to be a priest of the Diocese of Trenton.”
Well aware that there are fewer priests serving in full-time ministry, Father Jerome Guld, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Burlington, said, “one of the side effects is we are busier and don’t spend as much time with each other.
“The convocation is a good remedy for that!” he said.
Father Guld said he appreciated how Father Betz wove stories and experiences and circumstances together “to remind us all of some of the most important aspects of priestly ministry in the real world: serving the poor, helping migrant people and living out the commitment Jesus has called us to.”
The convocation remains one of the highlights of my priestly year,” Father Guld added. “I always find myself arriving early and leaving nearly last, and that says something.”
Father Edward Blanchett, pastor of Visitation Parish, Brick, appreciated Father Betz’s insight on how priests should evaluate and improve their ability to see everything through the eyes of faith.
“He encouraged us to take each of these experiences - good and bad - as opportunities to see Jesus, how he is working through them and how he is challenging us to work through them.”
Father Blanchett added that when talks with priest friends who visit from other dioceses, one thing they often mention is how close and open the priests of Trenton are to each other.
“That is a great reflection on the Bishop, the presbyterate and the people of our Diocese and I know that a large part of that comes from our annual opportunity to come together, outside of liturgical occasions, just to learn more about the Diocese from our Bishop and from each other,” he said. “We get a chance to ‘let our hair down’ (figuratively, for many of us) and just enjoy each other's company.”