Each year around this time, we experience a host of “State of the X, Y, Z” speeches by government officials with the mandatory surgical analysis that follows from the media and other interested parties. Although these events sometimes bring out the skeptic in us, they are an annual “institution” that, for better or worse, provides a snapshot of what’s going on in our nation, our state, our cities or townships.
And each year, this special edition of our diocesan newspaper, The Monitor, gives me the opportunity to take a turn at a “State of” address for the Diocese of Trenton. As Bishop, I want to share with you my sense of the “State of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Trenton.”
Marriage and Family Life
Throughout the universal Church and here at home there is a heightened sense of awareness about the issues and challenges impacting families today. Our Holy Father Pope Francis has identified marriage and family life as urgent issues for the Catholic Church in our day.
I am sure you agree that marriage is the heart of family life, its essential “building block.” With fewer and fewer Catholic couples choosing the grace of sacramental marriage and with the prevalence of divorce in society, we, as Catholics, need to find relevant ways to share the beautiful and sacred reality of marriage with current and future generations, and to support couples through the different phases of married life.
A few years ago at meetings with priests in the four counties, we identified “marriage” as one of our diocesan priorities. Since that time, plans have been moving forward for a Pastoral Summit on Marriage.
That event will take place at Georgian Court University in Lakewood this May. This extraordinary event will be comprehensive, intended for all those in the Diocese of Trenton whose ministry touches Christian married life in any way: priests, deacons, marriage prep coordinators and Pre-Cana teams, DREs, teachers, catechists, youth ministers and other pastoral ministers.
It has not been designed, however, simply as a marriage enrichment program and does not provide direct ministry to couples themselves. Rather, this summit will offer a “plan of action” developed for the Diocese of Trenton. Participants will become acquainted with this plan and help to develop “strategies for success to be implemented in our parishes and local communities. The program will include Spanish language sessions as well so that all are included in this pastoral priority.
Concern for the Pastoral Care of Families is spurring action throughout the universal Church. Last fall Pope Francis convened an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, an historic gathering that was bolstered by a worldwide consultation from the faithful. The findings of that synod have provided the groundwork for the next synod coming later this year. Again, the faithful have been invited to provide input so that when the Ordinary Synod of Bishops meets, the voices of the faithful will be part of the discussion. I invite you to read more about this HERE.
It is this focus and concern for the Pastoral Care of Families that underlies the World Meeting of Families, set to unfold in Philadelphia Sept. 22-25, 2015. Excitement began to intensify in November when the Holy See confirmed the Pope’s attendance at the event. This will be a graced moment for Catholics throughout the region and indeed the world, and our focus has been to gather our community in prayer to prepare for the event. We have scheduled four Holy Hours with families in the four different counties of the Diocese. One will have taken place by the time this publication reaches our people, but there are three more opportunities to attend and pray together for the intention of the Worldwide Meeting and all that it seeks to bring to families as they strive to lead holy, faith-filled lives.
While the Diocese of Trenton is not directly involved in the planning or coordination for the meeting or the Papal Mass, we are happy to keep people informed about developments out of Philadelphia through our website.
Governance and Administration
An important responsibility for any Bishop is to provide for the pastoral needs of his Diocese, while also charting a clear course for the future. I have taken this responsibility to heart since first being named the Bishop of Trenton in 2010, and we have been hard at work in the areas of governance, finances and administration, all with an eye toward the future.
While matters of insurance and finances are not terribly exciting, they are critically important and we have given them the attention they require. In 2014, in order to comply with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, all parishes, schools and institutions successfully worked with the Diocese to convert to a unified payroll system. This was part one of a two year process. In 2015, the remainder of the work must be completed in a systemic way and under very tight time constraints. The cooperation and teamwork of all entities to date has been outstanding.
I hear it said at times “all the Church is interested in is money.” Anyone who is really familiar with the works of the Catholic Church knows that is not true. But, anyone who lives in this world knows that important works with significant results require support: the support of prayer, the support of talented, hard-working people’s efforts, the support of good people’s generosity.
Priests and bishops all wish that we didn’t have to ask for money. It is never comfortable or easy for us. Yet we know that what the Church does to preach and share the Gospel and our Catholic faith — to make the Gospel and our faith real and concrete — requires turning to good and generous people for their “time, talent and treasure.” We don’t ask for ourselves. But we have to ask.
The simple, plain fact of life is that doing the work of the Church in the world requires financial resources. Helping our Catholic schools and parishes, operating our churches and facilities, helping the poor and needy among us, offering human services like Catholic Charities all require asking for money. The costs associated with these Church-related activities never diminish or grow less. The same is true for families, as we all know. And just as a family needs to provide for its current needs, while at the same time saving for the future, we, as a family of faith, must shoulder the same responsibility.
This year, we not only have our Annual Catholic Appeal, which provides for the more present needs of this community, we also have embarked on a new endowment campaign, which will provide funds for the future ministries and services that will be needed by this growing family. It has been more than 20 years since the Diocese conducted a similar type of campaign, and we are confident that the good men and women of our parishes will be responsive to this extraordinary need. Both campaigns are critically important and I encourage you to fully inform yourselves about them HERE.
Building on what has come before us, we have also successfully updated and revised the Statutes of the Fourth Synod of the Diocese of Trenton. This is an effort that stretched over the better part of two years and was guided by extensive consultation. Officially promulgated Dec. 8, 2014, the Statutes serve as particular law and policy for the Diocese. Multiple copies of the Statutes were sent to all of our priests, deacons, parishes and schools. The document is also available on our website.
Strengthening our Schools
For the first time since my arrival in the Diocese, we are dealing with multiple school closures, a reality that brings with it understandable disappointment and even sadness. I can say with full conviction that the Diocese and the local pastors and principals where closures have been announced have worked diligently to avoid this outcome. Our Sustainability Study involving our elementary schools provided recommendations to strengthen our schools and extensive consultation was conducted with “at-risk” schools. I myself, along with our officials from the Department of Catholic Schools, sat with local pastors, principals and other leaders to determine what could be done to turn around the downward trends that were leading to financial crises. Our efforts to give these schools time to face their challenges will have cost the Diocese more than $2 million over a two-year period.
I am happy to say that of the 10 or so schools originally thought to be “at risk,” most were able to make significant improvements and are continuing to see results from their efforts. Unfortunately, some did not.
I have said clearly that I am not in the business of closing schools. I have devoted nearly the entirety of my priestly life to Catholic education. At the same time, I have said that we need to face up to the reality that some schools must close because the enrollment is simply not there. We must recognize that it is simply not sustainable for a parish to fall into crisis because it has been paying nearly half of its income for school subsidies.
While this has been a painful experience for the impacted communities, the broader view is that there is much good news to share about our schools. Many have robust enrollments, even waiting lists for some grades, and the quality of the educational experience is unparalleled.
We now turn to the future, and continue the effort of helping more of our schools boost enrollment and the funding they need to thrive. A multimedia campaign with the theme “Catholic Schools Have It All,” is now in development to raise awareness about the value of our schools and the importance for Catholic families to send their children to them. I intend to share more of my thoughts on this subject, and personally invite families who do not send their children to Catholic schools to take another look at this most worthwhile option.
As I recently wrote in my Catholic Schools Week message, “Catholic schools are every Catholic’s business and responsibility, because they are the greatest hope for the future of our teaching and learning Church.”
I would remiss in writing this to you, the good people of the Diocese, without once again acknowledging the immeasurable ways you have reached out and supported me in throughout my health crisis in December, my recovery from surgery and now my rehabilitation with my prosthetic leg. As I said in the video interview I did in January, I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love, prayers, cards and expression of faith. All of this has bolstered my spirits and deepened my faith, more than I can ever say.
I am happy to share with everyone that I am feeling better than I have in years, and we are completely on track for my projected return during Holy Week. I am grateful for the opportunity to work on diocesan business during my rehabilitation and to move forward with some of the important initiatives we have set out for the coming year.
As Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of his nightly news broadcast (am I dating myself?), “And that’s the way it is.” Every year brings with it many positive developments and much progress as well as significant challenges, some ongoing and other unique to the year that has passed. The good news is that, as a Diocese, we continue to share the “Good News” in a spirit of hope and joy. The good news is that, as a Diocese, we have the faith and determination to face the many challenges that come our way. Finally, the good news is that the Lord Jesus has promised to be with us “all days” and we can trust that promise, 2000 years strong. It continues to be an honor and privilege to serve the Diocese of Trenton as your Bishop as 2015 unfolds before us, together, as the People of God. Let us pray for one another.
Respectfully in the Lord Jesus,
Most Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton