A Message from the Bishop- 4/15/11

Shaping the future of church life

The world is watching Camden.

That’s what Charles Zech, economics professor at Villanova University, said at a March 31 signing of an agreement between the diocese and Villanova. The agreement marks a new dimension to our diocesan Faith Formation effort to educate laypeople about the tools they need for parish administration.

Why are we being watched? In many ways, we are a diocese that is rather typical, consisting of cities, towns, suburbs and rural areas, with a mosaic of ethnic groups reflecting much of the wider country.

It’s because, as Dr. Zech noted, the Diocese of Camden is out in front in planning for the church of the future. Our parish merger effort is being looked at as a model by dioceses from around the country facing similar issues of declining church attendance and vocations to the priesthood and the need to revitalize church life. We receive regular inquiries from other dioceses planning to embark upon a similar journey.

Back in 2005, the Diocese of Camden had 124 parishes. That year I began a listening tour of all of them, and asked people to name their three top pastoral priorities. Among those mentioned, six emerged – the need for improved liturgy, lay ministry, the need for an increase in priestly vocations, developing outreach to young adults and youth, compassionate outreach to those who need assistance, and the desire to promote faith formation at all ages. It became clear that the parish structure in place was unable to respond effectively to these priorities.

One reason was financial. A third of our parishes at the time had trouble paying their basic bills. The diocese had subsidized parishes more than $25 million over the space of a decade. That was an untenable situation. What I was told was needed by the people of the diocese required more resources. We had to begin the process of consolidation.

It has been a long haul. Change is never easy. But we are coming toward the end of that process of consolidation and in the midst of moving forward to a renewed vision of parish life involving 71 communities. Already, some signs are pointing toward a positive direction.

The average attendance at each of our weekend Masses is up. It’s difficult for a bishop to single out parish success stories – it’s like a mother being asked to choose which one of her children is her favorite – but newly constituted parishes such as Christ Our Light Church in Cherry Hill and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lindenwold are alive with activities that extend beyond weekend Masses. When I visit other parishes I am frequently struck by the vitality and interest I see.

There is still so much more to do. Our Mass attendance rate is, like much of the rest of the country, hovering at around 20 percent of all Catholics. Jesus’ Good Shepherd parable invoked a single sheep lost in a flock of 100. By contrast, our lost sheep here in South Jersey constitute a majority. As shepherds, we need to reach out and invite those who have fallen away, particularly young and middle-aged adults. We also need to welcome new immigrant groups, such as the Latinos in our diocese, whose presence is growing. I find myself speaking Spanish more here in New Jersey than I did while serving in Texas, close to the Mexican border.

We are moving toward better outreach to Catholics in South Jersey. Come fall, we will begin the planning of a census in all our parishes to locate where our baptized Catholics are and welcome all back into the fold (more details on this extensive effort will be forthcoming at a later date).

As always, we will be emphasizing that the shepherds that Jesus spoke about are not only priests and religious. We want to challenge lay people to be prepared for this ongoing task of evangelization, much like the documents of Vatican II call all the baptized to their rightful place in church ministry.

We are putting our resources toward that effort. Our recently announced partnership with Villanova University will provide management education skills for parish administrators, both lay people and priests. It is part of our continuing education in Faith Formation with area universities, in which the diocese picks up a third of tuition costs, parishes a third, and students the rest (we have also been able to obtain discounted rates as well from our educational partners). Already more than 300 lay people throughout South Jersey have taken advantage of this opportunity.

So why are we being watched? It’s not because of the South Jersey love for the Phillies and Eagles, our aquarium or our beautiful seashore. It’s because something dynamic is happening in the Diocese of Camden as we shape the future of God’s church.

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