A bishop driven by his love of pastoral work

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CAMDEN — During a conversation that lasted more than an hour, and ranged from the beauty of William Butler Yeats’ poetry to the vitriolic rhetoric now common on social media and in political debate, Bishop Dennis Sullivan often circled back to a favorite topic: his love of the priesthood.

Bishop Dennis Sullivan poses for a photo after celebrating Mass at Wildwood Catholic High School on Sept. 23. “I love going to schools to visit,” he says.

The bishop recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of his episcopal ordination and agreed to sit down for a rare interview in his office on the fifth floor of the chancery on Sept. 24. The office view looks east toward the Philadelphia skyline, but for almost seven years the bishop’s attention has been pointed in another direction, on the Catholic parishes, schools and ministries in the six counties of South Jersey.

Yet his time as a bishop was even longer in New York, where he was an auxiliary serving both Cardinal Edward Egan and Cardinal Timothy Dolan. While he has remained a fan of New York sports teams — his answer to the question of whether he has become a Philadelphia fan was an emphatic and simple “No! N-O” — the bishop, a native of the Bronx, feels more than at home in South Jersey.

 “I love it here. It’s been wonderful. South Jersey will always be part of my future,” he said. “I’m very much a Camden priest. They are my brothers.”

The bishop’s recurring emphasis on the priesthood seems to have less to do with the distinction between ordained men and the laity than the interaction between them. For the bishop, who is the chief administrator of the diocese as well as its spiritual leader — whose schedule is jammed with paperwork and meetings — the church’s work is, above all, personal.

Bishop Sullivan came to Camden from the sprawling New York Archdiocese where, as vicar general, he had to make difficult decisions, including the closure of parishes. But in his first appearance in Camden, after being appointed the successor to Bishop Joseph Galante, he said he would lead the diocese as a pastor, and he still talks like one.

He was named a bishop by Pope John Paul II and his time in New York largely coincided with the pontificate of Pope Benedict, but Bishop Sullivan often sounds like Pope Francis, with his emphasis on accompaniment and on a priest’s responsibility — and privilege — to be present to those in spiritual, emotional or physical need.

He recalled that recently he had been asked to visit someone who was ill. “Afterward I thought, ‘I love this. I really felt like a priest today,’” he said. “As a bishop, I don’t often have opportunities like that.”

“I love confirmations. They’re wonderful,” he continued. “But I don’t know the names of the children and I don’t know their families. As a pastor, I knew something about every student about to be confirmed. As a bishop, you are not present to the people in that way.”

And yet, he tries to be present as much as possible, putting in long work days and hours on the road to visit parishes and schools. He said he visits high schools “just so the kids can see a bishop,” suggesting it is part of their religious education to learn about the hierarchy of the church. But he soon added that he usually tries to meet with the student council, and he says how much he enjoys being able to “chit-chat” with them.

And then he talks about the student he saw at school who he also remembered from a parish visit. The one who wants to go to the Naval Academy. And another student at a different school who scored a perfect 800 on his math SAT. “I love to go to schools to visit,” the bishop said.

Catholic schools have been one of the bishop’s main priorities during his time in Camden. “I wish we didn’t have to charge a penny for Catholic education,” he said, noting that he understands tuition costs are simply prohibitive for some families.

“We know what we’re doing, and we do it well,” he said of the schools. “We do a good job. Our teachers — God bless them — their work is sacrificial.” Catholic schools are essential for the future of the church, and even American society in general, he added.

Before his installation as Camden’s ordinary, Bishop Sullivan said his immediate plan was to “listen, listen, listen.” To some extent, that has translated to “visit, visit, visit.” His travels throughout the diocese have helped shape another of his priorities, outreach to Hispanic Catholics. Hispanic ministry was strong in Camden City when he came to New Jersey, but he learned the diocese had to extend that work when he traveled the diocese and realized how extensive the Hispanic population is in other areas, such as Bridgeton and Vineland.

Again emphasizing the need to connect with people, not just communicate with them, he said the ability of ministers to speak Spanish should be only part of the church’s response. Also important is understanding Latino cultures and respecting the differences among them, he said.

As a New York pastor, Bishop Sullivan ministered in diverse parishes. When he got the phone call informing him that Pope John Paul II was naming him a bishop, he was shocked. “I said to the nuncio, ‘You must have the wrong Sullivan.’ There were many Sullivans in New York.”

He said he found it hard to leave parish life, but “your life changes and you do the work. You do what you have to do. Here, my job is Camden.”

“When I retire, I want to live in a parish,” he said. When that time comes, he added, “whoever comes after me has to focus on vocations to the priesthood. It is a critical issue.”

“We have to get the message out about the joy of the priesthood, the joy of serving people. The priest is with his people in every situation, from birth to death, in times of happiness and in desperate situations,” he said. “It’s a very rewarding life.”

Carl Peters is the managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.