In my travels around the diocese, I frequently invoke the image of the Church as the People of God, as reflected in the teaching of Vatican Council II.
Yet in one way we reflect a more corporate model, as your bishop I report in a formal way to our Holy Father.
Every five years, in what is called an ad limina visit, the bishops of New Jersey and Pennsylvania visit the Holy Father to inform him about developments in our dioceses, like bishops do from all the regions of the world.
That visit will take place later this year, but our preparation, in the form of almost 300 pages of what is called a quinquennial report, is now being prepared.
I have consulted with our priests, deacons, religious and laity in the writing of that report, which tells the story of what we have tried to accomplish.
It reflects the reality of our parish merger process and the other pastoral initiatives we have undertaken.
In the report, we note how the Diocese of Camden has emerged through a seven-year process of consolidation and parish mergers, moving from 124 parishes to what will be 70, ready through this process of pruning to a renewal of church life in South Jersey.
The process began with a self-conscious effort to listen. From an exhaustive series of listening sessions, six pastoral priorities emerged, focused on the areas of worship, faith formation across generations, and outreach to the poor and suffering.
These pastoral priorities were not imposed from on top. Rather, they were what the people of the diocese regularly stated were their concerns about church life. The entire Catholic community in the diocese was engaged to look outward at the wider needs of the diocese, not simply their particular parish communities.
The result is a diocese ready to emerge. What had been an effort to simply keep parishes financially afloat has been transformed. Newly-merged parishes, as well as stand-alone parishes, are now better prepared to embark on pastoral ministry based upon the diocesan priorities. Many are already down that road. Reports from deanery meetings indicate an uptick in Mass attendance at the newly-merged parishes. Despite a time of economic turbulence, they also report an increase in financial support. The people of the diocese have largely rallied in support of these changes.
There are, of course, obstacles.
Many of those obstacles are cultural, both within and outside the church. American life is becoming more secular. What was a heavily churchgoing population now includes many more people of all religious persuasions who no longer identify with a faith community. Distractions, such as Sunday youth sports, often get in the way of regular faith practice. Those who practice the faith are often perceived as followers of a quaint and outmoded view of the world.
Some of the anxiety generated by the new direction has to do with the previous culture of the diocese. Previously, views about church life were solicited but never acted upon. A new direction, which included clear statements that change was coming with a clear follow-up process, was not expected in some quarters where an expectation of passivity and stagnation had developed.
The Diocese of Camden looks to the future of ministry. The Faith Formation program has involved more than 300 lay people who are receiving training in pastoral theology and other areas. The training of seminarians now focuses more on experiential ministry in parishes and hospitals (future priests are now expected to take a one-year pastoral experience as part of their training before ordination). This is intensive relational training future priests will need for a changing diocese. Our future priests are also learning Spanish and being prepared to minister to our new immigrants.
The diocese is now planning on an ambitious census to get an accurate account of who the people of the diocese are. There are an estimated 500,000 baptized Catholics in the diocese. The goal of the census is to discover if that is a true number. The diocese wants to discover how many immigrant Catholics there are – difficult to reach even by U.S. government counters because of concerns about legal status – and how many Catholics are no longer practicing the faith. The census program will include a gentle invitation for non-practicing Catholics to experience life in renewed parish communities. The goal is to invite them into a faith community that longs not only for their attendance in the pews but offers avenues for all the talents of the Catholic people of South Jersey to be used in God’s service.