by Bishop Joseph Galante
Bishop of the Camden Diocese
We have been going through much change lately as we move to consolidate from 124 parishes to 70 in order to better serve six major pastoral priorities: 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 has meant hard work, as pastors and lay people pull disparate communities together in service of the Gospel. Now the first fruits of those changes are beginning to emerge.
During these past few months, I have had the privilege, thanks to a series of deanery meetings held throughout the diocese, of listening to the stories of how our parishes are meeting our pastoral priorities.
So far, we’ve had seven of these nine scheduled meetings, which began in the spring and will end in the fall.
Even our deanery structure has been transformed to better respond to parish needs. Deaneries – groupings of parishes in a geographic area that work on common concerns – now better reflect the diversity of the diocese, culturally and economically, from the Ben Franklin Bridge to Cape May.
For example, there used to be a deanery that included just the Camden city parishes. Now those parishes have been placed into two deaneries, which also comprise many of our suburban parishes. The idea is that by sharing resources and insights, all can benefit from the diversity that is our diocese.
Happily, we’ve discovered that the new deanery structure is beginning to serve that purpose.
The deanery meetings I attended were basically comprised of reports from parish leaders who described their progress and obstacles in meeting our pastoral priorities.
I’m happy to report that there is a lot of concerted work taking place to meet the challenge of the pastoral priorities, both in newly-formed merged parishes as well as stand-alone churches.
I’ve been energized by what I’ve heard, as the deanery meeting process provides an opportunity for parishes to listen to one another and to learn from each other.
As an example: Our first meeting, held April 27, involved parishes from Deanery One, which includes sections of the city of Camden and its suburbs.
The city parishes described much of their compassionate outreach efforts. At the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, we learned that 200-300 bags of groceries are regularly distributed to the hungry. The newly-formed St. Josephine Bakhita parish brings together a diverse community of African-Americans and those of European and Latino backgrounds. St. Joseph Polish Church is using the Internet to connect with Polish Catholics throughout our region. Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, in Woodlynne, is host to a vibrant Vietnamese community, with a heavy focus on youth ministry, important in a community concerned about keeping the faith alive for an American-born generation. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood is home to 23 ministries with more than 500 volunteers, emblematic of many of our lively, suburban parishes.
That was just a snippet from one of our deanery meetings. Other parishes, in other regions of the diocese, have told similar stories.
My general impressions:
There is a sense of interdependence exhibited by the parishes in each deanery. They recognize they have something to offer and receive from one another. Some of that is already happening as, for example, our city parishes offer our suburban parishes opportunities for social ministry and education on issues such as immigration. The participation of the laity at the meetings (most of the time, they gave the presentations) has been quite significant and is a reflection of the role they play in parish life.
Religious education remains a focus. What’s heartening is the embrace of the concept of lifelong faith formation, in which parishes have begun programs intended not only to educate children but also their parents and grandparents.
There is emerging a creative use of resources, as some parishes, particularly in areas such as youth ministry, look for ways to combine programs with neighboring churches. We look forward to more such efforts.
At the end of nearly every parish presentation, I’ve asked about Mass attendance. What they report is that in many of our merged churches, attendance is up, as people adjust to a new kind of parish life. Others report that their numbers remain stable.
I recognize we are just in the beginning stages of working on these pastoral priorities. But amidst our struggles as a diocese, change is happening. As your bishop, I am encouraged by what I have heard. We are at the beginning stages of a renewed vision of ministry. The credit goes to our pastors, religious, deacons and laypeople, working in unity to make a difference in better spreading the Gospel in South Jersey.