By Jennifer Mauro | Associate Editor
As parishes around the Diocese celebrated Christmas Masses Dec. 24-25, St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Freehold, was receiving some good news of its own.
“As we celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus this Christmas, it gives me great joy as your Bishop to share the news that the Holy See has approved my request that St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Freehold be elevated to the dignity of a Co-Cathedral within our Diocese,” Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., announced in a letter that was read to parishioners during the Christmas Masses.
Related News: A message from Bishop O'Connell on the Co-Cathedral
Freehold church will be elevated to Co-Cathedral during Feb. 19 Mass
As a Co-Cathedral, certain diocesan events will be scheduled annually at St. Robert Bellarmine Church in addition to those held in Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, Trenton, which remains the Mother Church of the Diocese. In addition, a seat, or “cathedra,” for the Bishop will be placed in the sanctuary, reserved only for the Bishop in liturgical celebrations.
A Mass to officially mark the elevation will be celebrated Feb. 19 at 11:30 a.m. and live streamed on TrentonMonitor.com and DioceseofTrenton.org.
Msgr. Sam Sirianni, parish pastor, said parishioners reacted with joy during the Christmas Eve and Day Masses when the news was announced.
“They broke into spontaneous applause at every Mass, and they were very pleased and proud of their parish,” he said. “We are very grateful to the Bishop and the Holy See for entrusting us with this ministry.”
Location, Amenities and Ministry
The announcement followed nearly a year’s worth of discernment and research for the Co-Cathedral petition, which was requested by the Bishop. During this time, Bishop O’Connell consulted with parish leadership as well as priests from around the Diocese, compiled information on the parish and its ministries with the help of the parish and spoke with the Bishop from the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., which was granted a Co-Cathedral in 2013.
In April, the Bishop presented his proposal to Rome, which was approved by the Holy See in December.
“A lot of people commented that it was a wonderful Christmas gift for the parish,” Msgr. Sirianni said.
In choosing St. Robert Bellarmine Church for the designation, Bishop O’Connell cited many factors including its centralized location as well as the parish’s hospitality, ministry and the role it has played in the “life and activities of the Diocese.”
Msgr. Sirianni echoed the Bishop’s sentiments, explaining that the parish is nearly at the geographic center of the Diocese, easily accessible from Routes 18, 33 and Interstate 195.
Another important factor is its facilities – including the large church, parish hall and educational building – all of which are easily accessible to those with limited mobility.
“It creates a sense of inclusion for those who have difficulty moving in and out of buildings,” Msgr. Sirianni said. “Our location and spirit of hospitality have made the diocesan offices feel comfortable to host meetings here.”
Parishioner Joe Louro, who was on the building committees for both St. Robert Bellarmine Church, built in 2002, and the original parish hall, built in 1975, knows firsthand about the amenities the church offers.
The church seats 1,103, with standing room around the sanctuary for another 300. In addition, about 650 people can fit into the parish hall, and the educational building has 17 classrooms, he said. Those in the church have an unobstructed view of the marble altar and numerous stained-glass windows and access to two confessionals.
“I am very proud of it,” said Louro, who has been a parishioner for more than 30 years. “Every time I go in, I get a chill. It really was a labor of love.”
Louro was also proud of the church’s Co-Cathedral designation.
“Msgr. Sam approached me at the Christmas Eve Mass and said, ‘You didn’t build a church – you built a cathedral,’” Louro said with a smile in his voice.
Those feelings of warmth are something parishioner Kathy Lo Bue says are not only the reason the church has played host to a growing number of diocesan events over the years, but hopefully will be the impetus for future community outreach, too.
Lo Bue, who serves on the parish’s financial council, hopes the Co-Cathedral designation will serve as another evangelization tool to the faithful and community at-large.
“With the Bishop’s presence, I’m hoping and praying he will be able to draw more people in through his words and actions,” she said. “Being a Co-Cathedral might encourage more people to come to our different ministries.”
A History of Hosting
When it comes to ministry, St. Robert Bellarmine Parish itself has been the site of a growing number of diocesan events, such as Days of Recollection, spiritual programs, liturgical events, opportunities for pastoral training and more.
Just recently, Bishop O’Connell joined hundreds to close the church’s Holy Doors as the Extraordinary Jubilee of the Year of Mercy drew to an end Nov. 20. One-hundred-seventy-five couples from Monmouth and Ocean Counties gathered Oct. 2 in the church for the Bishop’s Anniversary Blessing Mass, and in the past few years, St. Robert Bellarmine Church began hosting the celebration of the annual Chrism Mass, as the Bishop explained in a message distributed around the Diocese about the Co-Cathedral.
“Two years ago, I moved the annual Chrism Mass from St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in Trenton to the centrally located St. Robert Bellarmine Church to more easily accommodate the priests of the Diocese for our yearly Holy Week dinner together, our liturgical renewal of priestly commitment and the blessing and distribution of holy oils used in the sacraments for the year ahead,” he wrote.
“The faithful of the parish take seriously the ministry of hospitality to their brothers and sisters from around the Diocese and our mission to receive all who come together in Christ’s name,” he said.
That hospitality is something Msgr. Sirianni knows well. As former director of the diocesan Office of Worship, he often utilized the facilities at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish for diocesan ministries, and as former vice rector of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, he understands the role of a cathedral, too.
“Being a Co-Cathedral reminds us our ministry is to the diocesan family,” he said, adding that the needs of a cathedral differ than that of a parish. “As a cathedral, [it] ministers to a wider group … that’s a commitment on the parish.
As an example, he, too, cited the annual Chrism Masses, drawing attention to the growing number of parishioners who volunteer to help, specifically the story of one volunteer whose mother recently passed away. He said the woman approached him this Christmas season saying it had dawned on her during the Anointing of the Sick that the oils she prepared were being used on her mother in preparation of death.
“I’m blessed to have parishioners who have that insight that what they do for others is a blessing for them as well,” Msgr. Sirianni said.
Furthering the Mission
Msgr. Sirianni said that in the new year, diocesan and parish leadership will be working on logistics, including placement of the “cathedra” in the sanctuary that will be reserved only for the Bishop during liturgical celebrations and preparing a calendar of celebrations.
“This is an exciting time for the Diocese, for the state and for Catholicism,” said Dr. Christopher Bellitto, a St. Robert Bellarmine parishioner, professor of history at Kean University, Union, and public speaker and media commentator on Church history. “If you look at the early Church, people have always wanted to have contact with their bishop. This [designation] could create an intimate bond.”
“‘Cathedra’ is related to the word seat,” he added. “The emotional time is not when the bishop walks in to the Cathedral, but when he sits down. [Bishop O’Connell] will be one of very few bishops who will have two places to sit,” he said in reference to the Cathedral in Trenton.
Indeed, there are only a handful of Co-Cathedrals in the United States. Besides the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Brooklyn, the limited number others include the Co-Cathedral of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus in the Diocese of Honolulu, Hawaii; the Co-Cathedral of Saint Joseph in the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., and the Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.
That is a realization Msgr. Sirianni doesn’t take lightly. He said the Co-Cathedral designation makes official what the parish has been doing already – “making sure St. Robert’s is a model in liturgy, outreach and parish life.”