Story by Rose O’Connor | Correspondent
and Jennifer Mauro | Associate Editor
When it comes to working together for the future of the Catholic Church within the Diocese, Mary Ann Figura is optimistic.
“All four priests in our Cohort are committed to this process, and when you have this kind of leadership, it really does flow onto the laity working with them. Their support is contagious,” said Figura, co-chair of Cohort 2, which includes St. Charles Borromeo, Cinnaminson, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Maple Shade, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Moorestown, and Sacred Heart, Riverton, parishes.
The Diocese’s 25 Cohorts – a grouping of four to six parishes based on proximity and other relevant factors – are part of the Faith in Our Future initiative, the pastoral planning process that has been underway since Fall 2015. It calls for each of the Diocese’s 107 parishes to pursue a new course that will lead to stronger faith communities and more effective ministry.
To that end, parishioners, clergy and lay leaders have been spending the summer guiding, reviewing and responding to preliminary recommendations received in late June by the Diocesan Planning Commission. The recommendations were responses to the Cohorts’ original proposals.
To further self-assess their parishes in responding to the Commission’s preliminary recommendations, Cohort 19 – which consists of St. Catharine-St. Margaret, Spring Lake, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Avon-by-the Sea, St. Mark, Sea Girt, and St. Rose, Belmar, parishes – held a Town Hall-style meeting in St. Mark Aug. 17.
Tom Mullooly, Cohort 19 chairman and Core Team leader for St. Rose Parish, said the meeting was one of three the Cohort held across its community to discuss the Commission’s findings, garner feedback and address any unease.
“We need to let go of the short-term concerns and focus on where we are going in the next five to 10 years,” he said.
A fact that was supported by one parishioner asserting, “This isn’t about us – we’re not doing this for us. We’re doing this for the future.”
Mullooly said he was pleased with the parish participation at all of the Town Hall-style meetings, saying more than 100 parishioners were present each evening.
“We thought this was the best step to bring everyone on the same page,” he said. “We know where we’ve been; we know what we have done; we know where we’re going as a Diocese. We just need to plan the next step and be on the same page.”
One Faith, One Direction
Informing the people in the pew was also a top priority for Cohort 11 – St. Veronica and St. William the Abbot, Howell, and St. Catherine of Siena, Farmingdale – which met Aug. 22.
In addition to the parish bulletin inserts, messages from their pastors and information on websites within the Cohort, members of St. Catherine of Siena Parish also created a special email address solely for the purpose of answering Faith in Our Future questions.
“There were some concerns, and we wanted to let the people know what was going on,” said Richard Schuberth, who maintained the email inbox.
As Cohort 11 begins the process of formally responding to the Commission, the members, like those of Cohort 19, say they are proud of how far they’ve come and look forward to the future.
“A lot of improvements have been made in all of our parishes, and we appreciate the nature of the process,” said Frank Francese of Cohort 11, Core Team member from St. William the Abbot.
The process, which some Cohort members admitted was a long one, with many hours of work and preparation, was met with challenges and graces along the way.
“None of this came without us coming together with prayer and unity,” Cohort 11 co-chair Mary Ann Collett, also of St. William the Abbot, said.
That unity is something her Cohort co-chair Robert Mercado, St. Catherine of Siena, is proud of. “We addressed the differences of opinions and looked at what the Commission had asked. We are all moving in one direction; everyone is on the same page.”
Of the almost yearlong process, Francese said, “We re-evaluated our identities – we have re-evaluated our finances with the information we have provided. We’re holding each other accountable. We’re all going to come out of this better.”
While the Cohort may have disagreed on certain points as the process unfolded, members all agreed on the importance of prayer.
Differences of Opinion
John Reid, senior consultant with the Reid Group, which is facilitating the diocesan initiative, said the facilitators assigned to work with the Cohorts are in frequent contact with everyone involved in the Faith in Our Future process to answer questions and address concerns as they arise.
“This is a time of intensive study for the Cohorts,” he said, explaining that in the early phases, parishes talked amongst themselves, which then grew into Cohort discussions. “Now, they’re in dialogue with the Commission – that’s new and very different. They have new information to sort through.”
“In some areas, the Commission disagreed with the best thinking of the Cohorts,” he continued. “I think this important phase in the process has really gotten people’s attention in a new way.”
Anthony Coticelli, chairman of Cohort 22, agreed, saying the Commission’s preliminary recommendations have energized the group. Cohort 22 – the parishes of St. Anthony Claret and St. Mary of the Lake, both in Lakewood, and Visitation and St. Dominic, both in Brick – has met twice since receiving the suggestions.
“The group understands this is a serious issue,” Coticelli said. “There’s what I want, what the other 19 people want and what God wants. I like to think he’s [God] going to get what he wants and needs at the end of the day.”
Coticelli, who has worked as a leadership and organizational development consultant for 30 years, admits that, naturally, there are conflicting emotions and interests within the Cohort. “Everybody, in times of change, thinks they’re losing something, but I think that’s subjective. What we’re seeing is typical – but the stakes here are higher. We are talking about the Catholic Church.”
Figura said that when Cohort 2 received the Commission’s feedback, there, too, were less-than-enthusiastic feelings. So the Cohort agreed to take time to decompress and study the suggestions before regrouping.
“Sometimes we [people] think too narrowly,” she said, explaining that two Parish Core Teams got together apart from the whole to discuss challenges specifically geared to them. This gave the two Core Teams the chance to work through specific issues and come up with solutions before rejoining the Cohort, allowing the group to move on as a whole.
“We’re not here to have confrontations,” she said. “We’re here to learn from each other.”
Figura said she believes the Diocese has been transparent in the issues facing the Church, such as funding challenges and the worldwide trend in the declining number of priests. The faith leaders involved in her Cohort, she believes, have continued that transparency by including parishioners in the Faith in Our Future process through online updates, information in bulletins and Town Hall-style meetings.
“Originally, I think there was a sense of fear when they [parishioners] heard some of the recommendations,” she said. “That’s why I’m glad this whole process is spread over time. It gives people a chance to process information and understand the future.”
“We have to be able to help our priests in whatever way we are able to – that’s the future of the Church,” she added.
Figura admits she’s heard rumblings that the Faith in Our Future process is already a “done deal” and that some believe choices regarding the future of the Diocese’s 107 parishes have already been made. To that, she disagrees, and pleads with everyone to be open to new ideas.
“Be patient. This is a process,” she said. “Change is difficult, but hopefully, the changes that will occur will occur naturally.”
“People need to be open to sharing and a coming together of ideas,” she said. “Focusing on being one Church is not just being one church of an area.”
Even with emotions sometimes running high, Coticelli, too, is hopeful and encourages everyone within the Diocese to pray for this process.
“Sure, there are bumps,” he said. “But God called us to do this for a reason.
“We’ve had some beautiful moments [as a Cohort]. ... That gives me hope.”