Story by Lois Rogers, Correspondent
The Diocese’s Faith in Our Future initiative reached a pivotal phase Oct. 18 as members of the Diocesan Planning Commission gathered in Eatontown for a three-day retreat to prepare final recommendations for parish development.
The retreat began in prayer as the 24 members of the Planning Commission came together for Mass with members of the diocesan staff and the Reid Group, the pastoral planning consultants for Faith in Our Future.
The sixth of eight steps that began earlier this year, the Commission’s task was twofold: to evaluate responses to the preliminary recommendations they made during a June retreat from the 25 Cohorts around the Diocese, and to prepare the final recommendations to be presented to Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., by the end of October.
Throughout the session’s first day, many of those involved expressed the sense of purpose they were experiencing as the final step in their task commenced.
For months, they had been part of an extended process convened to develop ways for parishes to coalesce and collaborate in a time when the Church is experiencing a cultural and demographic shift, including a declining numbers of priests and parishioners who attend Mass.
An Intense Process
In his homily at the opening Mass and remarks that followed, Msgr. Leonard F. Troiano, episcopal vicar for diocesan planning, recognized the magnitude of recommendations that could affect hundreds of thousands of faithful in 107 parishes around Mercer, Monmouth, Burlington and Ocean counties.
He encouraged the Planning Commission members to stay focused by placing God at the center of their efforts.
“As we come together to dialogue and debate the recommendations and the data, be guided by faith,” and intent on “transforming the Church of Trenton prayerfully,” with an abiding emphasis on “what is best for [our] brothers and sisters,” Msgr. Troiano said.
In a Scriptural reference, he likened those who have participated in the process to the “first 72 disciples” sent out to evangelize the known world. “We are going into unknown territory,” he said. “Present your best thinking on the possibilities open to us for the future.”
While noting that this is “not easy work,” he asked the commissioners to take heart from the fact that “the Church is always in transition … we live in a time of great [change]. How it impacts the Church is of great consideration.”
The most important thing, he said, is that those dedicating themselves to this challenge realize that “the Holy Spirit is always with us,” as they strive to put these momentous recommendations together for the Bishop.
John Reid stressed the importance that after this step in the process, all recommendations would be going to the Bishop, unlike before. During the Planning Commission meeting in June, members were responding to the suggestions received from 25 Cohorts – composed of self-evaluations from neighboring parish core teams – that focused on five key areas: evangelization, Catholic schools, communal life, stewardship and administration.
The Commission’s recommendations from that June gathering were returned to the Cohorts over the summer for review. Further study and consultation took place in many parishes with town hall meetings and bulletin reports. The outcome of this extended consultation at the local level were new or affirmed suggestions delivered back to the Planning Commission.
The goal, according to John Reid, is to “work together, in order to glean the very best information for Bishop O’Connell.”
Before the Commission disbursed into four breakout groups – one for each county – Terry Ginther, executive director of Pastoral Life and Mission, encouraged the members to ask themselves, “Is this the best care of the people? … This can’t be a Hail Mary Pass. It has to be a touchdown.”
Putting ‘the Heart’ Into It
Brief visits to each of the breakout rooms revealed the commitment and rigor of the commissioners as they set about reviewing some of the first drafts of final recommendations. The members engaged in dialogue that ranged from wide-ranging to minutely specific, always expressing care and concern for the people who made up the communities that might be impacted.
In interviews during a break, Msgr. Troiano, several Commission members and facilitators reflected how this stage in the process was nearing culmination.
“There has been such a real commitment of time in the number of meetings,” Msgr. Troiano said, reflecting on the dedication and faith of all those involved. “People saw the value in keeping the process moving.”
He said pastors who have participated have expressed appreciation that the Faith in Our Future process added to their depth of knowledge about the Diocese and its parishes. Laity, he said, were excited about the fact that it helped them get into dialogue with neighboring parishes. They spoke of finding meaningful ways collaboration could work, he said.
“I think they are hopeful [Faith in Our Future] will help the Diocese bring vitality” to the parishes, Msgr. Troiano observed.
James Trainor, a commissioner from St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Freehold, called it a “great process” and said he especially appreciated the way it melded the expertise of laity, clergy and diocesan employees, the careful preparation and the fact that everyone gave generously of their time.
Facilitator Linda Quinn, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Whiting, reflected on how the first retreat focused a lot on facts and figures.
“Now, we are adding the heart. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback, and we understand [that what we are working with] is the fabric of the community,” she said.