Story by Jennifer Mauro | Associate Editor
The recommendations were rendered by the Diocesan Planning Commission during a retreat in mid-October and represented the results of two rounds of consultation with the 107 parishes across Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties.
“These recommendations came up through the parishioners, working in various groups, and I’m very happy to have grass-roots opinions on how the parishes would like to see their Diocese proceed,” the Bishop said in the Chancery, Lawrenceville, as he accepted the binder designated with the Faith in Our Future logo.
The eight-step pastoral planning process, which began in 2015, is meant to strengthen and enliven the parishes of the Diocese as well as diocesan-sponsored organizations and ministries. Over many months, parishes have met individually for self-study and as Cohorts to present to the Diocesan Planning Commission ministry models and rationale.
The process is now entering its seventh phase, and the Bishop will prayerfully review the final recommendations. In December, he will hold four vicariate meetings – one in each county of the Diocese – to consult with priests and others on the plans for their Cohorts; he will also meet with his episcopal council and his diocesan curia for further consultation and discussion.
The Bishop has committed to present his findings Jan. 25, 2017, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
A Time of Growth
Msgr. Leonard F. Troiano, episcopal vicar for planning, said it was important to remember during this discernment process that while the materials presented to the Bishop are the final recommendations of the Planning Commission, they are not the final decisions. There are no known outcomes at this time, he said.
He also echoed the Bishop’s sentiments of appreciation for all involved in the process.
“It started with the laity. … A lot of people spent a lot of collective hours, not just at meetings, but in their homes and offices,” he said, praising their hard work. “Now, the process is continuing up through the Bishop’s consultative bodies.”
Terry Ginther, executive director of the diocesan Office of Pastoral Life and Mission, said she would like to see parishioners share in a sense of hopefulness and expectation now that the recommendations have been presented to the Bishop.
“New relationships are emerging between parishes from the months of conversation during the process. Wonderful ideas about collaboration have been brought forward,” she said. “It is an exciting time to be a part of the Church in the Diocese of Trenton.”
She also praised the work of the Diocesan Planning Commission. “They took the responses from the Cohorts and all the data they were provided very seriously. The final recommendations they offered to Bishop were given with a profound sense of prayerfulness and humility.”
Those feelings were reflected in the anonymous notes the Planning Commission was invited to submit to the Bishop as members were asked, “What do you want Bishop O’Connell to know as he receives your recommendations?”
“The process was well-orchestrated and results-oriented,” one member commented. “It took openness and much sensitivity. I was humbled to be a part of it.”
Said another, “I was astonished by the complexity and diversity of the parishes, and I hope that our recommendations will be helpful [to] you, Bishop. We wrestled with it all and came up with our best thinking.”
“We pray that as a result of this process, the Diocese of Trenton will be most blessed. May this work bear fruit in abundance!” another member said.
Up for Consideration
With the recommendations submitted, the work of parish core teams and Planning Commission is now completed. The next phase will be that of implementation, to begin after the final decisions are announced by the Bishop.
There are a number of different models of parish organization under consideration, and every parish will have some level of change in connection with its neighboring parishes. At a minimum, parishes will be asked to enter into collaborative relationships with other parishes in their Cohorts. Among other models are merger, linking, in solidum and personal parishes.
Merger and closure are not synonymous terms. If parishes are selected for merger, it means they join together to become an entirely new faith community. It is not about the closing of one parish and the strengthening of the other.
Parish and church are not synonymous terms. The parish is the community of believers and the territorial boundaries in which they reside; the church is the worship site in which the faithful gather. When parishes merge, some worship sites will remain open and some will close, depending on the needs of the new parish and several other criteria.
New parish and Cohort teams as well as new Planning Commission members will be selected for the implementation process.