Story by Lois Rogers, Correspondent, and Mary Stadnyk, Associate Editor
Amidst the rich symbolism and ritual that surrounded the Mass officially elevating St. Robert Bellarmine Church to Co-Cathedral, Msgr. Sam Sirianni, rector, reflected on the fundamental mission of all parishes to be of service to those who enter their doors.
“We’re here to open wide the doors to Christ,” Msgr. Sirianni said following the joyful gathering that was celebrated on a sunny and unseasonably warm day Feb. 19.
“Our doors have to be open to all those who seek Christ,” he said. “We’re here to welcome them, walk with them on their journeys to our Lord. That is what being Church is all about.”
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With a stroke of a pen, a new milestone was reached in the life and ministry of the Diocese of Trenton as Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, signed an official decree elevating the 15-year-old Freehold Township church to the dignity of Co-Cathedral.
“Today is a great day in the Diocese of Trenton,” Bishop O’Connell said to the some 1,300 faithful who filled the pews or stood around the perimeter of the nave, overflowing into the vast gathering space.
The formal recognition of the Co-Cathedral’s elevation took place during a dramatic three-fold rite within the context of the Mass, which included the blessing of the Bishop’s new chair, known as a cathedra, with holy water by Archbishop Pierre. Anthony Mingarino, diocesan chancellor, read the Decree of Erection of the Co-Cathedral of Trenton, or acta, in the presence of Church leaders.
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“To better provide for the spiritual good of the People of God in order to be able to fulfill more effectively the pastoral ministry, His Excellency, the Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M., Bishop of Trenton, asked the Holy See that the temple, dedicated to God in honor of St. Robert Bellarmine, established in the town known as Freehold, be elevated to the dignity of Co-Cathedral Church,” Mingarino read. “The Congregation of Bishops, having obtained the favorable opinion of His Excellency, the Most Reverend Christophe Pierre, titular Archbishop of Gunela and Apostolic Nuncio to the United States of America, in virtue of the special faculties granted to him by the Supreme Pontiff, Francis, by Divine Providence, Pope, relating to this matter, he consents with his prayers kindly offered.”
The decree was signed by Archbishop Pierre and Bishop O’Connell and stamped with the diocesan seal by Mingarino. Father Edward Jawidzik, longtime parochial vicar of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, presented a framed picture of the Co-Cathedral’s new coat of arms to Bishop O’Connell, and Msgr. Sirianni. A thunderous round of applause erupted as Msgr. Sirianni, with a broad smile and tears in his eyes, held the picture high for all to see.
Call to Holiness
Addressing his brother bishops in attendance – Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, Bishop James F. Checchio of Metuchen, and Bishop Yousif Benham Habash, Syrian Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance in Newark, – and those assembled, Bishop O’Connell, in his homily, drew from the Book of Leviticus and the Gospel of Matthew, respectively, and exhorted the faithful to follow the example of the Lord and strive for holiness and perfection. Though he described the examples as being “tall orders for the People of God, challenging,” the Bishop emphasized they are “not impossible [to reach], at least in the design and plan of God for us.”
Reminding the assembly that “God never asks us to do the impossible,” he offered the classic encouragement given long ago by English poet Robert Browning that man’s reach should “exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
“I think that poetic phrase says it well,” said the Bishop, adding that while holiness and perfection “do exceed our grasp, we are not alone as we continue reaching and striving in our lives.”
That aim, he said, is “why we are here today. That’s what this celebration is all about: our reaching out for God, for holiness, to be in the presence of one” who makes all things holy.
Sacred structures – “a Church, a Cathedral or Co-Cathedral” – symbolize the age-old quest to reach out in “carefully designed brick and mortar, stained glass and sacred images” as a community of faith “with all our imperfections and, with a desire that never ends to be better today than yesterday … in whispered prayers and voices lifted in song; in Sacraments and rituals,” Bishop O’Connell said.
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The Bishop focused on the Second Reading, drawn from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, urging everyone to realize that the “temple of God and the Holy Spirit dwells in you,” that holiness is not only to be experienced in the external but the internal as well.
He pointed to St. Robert Bellarmine, the “great scholar, the Cardinal, the devoted servant of God for whom this co-Cathedral is named,” who urged the faithful 500 years ago to recognize that they had been created “for the glory of God and your own salvation.”
“As you reach, as you strive for holiness and perfection, especially in the upcoming Season of Lent, Christ builds the temple within you,” the Bishop said, reminding the faithful of their call to share with those in need, to love their enemies, their spouses, families, neighbors and the strangers in their midst.
“These are the claims that following Christ makes on you. These are the Gospel. These are the glory of God. These are your salvation. These are the reasons for this Co-Cathedral,” the Bishop said.
Those who witnessed the historic celebration expressed sentiments of wonder and awe.
More than an hour before Mass, Wayne and Carol Cordiner settled into the seats they enjoy occupying each Sunday. It’s a prime location, midway down the right side of the nave, on the aisle with a clear view of the sanctuary.
The couple, parishioners since 1986, have been active members since they arrived in the area. Carol Cordiner taught religious education, and her husband performed repairs for the campus buildings, which grew incrementally over the years.
“We are so happy to see that this is truly happening in this building. We just had to be here,” said Cordiner, who raised her four children in the parish.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-Hamiton, a member of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, and chairman of the bipartisan congressional pro-life caucus, called it “important on many levels” to attend the Mass of Elevation.
Smith recalled that in his own early days in the pro-life movement, the late Father Thomas Dentici, founding pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine, was the diocesan director of pro-life efforts. Father Dentici, who died in 2014, was then and still is an inspiration to him, Smith said.
The congressman also wanted to acknowledge the central location of the Co-Cathedral, which, he expects, will be a meaningful development for many faithful who live on the heavily populated eastern side of the Diocese.
“It’s about proximity,” Smith said. “This will enable more people to have access – they will be able to avail themselves” of liturgies and events typically held in cathedrals, such as the Chrism Mass on the Monday of Holy Week, which will be held at St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral for the third time in as many years.
“It’s so wise to bring the beauty” of what unfolds in a cathedral, he said, “to more people in the Diocese.”
Among the founding parishioners present were Josephine and Stephen Addeo, who now live in Belmar, where they are members of St. Rose Parish.
“We helped to lay the foundation of St. Robert,” Stephen Addeo said. Glancing around at the warm surrounds of the lobby in the parish center, where religious art, comfortable furniture and an array of books welcome visitors, he said, “This [church] is where our faith began to deepen.”
Parishioner Janice Martino and her daughter, Nicole, 21, were among scores who stood for most of the Mass. But after Communion, a parishioner offered her a seat, and she gratefully accepted so that she could kneel.
“It mattered very much to me to kneel,” said Martino. Her eyes welled with tears as the vast church emptied out after the recessional. “I just can’t hold back the tears,” said Martino, who noted that her daughter, Lisa, 26, teaches eighth-grade religious education and son Michael, 18, received all his sacraments there.
“We moved here in 1999. My daughter Nicole was in the first class to receive their First Holy Communion in this church,” she said. “This is quite an honor.”
Father Gene Vavrick, pastor of St. Anselm Parish, Wayside, spoke of the pride he felt in sharing the day with his 90-year-old father, Eugene, calling the celebration a “truly historic day for the Diocese.”
“People came from all over – it was great to see them,” he said.
The turnout, he said was uplifting, for “the Bishop and the priests concelebrating.”
Father Vavrick said he believes that enthusiasm will translate to good attendance when diocesan liturgies and events are held at the Co-Cathedral.
“I know that many appreciate having some diocesan events closer to the shore,” he said. “Priests have been asking for that for years.” He added that the elevation of the Co-Cathedral “goes along with the phrase in the letter from the Vatican” that it reflects the responsibility of meeting the needs of all the people.”
At age 91, lifelong parishioner Lauren Proctor said though she was appreciative that her church had been elevated to Co-Cathedral, it wouldn’t change her opinion of the parish.
“This church has always been at the highest prestige as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “When I got to Mass, there are so many people I know that I feel like I’m at home.”