By Jennifer Mauro, Correspondent
The Diocese of Trenton’s Faith in Our Future initiative entered its next significant phase June 14, as the Diocesan Planning Commission began a three-day retreat and conference in Eatontown to develop recommendations on how best to strengthen parishes.
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Made up of 24 persons, the Planning Commission’s work is the third of eight steps in the process that was announced in December by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M. Faith in Our Future aims to develop ways for parishes to work better together at a time when the Diocese is experiencing major shifts in such factors as population, cultural makeup and available priests.
Faith in Our Future began to take shape in the parishes early this year with parish self-evaluation measures and consultation conducted by Core Teams. After months of assessing the key areas of sacramental life, evangelization, catechesis and Catholic schools, communal life and stewardship and administration, these Core Teams were formed into 25 larger Cohorts with neighboring parishes to consider possible restructuring and areas of collaboration.
Next Important Step
In early June, the Cohorts submitted their Suggestions to the Planning Commission for deliberation. The Commission is now charged with reviewing the evaluations and Suggestions submitted by the Cohorts. The commissioners include priests, deacons, women religious and lay men and women from Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties who have been asked to serve because of their experience in the parish, school and ministry setting, or their professional expertise.
Msgr. Leonard F. Troiano, episcopal vicar for diocesan planning, said of the Planning Commission’s members, “Because they come from a variety of backgrounds in parish life and in their professions, they bring their expertise to these discussions. Like those in the cohort teams, they have experience in the wider picture of the Diocese.”
Throughout the retreat, which began with Mass, the Commission was to break into four groups - one for each county - to discuss the Cohort Suggestions from that county and prepare a first draft of Recommendations. Each county breakout group is headed by a “champion” - a leader tasked to know and understand the work of that Cohort.
The Suggestions of the breakout groups are then brought back to the Commission as a whole, where they are presented, discussed and voted upon. This alternating process will repeat over the three days of the retreat until all 25 Cohorts have been discussed.
The result of their work – Preliminary Recommendations - will then be sent back to each Cohort with rationale for why the Commission came to its conclusions the week of June 27, at which time the Cohorts will devote several more weeks to further study and discussion. The Planning Commission will meet again in October to review the Cohort responses and bring together a set of Final Recommendations for Bishop O’Connell to consider. This will lead to the last two steps, consultation and decision-making by the Bishop by December and preparation for implementation in January 2017.
“Think of this as dialogue with all the wonderful people in the 25 Cohorts,” John Reid, consultant for Faith in Our Future, told the Planning Commission on its first retreat day. “They’ve given you their first word. This is you returning your best thinking.”
Building a Legacy
Msgr. Troiano opened the retreat by reading an encouraging letter from the Bishop, thanking the commissioners for their service.
Addressing the Commission, Msgr. Troiano said, “We are working on a legacy of what the Church and Diocese of Trenton will look like. You are building a future and following the mandate of when Christ asked us to build his Church.”
In an orientation talk, John Reid, a partner with the Reid Group, which is the pastoral planning consultant for Faith in Our Future, emphasized the spiritual aspect of the process, acknowledging the Cohorts’ hard work and calling their recommendations a gift.
“We started today with prayer and the Eucharist because we’re not talking about corporate or boardroom planning. This is faith-based planning,” he said.
In addition to the Commission, Reid Group consultants were on hand to facilitate the process, and diocesan representatives were available to oversee the retreat and answer any questions regarding parishes.
Msgr. Troiano said he was pleased to see the Commission members bond during their first meeting in March, when they gathered to prepare for its role in the Faith in Our Future process.
“My feeling of the group is very positive. This group is really grasping the charge they’ve been given,” he said, adding that he feels the members understand the importance of the task at hand and are enthusiastic of the process.
“My hope is that the recommendations that are made back to the Cohorts are received well as a sign of support of the work the Cohorts have done,” he said.
The future of the Church in the Diocese was being taken very seriously at the retreat considering some of the challenges that lie ahead. These include the $60 million debt the Diocese holds for parishes and the large number of priests that will be retiring in the next 10 years.
Planning Commission member Dottie Guerrasio, director of religious education in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, and member of St. Denis Parish, Manasquan, said her experience at the retreat was positive, calling everyone very open and supportive of each other.
“I had no idea how this was going to work with so many parishes involved, but I think the process is very well thought out and organized,” she said.