12/1/2010 10:15:00 AM A message to the clergy, religious and faithful of the Diocese of Trenton
Bishop O'Connell speaks during the fifth anniversary Mass of Divine Mercy Parish, Trenton, Oct. 3. Joe Moore photo
“Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom and leading the ewes with care” (Is. 40: 11)
“Como un pastor que apacienta el rebaño, su brazo lo reúne, toma en brazos los corderos y hace recostar a las madres” (Is. 40: 11)
My dear sisters and brothers in Christ: these familiar words of the prophet Isaiah, used during the Advent liturgy, may also be heard at this time of year in George Frideric Handel’s famous oratorio “Messiah.” Both the Scripture itself and the soothing melody that it inspired brings comfort to those who hear it, comfort and encouragement that God does, indeed, provide for his people.
This morning, Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, accepted the resignation of Bishop John M. Smith, ninth bishop of the Diocese of Trenton (1997-2010), in accordance with canon 401.1 of the Code of Canon Law. As coadjutor, I have the great honor and privilege of succeeding him as your tenth bishop, an awesome responsibility that I accept with humility and gratitude to Pope Benedict XVI.
During his tenure as our ordinary, Bishop Smith did “feed his flock” with the love and care of a good shepherd. In the name of the clergy, the women and men in consecrated life and all the faithful, I offer him our profound gratitude as well as our abiding love, prayer and support. So much good has been accomplished in our Diocese thanks to his wisdom, strong leadership and steady hand over these years. We are fortunate that Bishop Smith will continue to live and work among us as our “bishop emeritus.” Please join me in expressing our appreciation to him.
To mark the transition in pastoral governance, I will celebrate the Mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in the Cathedral on Dec. 8 at 12:10 p.m. Bishop Smith will join me in that celebration and all are welcome to attend.
It is a beautiful coincidence that the beginning of my ministry as diocesan bishop occurs at the beginning of the season of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year – a time of expectation and a time of hope. The scriptural text quoted above was and remains a prophetic reminder throughout this holy season that God cares for us with the loving concern of a shepherd watching over, nourishing and leading his flock, keeping them, especially the young lambs, close to his heart. The image of the “Good Shepherd” is one of the most ancient, artistic depictions of the Lord Jesus Christ and it has endured through the centuries.
In the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, the author proclaims “I will give you shepherds after my own heart who will feed you with knowledge and understanding (Jer. 3: 15).”
Again, through the centuries, God has fulfilled that prophecy for us in the Church.
As bishop, I hope and pray – and invite you to pray – that I might live and minister “after his heart” and with the knowledge and understanding necessary to serve you well.
I am encouraged and energized by the warm welcome I have received from you in the past four months and by the realization that the ministry I now assume, I also share with many of you as collaborators: pastors, priests and deacons, consecrated women and men, and committed lay ministers. As your new shepherd, I ask you to join me in striving to live out the motto that I have chosen as bishop: “ministrare non ministrari, to serve and not to be served (Mark 10:45).” May that be the spirit of our collaborative ministry to teach and lead and continually invite all the faithful entrusted to our care to holiness!
At the same time, I know well that the service and ministry to which I have been called and for which I have been ordained and consecrated is one of leadership of God’s people in our Diocese. That fact was never clearer to me than in September this past year, when I had the privilege of kneeling before the tomb of St. Peter in the Basilica that bears his name in Rome. “As bishop, you are a successor to the Apostles,” I had heard over and over again during meetings there that week. In those few, precious and emotional moments at St. Peter’s tomb, my mind and heart were filled with the realization of what St. Peter and the Apostles did for the Church to build up the Kingdom of God… and of what was ultimately asked of them. And what will be asked of me.
The responsibility that now falls to me is a profound one. Although the future is uncertain and I know that it will bring unique and, at times, difficult challenges, I face it with faith “in him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).”
My greatest concern is the fact that only 25 percent of our Catholic faithful in the Diocese go to Mass on Sunday. Why is that? What can we do to bring them back and welcome them, truly welcome them home not just for an occasional visit but to stay?
We all need to work toward that goal with every ounce of strength within us. There must be an answer. We have to find it.
Another concern I have is for Catholic education, especially our Catholic schools and religious education programs. You might expect that, given my background and prior service. So much is at stake for the future of our Church, much of which has a direct bearing on the concern I already mentioned. Catholic education is critically important if we are going to hand on our Catholic faith not only to the next generation but to the present one as well.
I have often said in these last few months traveling around the Diocese, we have the vision and the values, we have the curriculum and the committed service of dedicated faculty and staff. What we do not have are the enrollment numbers, the funding and the stability in both these things to easily support the future. Catholic education must be a concern for us all, regardless of whether or not we have children in our Catholic schools and religious education programs. It is not an exaggeration to say that our future, as Church, depends upon it.
I am also concerned about vocations to the priesthood and religious life in our Diocese. When people do not go to Mass, when attendance in our Catholic schools and programs diminish, it should come as no surprise that young men are not being drawn to the priesthood and brotherhood or young women to religious life. To point to recent scandals is too easy and convenient a response. The issue is much deeper and, perhaps, even harder to confront and face. It is a problem of faith. Who will lead us into the future if no one hears and heeds God’s call? And who can hear and heed God’s call if we make so much noise and offer so many excuses that his voice is lost in the process?
These are just a few things on my mind as I begin my service as your bishop. Believe me, there are many more. At a time when money is tight and employment is not stable, I have nowhere else to turn but you. At a time when society and culture mock our most deeply held teachings and values, I have nowhere else to turn but you.
At a time when the number of those available to lead and serve in our parishes and institutions are rapidly diminishing, I have nowhere else to turn but you. And in all these things and the many other burdens that weigh heavily upon us all, as your bishop I invite and ask you to join with me in turning to the Lord, especially during this Advent Season, in joyful expectation and daily prayer that our faith might be renewed, our hope strengthened and our charity increased and multiplied!
My sisters and brothers, I ask your prayer in these times of transition that I might be for you a good and faithful bishop, that my many imperfections and weaknesses might be minimized, and that whatever good gifts and graces God has given me might be strengthened and placed at your service in building up the Kingdom of God in the Church of the Diocese of Trenton. May I be a shepherd who feeds his flock, who gathers and carries the lambs, and who always leads them, especially the young, with care.
Faithfully yours in the Lord,
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M. Bishop of Trenton