As apostolic administrator for the past 15 months, Syracuse Bishop Robert J. Cunningham got to know the Rochester Diocese quite well. So Father Joseph A. Hart — Bishop Cunningham’s delegate in daily governance of Rochester — takes to heart his kudos about the state of the diocese.
"In conversations with Bishop Cunningham he was very complimentary, saying that Bishop (Salvatore R.) Matano will find this diocese in very good shape and very ready for the next phase of its life," said Father Hart, who will serve as vicar general and moderator of the curia under Bishop Matano. Father Hart filled the same roles for Bishop Emeritus Matthew H. Clark from 1998 until Bishop Clark’s 2012 retirement.
Key developments regarding diocesan operations have included:
Reorganization of parishes and Catholic schools
In the late 1990s the Rochester Diocese initiated a pastoral plan that called for parishes to share their resources by region. Groups of parishes were put under the leadership of single administrators, and financial and personnel resources were spread among the parishes. A number of churches were closed; others became worship sites as part of newly named multichurch parishes.
Recent closings also have occurred in the diocesan Catholic-school system, most notably in 2008 when Bishop Clark announced that 13 of Monroe County’s 24 diocesan-operated elementary and middle schools were shutting down.
Bishop Clark sought to complete for his successor "whatever downsizing, whatever re-engineering, whatever repositioning there was with the parish and school resources of the diocese," Father Hart said, observing that Bishop Matano has enacted similar measures in the Burlington Diocese.
The steps Bishop Clark took were necessary, Father Hart said, noting that the Catholic population has dwindled and shifted considerably from the time when many diocesan parishes — particularly those in the city of Rochester — were formed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. "We just didn’t need the number of churches and schools anymore," Father Hart said.
He added that the pace of recent downsizing has slowed considerably — and that although closings and consolidations haven’t necessarily ended "it won’t be on such a large scale."
Courier file photo by Mike Crupi
During the press conference that announced him as Rochester’s ninth bishop, Bishop Matano cited efforts at increasing Mass attendance as a key focal point. He urged fallen-away Catholics to "come home," and for other diocesan Catholics to take part in this evangelization effort.
"We’re all John the Baptists," he remarked.
Bishop Matano noted that the Burlington Diocese — like Rochester and many other dioceses across the United States — has been challenged in recent years by significantly fewer numbers of people coming to church.
Meanwhile, Father Hart estimated that Mass attendance in the Rochester Diocese has declined by 25 percent over the past 15 years. He blamed the decrease on "several demographic shifts" such as the large declines in the Catholic populations of Rochester and Elmira — cities that were once heavily Catholic — and a societal trend toward secularization "with some movement away from what people call organized religion."
"There is clearly room here for re-evangelization," Father Hart added.
The Diocese of Rochester currently has 19 men studying for the diocesan priesthood. Two priest ordinations are scheduled for June 2014 with five more projected for the following year — marking the highest single-year total in decades — as well as four more ordinations in 2016 according to Carol Dady, diocesan coordinator of priesthood vocations awareness.
"There have been many people, from the Pastoral Center to Becket Hall to the parish level, who are taking the ministry of vocations awareness very seriously," remarked Father William Coffas, director of the diocesan pre-theology discernment program Becket Hall, in a May 2013 Catholic Courier article about the rise in priestly vocations.
Father Hart observed that vocational trends have historically been marked by peaks and valleys and "we’ve just come out of a valley where we’ve had very few vocations, which is not atypical for a diocese in the United States." He credits the upswing in priestly vocations to a "wonderful vocations team" in the diocese.
"Whether this trend will continue we don’t know, but we think that we hand over to Bishop Matano a very healthy vocation effort," Father Hart said.
He said a considerable boost has been provided by the arrival in Rochester of eight seminarians from Colombia. The diocese also has been aided by an influx of priests from other parts of the world, particularly Africa "who have come to us usually for a period of education and sabbatical," Father Hart said. "Some have discerned that they would like to continue to minister here."
Courier file photo by Mike Crupi
Several men’s orders dot the diocesan landscape, including Jesuits affiliated with McQuaid Jesuit High School; Basilians at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford and St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Irondequoit; and Capuchin Franciscans in Finger Lakes-area parishes. In addition, in Piffard, Livingston County, there are cloistered priests at Abbey of the Genesee, which is run by the Cistercians of the Strict Observance; and in Pine City, Chemung County, Mount Saviour Monastery is staffed by the Benedictines. Other men’s orders in the diocese are the Carmelites, Redemptorists and Missionaries of the Precious Blood.
For women religious, the Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of St. Joseph continue to be the largest congregations in the diocese. While acknowledging the continual challenge of attracting new vocations, Father Hart reports "a slight uptick" locally for these orders in recent years. This diocese also is home to cloistered sisters at Monastery of Our Lady and St. Joseph in Pittsford (Discalced Carmelites) and Monastery of Mary the Queen in Elmira (Dominicans). Additional women’s orders in the diocese are the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of the Cenacle, Franciscan Sisters of Allegany and Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.
According to Deacon John Brasley, diocesan director of deacon personnel, the Rochester Diocese had 117 active and 30 retired permanent deacons as of mid-December 2013. Yet after seven ordinations to the permanent diaconate this past year, only one is scheduled for 2014, he said. However, Deacon Brasley added that 16 men are currently in formation, a process that takes four to five years.
"Like the other vocations, the recruiting for deacons has gone up and down," Father Hart said. "We’re coming out of one of our low periods and now have a very healthy class moving into St. Bernard’s (School of Theology and Ministry) this year."
Courier file photo by Mike Crupi
In June 2012, a month before Bishop Clark’s retirement, the Diocese of Rochester published the names of the 23 priests who had been removed from ministry since 2002 due to credible allegations of sexual abuse. That list can be accessed — along with related information — at www.dor.org/index.cfm/safe-environment/dispositions-2002-present/.
"We’re constantly renewing our efforts, continually training and supporting our communities and being alert to this danger that has caused such pain," Bishop Clark told the Courier for a June 2012 article.
Also in that story, Bishop Clark noted that the diocesan sexual-abuse policy has been found to be in compliance with all independent audits since the landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and Essential Norms was adopted in 2002 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The diocese requires criminal background checks and training of all diocesan priests, deacons, employees and volunteers who work with children, teenagers and vulnerable adults to prevent and detect sexual abuse.
"I think we’ve been up-front and supportive of the safe environment program from the beginning. And we’ve gotten very good audit notices," Father Hart said. He added that the diocese requires renewed training every three years as "an ongoing refresher."
A November 2013 Courier story reported the 2012-13 fiscal year to be a good one for the diocese, thanks in part to strong stock-market performance and rising interest rates.
"We’re healthy. When bishops have asked, ‘does your diocese run a deficit every year,’ no, we don’t; and, ‘does your diocese carefully budget,’ well, yes, we do," Father Hart said, adding that in the past this sometimes has meant difficult decisions such as staff reductions at the Pastoral Center.
"We’re not well-off but we’re in very good shape," he added.
At the parish level, the diocese has recently implemented rigid standards to avoid potential cases of fraud. Measures taken include new training, oversight and controls for those handling parish finances, and the hiring of regional finance directors.
"Clearly we’ve been taking quite seriously our role as good stewards of the financial resources that the people in the pews put in our hands," Father Hart said.
The annual Catholic Ministries Appeal, which funds numerous diocesan ministries, appears well on its way to another successful campaign. David Kelly, campaign coordinator, reported that as of Jan. 8 the CMA had garnered 27,655 commitments totaling more than $5.1 million. That constitutes 88 percent of the $5.875 million goal for the campaign, which will run through May 31. Kelly noted that the current appeal was running approximately $100,000 ahead of last year’s campaign, which reached a record total of $5.4 million.
In addition, this past year saw the conclusion of the "Our Legacy, Our Future, Our Hope" campaign, which has raised approximately $12 million to provide financial support for seminarians’ educational costs and priests’ retirement funds.
Father Hart said diocesan supporters have been "very generous," observing that the CMA has often been held concurrently with special campaigns. In addition to the Legacy initiative, he cited campaigns that have provided for major refurbishing of Sacred Heart Cathedral and the Pastoral Center as well as a new facility for St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.
"We are handing over to (Bishop Matano) renewed structures so that he can concentrate on ministry," Father Hart said.
St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry
The Rochester Diocese’s renowned graduate and professional school has educated numerous lay and ordained ministers since it evolved in 1981 from a seminary training priesthood candidates. In 2003 St. Bernard’s moved into a new building near Nazareth College in Pittsford, and the school also opened extension programs in 1989 in Albany and in 2011 in Syracuse. St. Bernard’s also has added video-conferencing in several parts of the diocese.
Father Hart recalled that after the diocesan synod of the early 1990s, "the immediate impact was a tremendous increase in the number of people enrolled in St. Bernard’s." He is hoping for a similar renewed wave "with Bishop Matano’s help and with our increased emphasis on evangelization."
In 1996 Bishop Clark signed the Rochester Agreement, a historic pact that pledged efforts toward greater understanding between local Catholics and Jews and to combat religious intolerance and prejudice. Seven years later Bishop Clark signed a similar groundbreaking pact with Rochester’s Muslim community, the Council of Masajid.
"Obviously Bishop Clark hands over to Bishop Matano a church which went out of its way to form bonds with Episcopalians, with Muslims, with the Jewish community," Father Hart said. "So much of our success has been based on the personal warmth and relationship-building that Bishop Clark was so blessed with."
Father Hart said that Rochester’s new bishop is well capable of maintaining similar ties, based on his observations of Bishop Matano’s interactions while visiting the Pastoral Center in Gates, where he treated all with warmth and interest regardless of their employee status.
"I think his personality will continue to be effective in making and keeping friends in the ecumenical and the interreligious community," Father Hart said.
In early 2013 officials in the diocesan office of Parish and Clergy Services unveiled a Hispanic ministry plan, which calls parishes to seek out and identify Hispanic families in their midst and approach Hispanic parishioners about taking on leadership roles.
In addition, Elizabeth Johnston has begun in the newly created position of intercultural program specialist, assisting the diocese in ministering to Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders as well as the deaf community.
Meanwhile, outreach to the migrant community remains an ongoing priority of Parish and Clergy Services as well as Catholic Charities agencies in many parts of the diocese.
Already this diligence has been noticed by Rochester’s new bishop, according to Father Hart.
"Bishop Matano was very impressed. He said something to the effect no one could accuse the Diocese of Rochester of not following the Gospel mandates of helping the poor and the marginalized, of not taking that seriously," Father Hart said.
Courier file photo by Mike Crupi
Young-adult, campus and youth ministries
Funded at the diocesan level by the Catholic Ministries Appeal, these ministries have blossomed under the leadership of Bishop Clark, whose easy rapport with young people is well-known.
"Bishop Clark has a unique charism of really touching young people’s hearts, not just at the college level but also at the high-school and grammar-school levels — an absolute magnet for young people," Father Hart said, remarking that the bishop emeritus "hands over a church which has known great openness to young people."
That openness has yielded significant results, such as strong parish youth-ministry programs throughout the diocese and a local delegation of 540 high-school students and chaperones at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis in November 2013.
Father Hart said Bishop Clark’s successor seems well-suited to continue this emphasis on young Catholics, based on Bishop Matano’s background as a professor at Providence College and his priority on worshiping at least once per month with students at the University of Vermont.
"We have every expectation that he’ll even advance what Bishop Clark so carefully began," Father Hart said.
Courier file photo by Sam Oldenburg
Evangelization and catechesis
Through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, 174 candidates (those already been baptized in recognized Christian rites but who never completed the sacraments of initiation) and 180 catechumens (people who have never been baptized) were received into the church this past year at 55 diocesan parishes.
Another highlight in this area was the Day of Penance last March 26, which featured long lines at many diocesan parishes of people seeking the sacrament of reconciliation. The one-day event was held as part of the worldwide Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Father Hart added that "later in Bishop Clark’s time here we began to talk about the necessity to update sacramental guidelines," and that a committee is currently developing new guidelines that will be recommended to Bishop Matano in the near future.
"We expect this will have a significant effect on our faith formation," Farther Hart said.
"Father Robert Kennedy, who was instrumental in the development of the current guidelines, is part of the committee that is working on their review and revision," said Maribeth Mancini, diocesan director of the Department of Evangelization and Catechesis. "The guidelines are being evaluated in light of liturgical law, canon law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the culture of today’s world."
Courier file photo by Mike Crupi
Father Hart noted that Bishop Matano is taking over a diocesan Catholic Charities operation that, compared to that of the Burlington Diocese, "is quite large and diversified — regional agencies with their own boards, trying to keep the decision-making and fundraising closer to the people they serve."
Regional Catholic Charities offices are located in seven counties of the Rochester Diocese. Catholic Charities also comprises such specialty services as Camp Stella Maris, Providence Housing Development Corp., Food Bank of the Southern Tier and Catholic Charities Community Services.
"We serve approximately 250,000 individuals a year, an astounding amount," Father Hart remarked.
He pointed out that Catholic Charities serves both Catholic and non-Catholics, and in some cases goes beyond diocesan borders. He cited the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, based in Elmira, which has a food-distribution network of nearly 200 hunger-relief agencies including some in the Syracuse Diocese.
Father Hart said the diocesan Department of Information Technology has consistently employed the latest technological advances, noting, for example, that an intranet tying together parishes, social-services agencies, schools and other diocesan entities was introduced 15 years ago and was "one of the first (at a Catholic diocese) in the country."
More recently, he said the Department of Evangelization and Catechesis in particular has "really tried to make use of social media, YouTube, etc., to reach out to use every tool possible to evangelize." This past May the department was honored by the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership for its Technology for Mission and Ministry initiative, which features numerous online opportunities to connect with departmental ministries.
Moving forward under Bishop Matano, Father Hart said that "the diocese around him will continue to push the edges in order to make good use of technologies for preaching the Gospel."