As I mentioned in this space last month, I was invited by the Rochester Rotary Club to speak on the subject of the "State of the Diocese of Rochester," which I subtitled "Celebrating the Past and Embracing the Future." It is, I believe, a good summary of my view of that important question and, while geared to this Rochester audience, really applies everywhere we serve. Part 1 of the talk was published in the Courier’s July 2009 issue. This is the second and final installment.
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As you know, our Catholic schools, too, have been no stranger to issues and challenges.
I am encouraged by the resiliency of our system in Monroe County, which has rebounded very well in the past year from the sad but necessary school closings. The demographic shift that has forced closure of some parishes also has closed our schools — but that doesn’t make the decision any easier. In fact, the decision to close these schools truly was one of the hardest I have ever had to make in my 30 years as Bishop of Rochester.
I made that decision following the recommendations of a task force of schools that studied enrollment and financial and demographic trends for many months. And I made it with the aim of preserving the overall system. Not to have acted would have threatened the viability of the entire system.
I am happy to say that our diocesan schools budget this past school year, which before the closings faced a projected deficit of $5 million, was a balanced one.
I am most grateful to the parents who reregistered their children in our remaining schools. I am happy to tell you that each and every school is a vibrant place full of students, energy and life. I credit not only these parents and their ongoing support and faith, but the work of our pastors, pastoral administrators, school officials and staff members who saw this challenging transition through and reached out in welcome to students displaced by the closings.
Registration for this coming school year is going well with several months of registration to go. And I am proud of the fact that 10 of our schools here and outside Monroe County have received the coveted accreditation of the Middle States Association. In the next few years, I believe all our schools will achieve this prestigious accreditation.
Nothing would please me more or be an answer to many a prayer than to see our schools thrive and prosper. For from these places of academic excellence and faith, many of our future church leaders have and will emerge. From this successful formula of faith-based academic excellence, many a successful career has been launched.
Speaking of our church leaders, I am further encouraged by a turnaround of late in our efforts to attract more men to the priesthood.
As you know, we continue to grapple with the declining number of priests and are ever studying ways to ensure that priests are available where they are needed. Even in the best of projections, we see the decline continuing in the short run. This is one driving factor for our need to consolidate or reconfigure our parishes so that we employ these good men wisely and with great efficiency, balancing our desire to provide Masses in as many places as we can with a sense that we must also not wear our priests thin.
One of the demographic shifts that has contributed to the shortage of seminarians is the dramatic out-migration of 20- to 40-year-olds from our area, since most people make vocation choices after college, after working for awhile, they sign up for diocese in which they are currently living, which, in many cases, is not Rochester.
Having said that, I can report that there are real signs of hope. We now have six seminarians. We also have the possibility this coming fall of seven more men in the discernment period for a priestly vocation.
In addition, we have been helped tremendously by our visiting priests from other lands. They help us sustain our mission and bring a cultural richness and depth to every area of our diocese. I am deeply grateful to them as I am to our retired priests, who continue their generous service among us.
Meanwhile, the number of ordained deacons — whose ministry in our hospitals, prisons, parishes and service to the poor extends exponentially the good we can accomplish — has grown to more than 100. Our deacons, most of whom balance work and ministry for the church with active family life, have been a godsend.
And I would be remiss if I did not express much satisfaction with the marvelous increase in the number of lay ministers serving in our parishes.
These highly trained professionals are administering the daily operations and liturgical life of many of our parishes throughout the diocese, and serving in a variety of full- and part-time roles in many different areas of ministry. This is a national trend and one that complements in wonderful ways the work of our ordained.
Much of this success in developing lay ministers I credit to the great work of our St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, whose beautiful new campus you may have seen on French Road, not far from the Village of Pittsford. We are truly blessed in our diocese to have such a resource as St. Bernard’s, which not only provides training and education but also awards graduate degrees and certificates.
St. Bernard’s also is home to the relatively new and unique Brennan-Goldman Institute, named for the extraordinary interfaith work of the late Father Joseph Brennan and of Isobel Goldman of the Jewish Community Federation. Its purpose is to educate and further enhance Catholic-Jewish relations, which is of tremendous importance to both faith groups after many centuries of tension.
You may or may not know that the Diocese of Rochester has become known internationally in recent years for its groundbreaking interfaith work. This is as much a testament to Rochester as a community of compassion and tolerance.
Because of the work of many devoted people of both faiths, we were — to the best of our knowledge — the first diocese we know of in the world to enter into a formal agreement with the Board of Rabbis of a Jewish community.
When a group of Jewish and Catholic Rochesterians visited Rome not long ago, we had the privilege of presenting the document to Pope Benedict XVI.
Likewise, we are the first to enter into a similar agreement with the growing local Muslim community in an accord with the Council of Masajids, which has resulted in some marvelous educational programs for Catholics and Muslims through the work of the Muslim-Catholic Alliance, a working committee with representatives of both faith communities constantly looking for ways to educate and inform and bring people to better understanding. In fact, our two communities came together at Sacred Heart Cathedral on May 2 to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the historic agreement.
Our interfaith work is ongoing and vibrant, and we are quite pleased and blessed to be able to say that in a world full of religious strife. This is an essential endeavor the more complicated our society and our world become. It testifies to the fact that good, believing people can truly accept, respect and love one another while disagreeing on religious beliefs. It makes Rochester a better and richer place to work and live, and it makes the Diocese of Rochester just better for it.
I must also speak here of a very important issue: our ongoing diocesan efforts to make the church of Rochester a place of safety for all, especially our children, youth and vulnerable adults. Our "Creating a Safe Environment" program has repeatedly passed the rigorous examination of an independent national auditing team several years running, and we constantly strive to make improvements. We are blessed to have the volunteer and independent services of a review panel of local child-safety, psychological and law-enforcement experts should an abuse complaint arise.
Since 2002, more than 23,000 people — clergy, diocesan employees, parish employees and volunteers — have had mandatory training in the diocesan "Creating a Safe Environment" program, which includes criminal background checks done by an independent firm.
In addition, more than 33,000 young people have completed training to raise their awareness and capacity to protect themselves from sexual abuse. The diocese also maintains a Web site on abuse prevention and reporting and a special person assigned as our victims-assistance coordinator.
We are committed to being ever vigilant, and we are determined to prevent abuse by any church employee by whatever means we can.
Like my seven predecessors before me, I have tried to make a point of getting around our diocese as much as I can in the course of a given year. These trips take me not only to every corner of Monroe, but also to Wayne, Ontario, Livingston, Tioga, Chemung, Cayuga, Tompkins, Schuyler, Yates, Seneca and Steuben counties. Together, this area covers approximately 7,500 square miles.
To me, nothing speaks of the state of our diocese more than the devotion of the good and faithful people I encounter no matter where I go — from the inner city of Rochester to suburban towns in the community of Monroe to the rolling hills of the beautiful countryside of western New York and the Southern Tier.
They are good people all and of every walk of life: professionals, factory workers, farmers, migrant workers, old and young, married with children, or widowed and alone.
They come to church from rolling acres with large upscale homes and multicar garages, from farmhouses, crowded city homes and rural mobile-home parks.
They are at the top of their profession, just starting out, or laid off and starting all over again.
And together they form a community of such a spirit and resiliency as I have ever seen.
They have endured many changes in their churches, from painful consolidations and fewer priests to a national scandal and media coverage that sometimes dwells more on the negative than the positive.
They have lost homes to flood and economic downturns and sons and daughters to war.
And still they come in faith and pride and a longing for our good and gracious God.
Whenever we have a cause or need to help someone not much worse off than they, they take out their wallets and open their hearts and give and give and give again.
Stressed for time and often overworked and overextended, they still find time for their parish to coach a CYO team or iron the altar cloths or in any one of a host of ministries.
They pray fervently and with conviction, and they come to Communion reverently and savoring the chance to receive their Lord in the Eucharist.
And they smile and laugh most heartily, and are good-natured with one another.
With many challenges before us, it is their spirit that keeps us moving in the Diocese of Rochester.
They sustain us.
They give me the courage and inspiration to tackle any obstacle in our way. And they make the future seem very bright indeed.
Because of them I can report that the state of the Diocese of Rochester is very good.
And our Spirit is indeed alive.
Peace to all!