Camden Goes Gotham – Dolan's Deputy to Lead South Jersey Church
In addition, a concelebrated Mass with both Camden prelates will take place today at 12.05pm in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. All are welcome.
At Roman Noon this Tuesday, the Pope named Bishop Dennis Sullivan – the 67 year-old vicar-general of the 2.5 million-member Gotham church – as the eighth head of the six-county, 530,000-member fold, which stretches from one of the nation’s most violent cities across scores of suburbs and over a farm country with a burgeoning Hispanic population before, of course, ending at Delaware Bay and the southern half of the Jersey Shore.
A New York auxiliary since 2004, the Bronx-born Sullivan succeeds the venerable Bishop Joseph Galante, who’s led the diocese since that same year, his resignation accepted six months ahead of the canonical age of 75 for reasons of health.
Amid several years of physical difficulties, Galante has spent several days a week in dialysis treatment since late 2011.
A former #3 official of the Vatican's "Congregation for Religious" and USCCB Communications chair, the Philadelphia native reportedly petitioned Rome for an early departure at the beginning of 2012.
More to the point, however, the South Jersey move for a career pastor who became the Chancery whiz behind two New York cardinals matches a key piece of the nominee’s experience to his new charge's dominant challenge of recent years.
Much as its heavy lifting has already been well accomplished, the Camden church still remains on the mend after a staggering 2008 reconfiguration that saw its number of parishes slashed nearly in half, from 132 to 70.
While the burden of pastoral planning has become the lot of every Northeastern bishop amid massive demographic shifts both within the region’s dioceses and beyond – not to mention significant losses of active priests in a short time-frame as the last large ordination classes reach retirement age – few processes have been as rapid and sweeping as Camden’s, which saw the 32 decrees forming the new communities completed in just over three years.
Though several seats of consolidated parishes remain open as secondary worship sites, the decision to effectively “rip off the Band-Aid” and quickly move forward has already been seen bearing fruit in the growth of lay-led ministries and more vibrant, active congregations in the merged entities. Still, as with any instance of significant change, the effort hasn’t lacked for pain and anger – parishioners of one closed church held a years-long vigil in the building while waging a campaign for the move’s reversal in the local press, and beyond the usual flood of enraged mail, Galante once reportedly received a cake adorned with his face imposed on an image of the Grim Reaper.
For his part, Sullivan has overseen New York’s first steps toward a reworking of the 360-parish Big Apple fief. But as a lifelong pastor who was saying Mass in his Downtown church one September morning, only to halt amid the jarring sound of a plane striking the World Trade Center blocks away, today’s appointee had never held a Chancery post before being named #2 of New York – arguably, global Catholicism’s most complex diocesan apparatus – four years later.
By all accounts, Cardinal Edward Egan’s surprise choice proved prescient – beyond maintaining his regard as one of the presbyterate’s most popular members (still seen among the guys as “a roll-up-your-sleeves parish priest” for whom becoming a bishop “was never on his radar”), Sullivan’s mostly quiet, yet occasionally “brash” efficiency has steered the 2.5 million-member archdiocese through crises large and small in a period whose challenges have ranged from a financial downturn that placed added strain on the archdiocese’s budget to a reworking of the education system which, come June, will likely see the closing of nearly 60 New York Catholic schools within the last two years.
While New York has yet to go full-throttle on pastoral planning, Sullivan oversaw the first leg of consolidations, when 36 parishes were closed or merged in 2008. Announcing the outcomes of the process, Egan memorably spoke of how he and his vicar-general walked routes across the proposed lines of the new parishes to ensure that they would be within a reasonable distance for the people affected by the moves.
Having been steeped in Hispanic ministry from his early priesthood – a needed quality in a diocese whose Latino population has been steadily rising and expanding beyond its long-established Puerto Rican core in the see city – the Camden pick also speaks some Chinese, which he picked up as the community grew in his pastorate on the Lower East Side.
As Cardinal Timothy Dolan has essentially left “The Box” – the native term for the governing coterie of the New York church – intact with the group he inherited from Egan, Sullivan’s transfer marks the most significant change to its makeup since the Cardinal-President’s 2009 arrival. Between the vicar-general’s departure and the upcoming 75th birthday of Bishop Josu Iriondo – the Basque-born vicar for a Hispanic community that now comprises a de facto majority of the archdiocese – today’s move likewise underscores the strange reality that Dolan has yet to receive a single auxiliary bishop in nearly four years at the church's helm in the "Capital of the World."
With Sullivan’s Jersey appointment, all of three active deputies remain for the nation’s second-largest diocese – among other examples, three less than the considerably smaller archdiocese of Boston. On the national scene, meanwhile, even if he likely has more headaches in a day than most archbishops get in a year, Camden's incoming bishop has largely remained something of a sphinx on the level of the USCCB.
Despite being the first Philadelphian ever to lead a South Jersey church whose suburban parishes are dominated by families who moved over the River City bridges – and where the windows of the Bishop’s Office provide a picture-perfect view of the Philly skyline that looms just two miles westward – Galante’s ecclesiology has instead reflected the far greater influence of Texas, where he spent nearly two decades in ministry, first as a young priest loaned by John Krol to Brownsville in the Valley diocese’s early years, then after his Vatican stint as a bishop in San Antonio, Beaumont and, ultimately, over four difficult years as coadjutor of Dallas.
On returning to the area following Rome’s inability to dislodge Bishop Charles Grahmann from the Big D post – which Galante was sent in to inherit after Dallas was ordered to pay a $119 million civil settlement to survivors of one predator priest – the new Camden pick told a local reporter that "If a shepherd's going to be with his sheep, he has to expect to get sheep-dip on his boots.”
He might’ve held onto his Eagles season tickets and Shore house all through two decades away from the Northeast, but the comment was just the first indication that, even if a prodigal Philadelphian was coming home, anyone expecting an extension of Pharaoh’s arm across the river would be greatly disappointed.
And, oh, were they ever... yet the cause of God’s People in a Post-Conciliar church couldn’t have dreamt of a finer champion in the nation’s fourth-largest media market – a bishop who knew his hometown's clericalist playbook so thoroughly well as to turn it on its head and, with a seeming sense of relish, sought to drive it where he felt it belonged: firmly into the ground, preferably alongside his predecessors at Calvary Cemetery in Cherry Hill.
Backed up by a fresh infusion of women religious he recruited for Chancery work, the distinctive style continued with Galante’s first initiative – “Speak Up,” a diocese-wide listening tour that saw the bishop spend an evening in every parish, scribbling detailed notes as opposed to giving words of his own while the faithful took turns answering one question: what was needed for the diocese’s vitality into the future.
The six priorities that emerged from the thousands of comments formed the basis of the resulting pastoral plan, on whose release Galante said that he saw his priests as “the enablers, the catalysts who will bring the laity in to share responsibility" for the life of the church.
"I don't expect to be around to see the full flowering of what we want to do," Galante said on announcing the parish mergers. "But I hope to see the beginning."
The only American bishop who vacations within his own diocese, Galante – who sold the longtime suburban Bishop’s Residence in 2011 to take up a smaller home on the grounds of the diocesan retreat center – plans to retire to his beloved personal house at the Shore. Per the norms of the canons, his successor must be installed within two months of this morning’s appointment.
With the downtown Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception unable to handle the logistics of an installation-sized event, the rites will likely be held at St Agnes Church in Blackwood, which hosted the welcome of the last two Camden prelates and has long been the site of the diocese’s Chrism Mass.
With his appointment, Sullivan becomes the third New Yorker to lead the Camden church, following Bishops Bartholomew Eustace – the founding ordinary, who was ordained in St Patrick’s Cathedral two months before his 1938 installation – and George Guilfoyle, an auxiliary to Cardinal Francis Spellman who, until today, was the last holder of the Jersey post to retire from it in 1989.