New Trenton Diocese Bishop David O'Connell Concerned

By Bonnie Delaney
Asbury Park Press
December 1, 2010

Bishop David M. O'Connell is taking over the Diocese of Trenton after Pope Benedict XVI accepted Bishop John M. Smith's resignation.

TRENTON Fewer Catholics are celebrating Sunday Mass, choosing religious life as a vocation and sending their children to Catholic schools that must close as a result of declining enrollment.

Those are the three greatest concerns that Bishop David M. O'Connell of the Trenton Diocese said he will address as he officially begins ministering to the 830,000 Catholics who live in Monmouth, Ocean, Burlington and Mercer counties.

"I'm very worried that only 25 percent of our parishioners go to Sunday Mass. We need to figure out what's keeping people away," O'Connell said during a telephone interview Wednesday after the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had accepted the resignation of Bishop John M. Smith as head of the diocese.

O'Connell, 55, who spent 12 years as president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., was named coadjutor bishop in June by Pope Benedict. O'Connell now becomes the 10th bishop of Trenton.

O'Connell responded to the Vatican announcement with a message to the clergy, religious and laity of the diocese, referring to his new ministry as "an awesome responsibility that I accept with humility and gratitude."

He wrote: "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?"

O'Connell said in the interview that the current culture promotes spirituality and not organized religion, a movement he said fosters a "disconnect" between the two.

He said some people believe they do not need to go to church to be spiritual. But O'Connell said religious practice will lead to spirituality.

O'Connell also said he does not accept as a reason for poor church attendance the scandal over the sexual abuse of children by priests. He termed it an easy, convenient excuse not to practice.

But he also said about the abuse: "I hate it. It's the most dreadful thing."

Smith, a native of Orange who had been ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Newark, had served as bishop of the Trenton Diocese since July 1, 1997. He submitted his resignation June 23 of this year, his 75th birthday, in accordance with canon law. His resignation became effective upon the pope's acceptance.

"Bishop Smith brought stability and a big personality to the diocese," said the Rev. John P. Bambricke, pastor at St. Joseph's Church in Toms River. "Bishop O'Connell is bringing a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm and a can-do attitude.

"He wants to know how things can be done and doesn't want any excuses as to why it can't," Bambricke said.

The Rev. Douglas A. Freer, pastor at St. Rose of Lima Church in Belmar, said he is glad that the bishop will be addressing the financial constraints that Catholic schools face.

"Although our enrollment is stable, I believe that the best way to foster vocation is to provide the foundation through Catholic education," he said.

The diocesan family will commemorate the transition of pastoral governance from Smith to O'Connell during a 12:10 p.m. Mass on Dec. 8 on the solemnity of the immaculate conception in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in Trenton. All are welcome to attend.

Bonnie Delaney: 732-557-5738

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