When Dennis Sullivan strode into applause-filled St. Agnes Church in Blackwood, N.J., this afternoon, he entered as vicar general of the Archdiocese of New York. When he exited more than two hours later, he did so as the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Camden.
The day before Ash Wednesday, Sullivan was installed to replace the retiring Bishop Joseph Galante in front of an audience of approximately 1200 observers, including two current and former cardinals of New York, Archbishop Charles Chaput from Philadelphia and Archbishop John Myers of Newark, plus several hundred ceremonially dressed priests and dignitaries from parishes all over New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.
Sullivan, who fluently translated part of his homily to Spanish, spent most of his 42 years as an ordained priest, auxiliary bishop and vicar general ministering in the immigrant communities of the Bronx and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, whose socio-economics reflect those of Camden. According to a diocesan spokesperson, Sullivan a Bronx native who rides the subway to confirmation ceremonies considers his work with the poor to be a central qualification for his new job.
“He’s very fluent in Spanish, which is muy importante for Catholicism in general and the Diocese of Camden in particular,” said Peter Feuerherd, communications director for the diocese. “Working on the Lower East Side he developed for a great affinity for immigrants. So he brings that to the church in Camden.”
Although Sullivan hasn’t led his own diocese, his job as vicar general in New York charged him with overseeing the restructuring of 26 parishes, an experience that should prepare him to manage Camden’s diocese, which closed 50 struggling parishes in the eight years Galante served as bishop.
With parishes shutting down around the country, Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden retirement announcement yesterday and the sex abuse scandal that has devastated the Church’s moral authority and some of the laity’s faith in their leaders, it is a time of great transition for American Catholics. The transition from old pastor to new, at least, offered a rare positive for worshippers grappling with these changes.
“It’s a new birth for the diocese,” says Pennsauken resident Andy Lipenta, state secretary for the Catholic fraternal organization, Knights of Columbus.
Comparing the pope’s advanced age and failing health as the given explanation for his resignation to Camden Bishop Galante’s retirement for the same reasons, Lipenta says both men have wisely acknowledged their frailty and inability to perform the full extent of their duties.
“Bishop Sullivan is a younger dynamic leader. He’s ready to meet the challenges to reinvigorate the spirit of Catholics and reach out to Hispanics, who comprise the largest growth area in the diocese,” he said.Perhaps for these reasons, Sullivan assured the crowd that, “This is a new day for the Diocese of Camden,” and told the Catholic Star Herald in an article published last week that he plans to spend his first year as bishop listening and determining where improvements are needed before forming any conclusions as to the diocese’s direction.
South Jersey Catholics, for their part, have already formulated some ideas. “He needs to try to get parishioners more involved with their faith and their parishes. Families are so busy, it’s a secondary thing. There’s mass on Sunday but that’s about it,” laments Bill Cornwell, a St. Agnes parishioner from Blackwood.
Cornwell’s proposed solution? Constant communication through social media. “The Internet, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, websites. Today’s family is very geared toward telecommunications and the bishop has to orient himself to that,” he said.
When he’s ready, Sullivan will have a great well of additional opinions to draw from: as Bishop of the Camden diocese, he ministers to 475,000 Catholics across New Jersey’s six southernmost counties.