The bishop gets THAT LOOK

I’ve been busy with work late­ly and much of my free time has been spent help­ing Julie and the Savest​marys​.net coali­tion. St. Mary’s is one of about six­ty South Jer­sey Catholic church­es the bish­op is try­ing to close down and replace with smi­ly hap­py Megachurch­es. I’m still not going Catholic on you all, I just don’t like short-sighted reli­gious bureau­crats with secret agen­das, and I like places and peo­ple and church­es with roots and history.

On Tues­day night Bish­op Galante and his posse came to vis­it St Mary’s and were greet­ed by an over­flow crowd. He came with charts and a game show host of a priest for MC who tried to start the meet­ing with a pasted-on smile and crowd-control speak­ing rules. The St Mary’s parish­ioners were hav­ing none of it. There were over five hun­dred peo­ple in the pews ask­ing why the Bish­op want­ed to shut down a church with sound finances, an impas­sioned priest, an involved laity and the where­with­al to con­tin­ue anoth­er hun­dreds years.

“Vibrant” has become the Bishop’s stock answer, his new favorite code word. Like a Pres­i­dent backpedal­ing on the ratio­nales of an unpop­u­lar war, his spokes­peo­ple have admit­ted under pres­sure of evi­dence and easy solu­tions that the clo­sures aren’t due to a priest short­age,  finan­cial prob­lems at the tar­get­ed church­es, or the lack of lay par­tic­i­pa­tion and involve­ment. The only expla­na­tion the bish­op can offer for clo­sure is “vibran­cy.” But every time he tries to define “vibrant” he ends up describ­ing St. Mary’s and dozens of oth­er local church­es he wants to close.

There’s obvi­ous­ly more to the def­i­n­i­tion than he’d like to share. One parish­ioner asked whether he thought a small church was even capa­ble of dis­play­ing the “vibran­cy” he demands. He refused to answer, which sug­gests we’ve final­ly dug down to a real answer. His fix for South Jer­sey is Megachurch­es that cop strate­gies from the Evan­gel­i­cal move­ment and con­sol­i­date pow­er more close­ly in the dioce­san offices. 

The bish­op gave the church-saving move­ment its best metaphor when he dis­par­aged the lit­tle church­es he wants to shut­ter as “Wawa church­es.” Read­ers from out­side the Mid-Atlantic region might know that Wawa is a local con­ve­nience store chain but that’s like say­ing water is a com­mon chem­i­cal com­pound. You can’t dri­ve more than twen­ty min­utes with­out pass­ing three Wawas. South Jer­sians prac­ti­cal­ly live there. The bish­op might was well con­demn moth­er­hood, base­ball and apple pie if he’s going to take on South Jersey’s Wawa.

One dis­grun­tled “Catholic in name only” cam­paign sup­port­er rose to reclaim the Wawa label, say­ing that all these lit­tle church­es were indeed like Wawa: ubiq­ui­tous, open at all hours, with good food that brought peo­ple in. The bish­op obvi­ous­ly prefers the Wal­mart mod­el: big box, big park­ing lot, hid­den Eucharists, gameshow-host priests and clowns for music direc­tors (seri­ous­ly: check out this post of Julie’s and scroll down to the Great­est Amer­i­can Hero dude). I’m not sure why some­one who dis­likes Catholic cul­ture so much would want to become a priest and I’m real­ly not sure why some­one who dis­likes South Jer­sey cul­ture so much would agree to be its bish­op. One blog­ger recent­ly wrote “I have gone through enough merg­ers and con­sol­i­da­tions to know one thing
is true: reduc­tions in man­pow­er and assets are made for tighter
con­trol” which sounds like as good an expla­na­tion as any oth­er I’ve heard. Pow­er and mon­ey: same as it ever was. 

I was fol­low­ing the kids around out­side for much of what turned into a speak-out ses­sion but I got to see twen­ty sec­onds of my wife Julie’s tes­ti­mo­ny on the Fox affiliate’s 10 o’clock news. Julie had THAT LOOK when address­ing the bish­op. It’s a look I know too well, it’s a look that means “I’m right, I know it, and I’m not back­ing down.” If I’ve learned any­thing over the course of the last sev­en years of mar­riage it’s that I don’t stand a chance when Julie gives me THAT LOOK: it’s time to con­cede that yes she is right, because any oth­er option will just pro­long the pain and delay the inevitable. I saw hun­dreds of peo­ple giv­ing the bish­op that same look last night.

It’s nice to see South Jer­sey stand­ing up to an out­sider who hates its cul­ture and wants to force change for the sake of his own pow­er and prof­it. We get a lot of it down here. The pow­er guys usu­al­ly end up win­ning: the woods get chain­sawed and the farm­lands buried under vast expans­es of gener­ic box stores and cookie-cutter McMan­sions financed by Philly mon­ey and greased by the pro-development laws of North Jer­sey politi­cians. I could be wrong, but after this week I don’t think the bish­op stands a chance. The ques­tion now is how long he’s going to pro­long his . And how many church­es will he suc­ceed in tak­ing down in the name of “vibrance?”

  • Hi Mar­tin. I haven’t fol­lowed this issue that care­ful­ly, but I have a spe­cial place in my Quak­er heart for Sacred Heart parish in Cam­den. Do you hap­pen to know if they are in jea­pardy? They do incred­i­ble work, but most parish­ioners live out­side the parish neigh­bor­hood. They also have an out­spo­ken pas­tor who I could imag­ine being incon­ve­nient to the bishop.

  • Mar­tin Kelley

    Hi Eileen: check­ing the orig­i­nal announce­ment, I see Camden’s Sacred Heart is being “clus­tered” with “the new parish at St. Joan of Arc.” There’s a lot of dou­ble­s­peak in this whole process but it doesn’t sound good. My under­stand­ing is that pas­tors have to resign and be reap­point­ed by the bish­op so the closings/clusterings/mergerings are a way of deal­ing with incon­ve­nient priests.