With the installation of a new bishop for the Diocese of Camden last month and the expected election of a new pope this month, the Catholic Church in South Jersey is in transition.

Several local parish mergers and school closings have strained the relationship between parishioners and their diocese, while at the same time, Catholics nationally are expressing skepticism about their leadership.

The diocese installed new Bishop Dennis Sullivan just last month, shortly before Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement. Sullivan takes over for Bishop Joseph Galante, who had served in his position — since 2004 — for longer than the pope served in his. Galante’s tenure included the closing and merger of 54 parishes that left only 70 remaining by the time he retired.

“Locally, people are upset about the mergers,” said the Rev. Robert Gregorio, pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Somers Point. “But the mergers had to be done. We don’t have enough priests. I always say, if you don’t like what the bishop is doing, do what my parents did and put your kids in a seminary. But you really can’t use that as a solution.”

“Bishop Sullivan has said that one of his goals for his first year is to listen more,” said diocese spokesman Peter Feuerherd. “There’s not any big initiatives on the table right now. He’s only been bishop for less than a month.”

The diocese’s 70 parishes include an estimated 475,000 Catholics, Feuerherd said, of which about 100,000 attend Mass on a weekly basis. The diocese covers Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.

Of the mergers, “Some have gone very smoothly, and some have been used as a jumping-off point to develop new ministries,” Feuerherd said. “In places, there have been problems with people adjusting to new parishes. Another issue that has bothered us is the proliferation of buildings and what to do with them. There’s a lot of excess space we have to deal with.”

Deacon Larry Farmer of the diocese’s Pastoral Planning office said that numbers of families are only slightly lower than from before the mergers, adding that consolidating administrative staffs increased financial stability.

In addition, there are about 8,600 students in the diocese’s 30 elementary schools and 3,600 students in its seven high schools, along with three other private Catholic high schools. This after schools such as St. Augustine in Ocean City, St. James in Ventnor, Blessed Sacrament in Margate and St. Nicholas in Egg Harbor City all shut down following several rounds of closings — even as their affiliated churches survived — limiting options for many local parents.

“There have been a number of consolidations of different schools over the past few years, but that’s been true across the country,” Feuerherd said. “The school mergers foreshadowed the parish mergers.”

At St. Gianna Beretta Molla Parish in Northfield, congregants gathered Wednesday morning for the daily Mass celebrated by the Rev. Patrick Brady. The parish was one of many in the area to be created through the merger of two or more parishes, in this case St. Bernadette in Northfield and St. Peter in Pleasantville — two parishes with very different traditions and cultural backgrounds.

“Please note that it has been less than three years since the merger of St. Peter and St. Bernadette parishes,” Brady wrote in an email. “The current number of families registered in the new parish is just above the 1,700 mark. The congregants of the anterior parishes are adjusting to the move with a rapidly growing and mutual appreciation of the cultural diversity of the new parish community.”

That diversity can be seen in the Lenten rice bowls available in the entranceway, labeled “Rice Bowl: English only” and “Plato de Arroz: Espanol Solamente,” as well as the regular Spanish-language Masses overseen by Brady. Lenten rice bowls are a relief program run by Catholic Relief Services in which parishioners make an offering and eat simple meals during Lent in solidarity with the poor.

“It’s gone flawlessly, I think,” said Alex Polazneck, of Northfield, one of about two dozen worshipers on a rainy, cold weekday morning. “Father Brady has been great. He’s multilingual and makes everyone feel welcome.”

The local parish priest is the most popular of any aspect of the church, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week, in which 63 percent of 580 American Catholics polled said most parish priests are “in touch with the needs of Catholics today.”

The larger issues facing the church, however, may be more difficult to reconcile.

The same report stated that 53 percent of those polled said the church itself is not “in touch with the needs of Catholics today.” Asked whether most bishops in the United States are in touch with those needs, 38 percent said yes and 49 percent said the bishops were out of touch.

Gregorio said the pedophilia crisis has damaged the church’s reputation nationally, while the gap has grown between American Catholics and the Church hierarchy on teachings — especially birth control, use of which was favored by 79 percent of American Catholics, the Times/CBS poll reported.

The views of the rank and file, in other words, “don’t always correlate with church leaders,” Gregorio said.

“A lot of people 100 years ago thought leaders couldn’t accept interracial marriage,” he said. “Now it’s a nonproblem. Leadership changed on that.”

Church leaders are also more accepting of other faiths and circumstances, he said.

“If a friend is Protestant and you went to their wedding, 40 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to do that, and now you can,” Gregorio continued. “Suicides would not get church burial up until people realized it was a psychiatric problem, and you shouldn’t punish people for a psychiatric problem.

“So yes, we have changed,” Gregorio said. “And we’ll continue to change. The church has changed throughout the ages.”

Meanwhile, the cardinals have arrived in Rome to elect a pope to lead the church.

“We say with prayerful anticipation that God will lead us in the right direction in the choosing of a new pope,” said Mary Ann Marchetti, of Northfield, an original congregant of St. Bernadette. “It’s all in God’s hands.”

Contact Steven Lemongello:

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