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Diocese of Bridgeport: The Listening Sessions

Links to reports below from: Vicariate I - Vicariate II - Vicariate III - Vicariate IV

Vicariate I

5 May 2014 at Trinity Catholic High School, Stamford

Report and Comments by Joseph F. O’Callaghan, VOTF

Presiding. Bishop Frank Caggiano, Msgr. Dariusz Zielonka, coordinator of the Fourth Synod, and his Synod Commission (two men, two women).

Attendance. Trinity Catholic High School auditorium was well filled, perhaps 200–250 people. Most of them were in the 50–80 age bracket. There were one or two in the 40–50 group, but I doubt that there was anyone under 40. There were several priests and pastors.

Procedure. After the opening prayer led by the bishop, Msgr. Zielonka divided the audience into four sections and invited those who wished to speak to use the mobile mikes offered by aides. One half hour was devoted to each of three questions: (1) The strengths of the diocesan ministries are… (2) I would like to see the new diocesan outreach in…(3) The diocese should improve the ministry by… Bishop Caggiano announced at the end of the session that there were 98comments, but several people had spoken two or three times. Comments were limited to one or two minutes. Many were under one minute. Msg. Zielonka had a timer with a beeper but he never had to use it. An audio recording for the later use of the Synod commission was made.

By focusing on these particular questions and by affirming that the assembly would not deal with issues relating primarily to the universal church, the session was limited in its scope and inhibited local people from expressing their views on issues beyond the parish or the diocese. No radical views were expressed.

Question 1. Strengths of the diocese. Topics: This congratulatory period acknowledged Bishop Caggiano; Catholic education; St. John Fisher Seminary; St. Catherine Academy for retarded persons; the Permanent Diaconate Formation program; the priests and religious; the people of the diocese; the multicultural work of the diocese; Latin mass.

Question 2. New diocesan outreach. Topics: Connection between suburban and inner-city parishes; updating of Virtus Training; improvement of religious education; new evangelization; consolidation of youth ministry activities among parishes; outreach to survivors of sexual abuse; classes in the history and tradition of the church; college-age programs; EPS; follow-up to newcomers to a parish (get them registered); welcome back; communication; concerted effort toward adult education; Life in the Spirit seminars; What does it mean to be a pastor (involvement in administration)? role of deacons in alleviating burden on pastors; engagement with secular culture (Chicago Word on Fire); social justice issues.

Question 3. Improve Ministry. Topics: Improve the quality of liturgy and preaching; transparency; bishop congratulated for meeting with VOTF; influence of evil spirits; personal relationship with Jesus; more frequent issues of Fairfield County Catholic; more opportunities for teenagers to meet; interaction between parishes with schools and those without; bring teaching orders into the diocese; awareness of the meaning of Eucharist; personal witness in church; update the sacrament of reconciliation (general absolution once a year); Where are the girls? adults have been sacramentalized but not evangelized; need for a spirituality for the laity; administrative tasks of pastors (review every bill, sign every check); preaching on abortion; adult education; what it means to be a Catholic; lack of prayer in family; Bible study; people who have left; one-on-one spiritual direction in parishes.


What I found important. Bishop Caggiano concluded the evening by noting that people had spoken from their heart and mind in a respectful manner. Neither he nor anyone else on the committee commented on any suggestion. While each topic has a certain validity, I found several recurrent themes to be especially important for the future of the church: 1. Where have they gone and how do we win them back? 2. Adult Education/Formation. 3. The Spirituality of the Laity. 3. The Role of the Pastor. Let me comment on each. All of them re related.

  1. Where have they gone and how do we win them back? Several people mentioned the loss of members and spoke of welcoming them back. No one really identified reasons for so many departures, and no one had any immediate proposals for winning them back. When people leave the church, they usually do so quietly, not notifying the parish, and no one asks them why. Do we really miss them? We don’t do exit interviews. When we speak of welcoming them back, we have to ask: What are we welcoming them back to? The same routine that prompted them to leave in the first place? If so many people are leaving, we, as a community, have to ask what we are doing wrong. What are we doing that is driving people away? Without serious reflection on these questions, all talk of the “new evangelization” is meaningless. Fr. John Saba suggested two areas of improvement, namely, liturgy and preaching. When we invite someone back, we are essentially inviting him or her to join us at worship. Too often our liturgical celebrations are lifeless and can hardly be called celebrations, especially if it seems everyone, including the priest, is in a hurry to get it over with. Many, many studies have shown that the quality of preaching in the Catholic church is poor. Many people close their ears during the homily because they expect it will be a trite retelling of the gospel without much spiritual benefit.
  2. Adult education/formation. Following a director of religious education who urged a concerted effort to develop a strong program of adult education in the Catholic faith, Msgr. Nicholas Greco pointed out that adult Catholics are sacramentalized but not evangelized. In other words, formation in the faith ends once a young person has been confirmed. Thereafter the church does little, if anything, to deepen an understanding and appreciation of what it means to be an adult Catholic. Lackluster homilies that are all too common in the church are not much help. I thought it ironic that in the twelve years since 2002, VOTF has offered monthly programs of adult education in Norwalk and annual conferences at Fairfield University, but the riches of these presentations were denied to the people of the diocese because Bishop Lori banned us from church premises and media.
  3. The spirituality of the laity. Msgr. Greco also emphasized the importance of developing a spirituality of the laity that is not merely an imitation of monastic spirituality. Others spoke about one-on-one spiritual direction, family prayer, a deeper awareness of the meaning of the Eucharist, the development of a personal relationship with Jesus, and becoming on fire with the faith so as to be willing to witness to it publicly, not only in church but in the community as a whole. Perhaps our liturgical celebrations could be enhanced if, instead of a dull homily, a member of the congregation could proclaim God’s goodness to him or her and family.
  4. The role of the pastor. Someone remarked that it was time to rethink the role of the pastor. A pastor, whom I did not recognize, spoke about the burden of administrative tasks, such as having to review every bill and to sign every check. Those tasks divert the pastor from his primary responsibility to provide spiritual leadership to the community. Others mentioned that deacons could assist in this, and others spoke about the underutilized talents of the faithful. The fundamental problem is that church leaders do not really believe that the church is the People of God or the Body of Christ, in which the gifts of all the members arenecessary for the well-being of the whole. Rather church leaders still believe, as Popes Leo XIII and Pius X pointed out, that there are two classes in the church, the shepherds who lead and the sheep whose sole duty to follow docilely. That principle is embodied in the Code of Canon Law created by the clergy without the participation of the laity. The Code reserves all decision-making power to the ordained and limits the laity to a consultative, but never a deliberative role. The irony is that so much of a pastor’s administrative work concerns money, a subject about which most priests have little or no training. The money which they alone can spend is contributed by the laity, who, once they have given it up, have no say over its distribution. Until church leaders acknowledge the full equality of the laity, many of whom possess extensive financial expertise, the administrative burden of pastors will not be relieved.

Vicariate II

16 May 2014 at St. Aloysius,
New Canaan

Report and Comments by Joseph F. O’Callaghan, VOTF

Presiding. Bishop Frank Caggiano, Msgr. Dariusz Zielonka, coordinator of the Fourth Synod, and members of his Synod Commission.

Attendance. About 200 people, most in the 50–80 age bracket; a few between 40 and 50; and a couple of seminarians, who seemed to be between 20 and 30. Several priests and pastors.

Procedure. The procedure was the same as for Vicariate I. Msgr. Zielonka divided the audience into three sections and invited those who wished to speak to use the mobile mikes offered by aides. One half hour was devoted to each of three questions: (1) The strengths of the diocesan ministries are… (2) I would like to see the new diocesan outreach in… (3) The diocese should improve the ministry by… Bishop Caggiano announced at the end that there were 97 interventions, but several people had spoken two or three times. Comments were limited to one or two minutes. An audio recording was made for the later use of the Synod commission.

Question 1. Strengths of the diocese. The response seemed sluggish to me and I think Msgr. Zielonka shortened the time for comment on this question. Topics: Recovery House; Permanent diaconate; Catholic education; St. John Fisher Seminary; marriage preparation; welcoming parishes; quality of Fairfield County Catholic; Bishop Caggiano’s willingness to listen to diverse groups.

Question 2. New diocesan outreach. Topics: Special needs children; lay involvement in leadership; contemplative prayer; absence of young families at church; Where have they gone? How to engage them in parish life? need for respectful dialogue; service programs for teenagers; care of divorced families; relieving the administrative burden of pastors; isolation among clergy; need for greater socialization among clergy; social justice issues (gun violence, immigration, etc.); Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (ordination of women); adult spiritual development; more Third Order groups; prison ministry; non-practicing young adults, their nonrepresentation at Vicariate meetings; centralized retreat center; faith formation of families; RCIA; Emmaus retreats for teenagers; Theology on Tap; St. Catherine Academy for retarded children; alliances of parishes; outreach to marginalized (poor and needy, divorced and remarried); exposure to heretical teaching at Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University as a cause of alienation from the church; proactive response to the Common Core curriculum; outreach to other faith groups; Should we reach out to the alienated? evangelization; polarization; attitude toward those who have left; How can they experience the Joy of the Gospel? need for listening ministries in each parish to listen to those who do not feel welcome or have been driven away or have not experienced compassion in time of need; to conduct exit interviews; greater involvement of former priests and nuns; lapsed Catholics.

Question 3. Improve ministry. Topics: Training of priests in dealing with end-of-life issues; youth ministry, a diocesan Catholic Service event; parish interview of prospective pastors and associate pastors, review of personnel files, and recommendation to the bishop to appoint or not appoint; priest ought to see personnel files of parishioners; Do we want a smaller church focused on the 25 percent of active Catholics and ignore the 75 percent who are inactive? Need for a doctrinal seminar perhaps quarterly; more activity by the bishop in the public square promoting religious freedom; Catholic identity; homily training; importance of institutional memory of parish, tendency of new pastors to ignore that; dialogue with the secular world; outreach to other Christian churches; financial burden on pastors; financial transparency; failure to utilize financial expertise of laity in Fairfield County; sexual abuse, the elephant in the room, the reason why the faithful have lost respect for the leadership of the church.; the Catholic Church is universal and inclusive and cannot dismiss the 75 percent of Catholics who are inactive or have walked away.


What I found important. Concluding the session, Bishop Caggiano thanked everyone for our willingness to speak our minds on issues of common concern. He also emphasized that the Synod would follow a process of discernment in which the Lord will lead us. He encouraged us to listen to the Lord’s voice. Certain themes were common to both Vicariate I and Vicariate II Listening Sessions. The ones I want to comment on are three: (1) Where Have They Gone? (2) Financial Transparency and Accountability; (3) The Appointment of Pastors.

  1. Where have they gone? Again and again, speakers commented on the absence of young people in the life of the church. While some attend mass, they are not engaged and appear indifferent. Note their absence from the listening sessions. Some parents may drop their children off for mass or religious education but do not personally participate. Others have walked away entirely.
         What was especially appalling was the suggestion by Father Colin McKenna (who admitted that people would not like what he was about to say) that perhaps we would be better off with a smaller church of the 25 percent of active Catholics and abandon the 75 percent who are inactive. He and others seemed to think that we ought not to waste our time on the religious education and other needs of children whose parents are not involved in the church.
         Some budding Inquisitor (who probably wouldn’t know a real heresy if he met one) blamed the departure of so many on the heretical teaching at Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University. (I should get him a copy of Bernard Gui’s fourteenth-century Manual of the Inquisitor.)
         The smaller-church advocates seem to have forgotten Jesus’s admonition to teach all nations and the obligation of the good shepherd to search out the sheep that is lost. St. Paul also made the point that the Body of Christ needs all its members if it is to be healthy and strong and no member can dismiss another and say we don’t need you.
         Citing the elephant in the room, Peg Byrne made the point that so many have left because they no longer trust the bishops because of their handling of the sexual abuse crisis. The issue of sexual abuse of our children by our priests, the cover-up by our previous bishops, the marginalization of the abused, our failure as a church to offer them a loving embrace, and the outlay of millions of dollars to settle abuse cases, has to be a major topic of the Synod, whose watchwords should be “Basta!” and “No más!”
         Responding to the smaller-church advocates, Annette Maiberger affirmed that the church is universal and inclusive and cannot abandon those who have left. Both Dick Maiberger and Anne Pollack addressed this issue. Anne suggested “listening ministries” in each parish to provide the disaffected the opportunity to express their concerns. She also stressed the importance of doing exit interviews, of asking those who leave for whatever reason (a new job, disenchantment, anger, etc.) to describe their experience in the parish and ways it might improve.
  2. Financial transparency and accountability. The issue of fiscal accountability was raised by more than one person. A man noted that parish financial reports are usually nothing more than balance sheets that reveal little about how money is spent. It was also emphasized that there are many people in Fairfield County who handle millions of dollars each day and are far better equipped to manage money than pastors, but their expertise is largely underutilized or ignored.
  3. The appointment of pastors. I suggested that before a pastor or associate pastor is appointed, he should be interviewed by an elected parish committee that would also review his personnel record. It would also be helpful if he spent some time in the parish to determine whether it would be a good fit for him or for the parish. After completing its review, the parish committee would make a recommendation to the bishop to appoint the priest or not and would provide substantive reasons for its opinion. Fr. Colin McKenna then said that he would like to see my personnel file, and presumably the files of all his prospective parishioners.
         While that retort seemed quite amusing, it ignored several things. In the past our bishops have appointed pastors and associates who were sexual predators, but they failed to inform parishioners of that fact. More recently the parishioners at Our Lady of Grace Parish in Stratford were dismayed to learn that Msgr. Martin Ryan, whom Bishop Caggiano was about to appoint as pastor, had been accused of sexually abusing young girls many years ago and also of engaging in inappropriate behavior toward a female employee. This put the bishop, who believed that the parishioners were aware of Msgr. Ryan’s background, in the embarrassing position of having to meet the parishioners and explain the circumstances to them.
         I might add that my own parish, St. Jerome in Norwalk, suffered under two failed pastors who were not charged with sexual misconduct but whose ineptitude and dictatorial attitude alienated their parishioners. That tragedy might have been avoided if both men had been interviewed and their files reviewed before they were appointed.
         Priests are supposed to be the spiritual guides of the people entrusted to their care. That being so, the people are entitled to know whether a priest is worthy of their trust. In the world that most inhabit every day, it is commonplace for one seeking a job to submit to an interview and to present an employment record for review. In fact, in the course of employment one often is subject to periodic review. If these practices were followed in our diocese, much grief could be avoided. If they had been applied to priests shown to be predators, many of our children would not now be alienated from the church.

Vicariate III

2 June 2014 at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Gymnasium, Fairfield

Report and Comments by Jamie Dance, VOTF

Presiding. Bishop Frank Caggiano, Msgr. Dariusz Zielonka, coordinator of the Fourth Synod, and his Synod Commission.

Attendance. About 200 people, again most in the 50–80-age bracket, a few between 40 and 50, and very few younger persons. Several priests and pastors.

Procedure. The procedure was the same as the two earlier vicariate sessions. Msgr. Zielonka divided the audience into four sections and invited those who wished to speak to use the mobile microphones offered by aides. One half hour was devoted to each of three questions: (1) The strengths of the diocesan ministries are… (2) I would like to see new diocesan outreach in… (3) The diocese should improve the ministry by… While there were close to a hundred interventions, several people spoke as many as four times. As before, speakers were limited to one to two minutes, and an audio recording was made for later use by the Synod commission. Bishop Caggiano said that the final topics to be studied by the Diocesan Synod would be announced on June 29.

Question 1. Strengths of the diocese. Topics: Responses got off to a slow start. Topics mentioned were: Diocesan education programs, youth programs, Catholic Charities, Fairfield County Catholic, vocation programs, the clergy, Safe Environment program, Marriage program, and outreach to people with special needs.

Question 2. New diocesan outreach. Topics: Outreach to divorced, separated, and remarried Catholics; greater effort to involve teens and young adults in Church; outreach to immigrants and to mentally ill and disabled and also to veterans; more parish interaction with other parishes; welcome former and lapsed Catholics; religious education for families; outreach to other Christian denominations; revival of parish liturgical committees; better use of social media; spiritual support for the unemployed and home-bound; more after-mass programs to encourage community; return of small Christian communities; more training for CCD teachers and lectors; standardized program for RCIA; “best practices” commissions on specific issues; better outreach to CCD kids of divorced parents; outreach to public school students; outreach to recent college grads to keep them involved in the parish; a children’s component to the Annual Appeal; better job of filling seats in Catholic schools; more education on Natural Family Planning.

Question 3. Improve ministry. Topics: Moral credibility of the diocese in the wake of abuse cover-ups, and embezzlements; RCIA guidelines for child catechumens; better diocesan outreach to ethnic groups, help with language and job skills and to promote education; help with priest shortages in the diocese; better cooperation among parishes, especially between those with great financial disparity (a wealthy parish might “adopt” a poor parish); CCD should be “fun”; diocese should be more aggressive politically and in public relations especially regarding parochial schools; more adult education (e.g. the Share program); more emphasis on prayer; better use of homilies, so that Catholics will be better informed about Catholic doctrine; Fr. Colin McKenna (the only speaker to overrun the time limit) asked for ongoing formation programs for priests and an “inner forum” for priests to discuss issues; improve the quality of preaching; bring life back into mass with music and liturgy (exemplified by the wonderful baccalaureate mass at Fairfield); more access to Catholic schools; request that the diocese better reflect the idea of mercy encapsulated by Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?”


The meeting at St. Thomas was different from the previous two Vicariate Listening Sessions in tone and emphasis. The most striking example was a young woman’s statement that she did not understand why girls were encouraged to be altar servers when they could not be priests. She asked for a formation program that would help girls decide whether to be nuns or mothers. While definite response patterns, common to all three Vicariate sessions, did emerge, I was struck by how a few attendees dominated this question period. The end result was that fewer voices were heard than in the two previous sessions. Those who spoke repeatedly obviously were active in their parishes and felt comfortable in their orthodoxy. But by aides’ allowing them multiple opportunities to opine, the tenor of the session’s comments was skewed toward their opinions. I wondered at the time if this in some way curtailed and thus affected the general audience’s ability or inclination to share their own perspectives. Because these listening sessions have been billed as the diocesan laity’s chance to speak, I believe it was important that as many voices as possible be heard. Unfortunately, this was not the case at St. Thomas. The end result of this session probably will not affect the final determination of the Synod topics, but I am hopeful that listening sessions for Vicariates IV and V will be more representative of the entire audience.

Vicariate IV

17 June 2014 at St. Catherine of Siena Parish Hall, Trumbull

Report and Comments by John Marshall Lee, VOTF

Attendance. The program was well attended, I am guessing over 200 people and 109 contributions (or “interventions”) to the three sections for comment. The procedure was as described for the previous listening sessions.

Question 1. Strengths of the diocese. Topics: Strengths of diocesan ministries….provide work for people to do, they are willing to support / Catholic Schools doing good work (2 comments) / Adoration opportunities available / Catholic Charities and Thomas Merton are good efforts / Vocation program is a highlight / Pro-life ministry at St. Theresa / Cremation guidelines (though another comment was that they are not followed by families) / Fairfield County Catholic, Diocesan website, Facebook & Twitter, and Women’s Conference as positive communication efforts / Dedicated and inspired priests and lots of masses (2) / Economic diversity, with the wealth among the population as a strength / Increase in laity participation / Synod as positive example of ongoing listening (2) / Family Life programs / Lenten campaign for confession / Virtus Training program (but no mention of reason for it) / Outreach to youth and CCD programs as well done / Convivio (The need for more formal and continuing adult education showed up here.) Comments ran out of gas before 30 minutes were up.

Question2. New diocesan outreach. Topics: Revamp CCD and get families to attend mass as part of it (2) / Youth programs and reporting of sports in FCC / Begin campaign to find people and help them come to mass / More for youth beyond Convivio / Make more adoration opportunities available / Encourage daily electronic communication with variety of resources, especially material content offered by National Catholic Register / Fellowship to support caring and justice / Involve young adults in evangelization and update music to help that happen / Better church music / Focus on Jesus and faith journey not just on morals and our mistakes / More Bible study /Outreach to military / Adult catechesis to re-evangelize those in the pews who are not in relation with Jesus / Pray the rosary with Our Lady of Fatima as focus and triumph of her Immaculate Heart / Ministry to parents of gay, lesbian, bi- and trans-sexual youth / Connect men’s programs diocesan-wide / Make Catholic schools available to all who wish to attend / Pro-life as more than anti-abortion / Get people in tune with Pope Francis’s focus on economics and justice and money / Encourage fellowship / More education for youth on “healthy relationships” / Support for corporal works of mercy / A priest requested a necessary culture shift on the part of Catholics from a “service station” mentality with their parish to a discipleship community on a journey of faith / Hope for more open and accountable practices with respect to issues in diocese / Work to offer an alternative for Catholic youths attracted to other Christian churches / Better family tuition plans for schools / Efforts to engage state legislature / More implementation of Catholic social teachings / Address the subject of home schooling by Catholic parents / Seek return of religious teaching orders and have priest or nun as leader of schools / Partner with SHU and Fairfield U. for adult education / Integration of parishes providing services and receiving same.

Question 3. Improve ministry. Topics: More $ for education of youth from needy families / Seek out theologians of national reputation as well as use of art, music, and film to increase adult formation / Use St. Margaret Mary Shrine in Bridgeport to serve as destination for pilgrimages / Need for spiritual direction programs for adults like those offered by SHU. . .  Additional comments were made while I was attempting to have my own input recognized. None differed in subject or tone from those that I have listed except for one. A deacon from Stratford in recent years has had significant experience in accompanying “good Catholics” (folks who were in the pews regularly, participated in the sacraments, and who were known as part of the parish by other Catholics) in their final days or weeks of life. He noted that a surprising number were terribly fearful of departing bereft of a sense of the love of a God to whom they had been faithful. They did not look to the final welcome of their eternal reward. It was as if they had held onto a child’s view of religion, which focused on obeying the commandments and rules. Failing a deeper spiritual understanding, the youthful formation was inadequate.


The only comment mentioning the clergy abuse scandal was mine (below). And while there were comments encouraging the engagement of lay persons, there was nothing specific to advancing the respect for and equal responsibilities of our sisters, women, in the future activities of all of the People of God. I offered the following comment, intended for Question 2 but eventually recognized under Question 3 (the distinction between the two questions being somewhat vague).

Catholics and the larger community became aware of the stories of sexual abuse of youth by clergy and the failure to manage these predators by their superiors in 2002. We have subsequently learned that the scandal was worldwide and not restricted to one place or one time and that it was expensive to the institution financially and to the authority and respect it formerly commanded. U.S. bishops have since acted to provide future protection of youth through Safe Environment programs.

As a person who has listened to many people tell their stories, especially victims who have survived with lives that were scarred, I stand in solidarity with those who were harmed as youth by this power abuse. I think that our Diocesan Church community needs to “listen” to the stories, reflect on the tragedy for all parties, and pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit so that our communities may begin the process of serious healing for the wounds suffered.

 The wounds are serious and deep. And the victims are not only the youth grown to adulthood, but their families, the predators themselves, and all the People of God, who as adults have a healing role to play in listening and discovering where the Holy Spirit asks us to be. Peace to all.

Only one other person commented (positively) in response to the above.



I spoke to Deacon Tim Bolton after the close and mentioned Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward, which directly bears on the topic of the first and second halves of life. The point that Rohr was attempting to unwrap is that the adult who fails to know himself, to know what he can do as a human, and how that relates, in mature simplicity, to a higher power merely keeps doing the work of the first half of life and is unprepared for departure (and faithful embrace by his Creator). This directly bears on genuine adult formation and thus connects with improving diocesan ministry.

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