Rich in the things that matter to God
A Time of Challenge and Opportunity
The 19th century psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung wrote life really does begin at forty. Up until then, you are just doing research.
For those of us who already have, and can still remember, turning forty, we understand his words. As we blow out forty candles, we bring to that moment years of wisdom, experience, joys, struggles, laughter and tears; and hope. Hope that where we have been will help us embrace God’s call in the next chapter of our lives.
The number forty is mentioned 146 times in the Bible. It is believed David reigned as king for forty years, as did his son Solomon. Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights. Jesus was tempted in the desert for the same amount of time. In the Bible, the number forty generally symbolizes a period of testing, trial or probation. Or as Jung suggests, a time of doing the research.
In August 1982, a civil war raged in Lebanon, the first compact disc (CDs) went public in Germany, and for most of the month, the number one song on Billboard was “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. A gallon of gas was 91 cents, and a postage stamp was 20 cents. And on the first day of that month the parish of Saint Charles Borromeo became the first new parish created in the Diocese of Metuchen, established the year before. Catholics living in this area previously worshipped in Princeton or Hopewell which remained in the Diocese of Trenton. The need for a parish here, as the decree said, in order to better provide for the spiritual and pastoral needs of the faithful,was a priority.
I have served as pastor since 1989, which can sound like a very long time. And it is. For me, at most times, it seems like only yesterday. My experience feels like I have been the pastor of three parishes: one that began in a rural community, a second that flourished as this became the suburbs, and now, pastor of a parish that is more ethnically diverse, in a township that is increasingly less Roman Catholic.
It has been a gift for me to lead many chapters of our 40-year history. I have been the spiritual leader for three generations. While I have not yet run out of “three-point homilies,” it has been a great help to have had newly ordained Father Tim Eck with us during the summer, and to have Father Nicholas Gengaro, chaplain at Seton Hall Law School with us at weekend Masses.
This parish has grown in faith because we have always looked at the signs of the times. We have turned to the Holy Spirit, and been willing to change course, let go of programs, produce new ones and adapt our ministries to meet the needs of the day
Guided not by our intellect or talents, but by the Holy Spirit, our willingness to adapt, to reimagine and to risk –while holding on to the values of our Catholic faith— have created a vibrant parish. It has always been our parishioners and their Catholic faith – your faith—that has made this parish a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.
Even a pandemic could not extinguish that light of faith. A lockdown that kept us from each other physically and from reception of the Eucharist for endless weeks was hard. We came through it by faith alone; and with some help from YouTube and the Internet. Now, like the Hebrew people returning from Exile, we are being called to look at the signs of the times. It is a moment to find new ways of living our Catholic faith in a changed world.
After the lockdown, parishioners shared what that experience taught them; most importantly, what they learned about themselves as Catholics. In a summary report provided to me, participants reflected on many things, including the blessings of a time for which there was no recent precedent. They stated a greater appreciation for relationships, the use of time for personal reflection and prayer, and gratitude for the technology that kept them connected to our parish. Many saw, for the first time, their home as the domestic Church. Reading their comments, I think of the verse from a parable in Luke’s gospel; discipleship is being rich in the things that matter to God.
In Jesus’ teachings, what matters to God is taking time to reflect, to be quiet enough to really hear, and to pray. It is what he did in the desert before he began his ministry. It is what the Hebrew people did after years in Exile. Reflection, quiet, listening, and prayer.
And so it must be for us. Moving forward from the pandemic we don’t begin compiling lists of things we should do (or what often happens in parishes, good ideas we think someone else should be doing.) It is a time of reflecting on who we are; what does it mean to say I am Catholic, and how does being Catholic help me navigate through the challenges, joys and ordinariness of my life?
Emerging from the pandemic, we find ourselves in a parish that has changed. The changes are not the result of the pandemic alone; some had already begun before it started.
The challenges and strengths are seen in concrete statistics. In 2010, our annual report to the Diocese of Metuchen stated we had 1868 registered families and 780 children in religious formation. Our report for 2020 lists our registered families as just under 1400 families with 200 children in religious formation. In 2010, 122 children were confirmed. Ten years later there were 50. While the numbers may sound surprising, it is a trend our staff has been following over the past ten years. Montgomery Township, like many communities in New Jersey, is an expensive place to live. Once children graduate from the township school system, parents have headed out of state. Others reaching retirement age have also sold their homes. The pandemic significantly increased the migration of parishioners to states warmer and with less tax burden.
In the 1990’s a huge amount of Catholics moved into the new developments of our township. I recall a story in which a group of parents at soccer game were talking about a St. Charles event they were all attending. Another parent, not Catholic asked, “am I the only person in this town who is not Catholic?”
In the last ten years, significant demographic changes have emerged in Central New Jersey and in much of the Diocese of Metuchen. As Catholics have moved away, many moving into this area embrace religious traditions that are not Christian, let alone Catholic.
While this has contributed to a decline in parish population, it brings with it a new strength. We have seen more diversity in our parish. We have experienced it in the beautiful celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe (a devotion dear to Mexico and countries of South America.) And in our observance of Our Lady of Vailankanni, the celebration from India.
The word “catholic” comes from a Latin word meaning universal. The diversity we celebrate here at St. Charles enables us to understand the universality of the Church that is culturally and ethnically diverse, yet united in the things that matter to God.
With the eyes of the world, the decline in numbers can be read negatively. But with the eyes of faith, they are an opportunity to come closer to Lord, to each other and renew our Catholic community.
The question moving forward will not be “am I the only person in this town who is not Catholic?” It could become, “am I the only person in this town who is looking for meaning, for faith, for God?” There are many people, some Catholic, some of other religious traditions who are not observant. They are asking those questions. This is an opportunity for us to walk with people in their search, listen to them, and help them reconnect or find a home in the Catholic Church.
There are increasingly fewer of us who remember the early years of this parish. Those who do remember a parish of about 500 families. Our strength was that we knew one another and each did his/her part to help form this Catholic community. That strength is still here in our parish; the challenge is to reawaken and reclaim that strength with a sense of determination and enthusiasm.
In my years as your pastor, two significant periods when I felt a great sense of community: first, in the early years, when we didn’t have a church but needed one. And in the past year when we couldn’t go to church but needed to. People understood they are the church and being church comes with grace and responsibility.
We receive a new calling when we realize we need the Church and as importantly—at times more importantly—the Church needs us.
There is both sadness and shame that some have left the Catholic Church for serious reasons. Some are indifferent to the message of the Church: in that there is sadness. Others have felt rejected and wounded by the Catholic Church; for that we feel deep shame. Still others have left the Church because of the scandals of the last 20 years. This causes sadness and shame.
These challenges are not solved by a program or a pious prayers. They can be healed by the strength of those who remain in the Church. Early in his pontificate Pope Francis said in order to make others feel welcome, loved, forgiven and encouraged, the church must have open doors so that all might enter.(Wednesday Audience June 13, 2013.)
We have tried, as a parish, to live with open doors. We have not done it perfectly. I have not done it perfectly. Yet I have witnessed our parishioners’ open hearts and open hands. Our strength is your willingness to listen, to share faith and accompany people in their questions, pain and hurt. It’s believing that despite all the difficulties and scandal, the Church still has a message that is credible. That is how we open the doors.
For 40 years, the stewardship of parishioners has been our strength. Ministries have grown and expanded because parishioners offer their time and talent. We have formed lay leadership in our parish in a way not always found in other parishes. To say that is not to brag or judge. It is to recognize what Pope Paul VI wrote following Vatican II: it belongs to the laity, without waiting passively for orders and directives, to take the initiatives freely and to infuse a Christian spirit into . . . the community in which they live. Moving forward we must find new ways of discovering parishioners’ gifts, especially those who are new. To instill in all parishioners the willingness to say, “this is how you can count on me to help.”
The stewardship of treasure is both a strength and challenge. In 40 years, we were able to build two buildings and retire two mortgages. We weathered the darkest days of the pandemic because of our Finance Council’s leadership. During the lockdown our parishioners did their part and continued sending their offering. We were also helped by one-time significant financial contributions from parishioners, and former parishioners who moved out of state, but watched our YouTube Masses and reflections each week. They still valued what they received from this community, even if they now lived in a different time zone. The extraordinary income is in savings for future needs.
We have diligently reduced our expenses where possible. The next challenge for our parish, as it is for all parishes today, is to increase our ordinary income. This is literally how we keep the doors open.
Noah, his family, and animal companions waited 40 days in the ark until the flood waters subsided. Noah sends out a dove to see if there is dry land. The dove returns because there none, but eventually returns with an olive leaf (Genesis 8:8) and then does not return. Noah realizes the new chapter is about to begin.
Noah and the ark symbolize our new chapter, about to begin. We have survived the flood of a pandemic. Now we send out the dove, an invitation to every parishioner to be part of a conversation. We’ve had forty years of research; now the Lord is calling: to a time of listening and sharing how we can live our Catholic faith together. To read the signs of the times is to realize the parish is no longer the primary gathering place and so to find new ways of reaching out. The task of these conversations as the document we just heard states, is not a burden but a challenge to be embraced with enthusiasm.
These conversations over the next months will be in person and online. As the Noah of this ark, I am asking only one thing. That you participate in the conversation.
These will be conversations about our identity as Catholics. Not a conversation about good ideas, but a conversation about the things that matter to God. Three areas that are important starting points:
Central to our faith is the seventh day (Sunday) as a day of rest: a time of stepping away from the busyness of daily life and stepping closer to the Lord. Jesus teaches keeping the Sabbath is not so much a rule, but a remedy for busyness, impatience, worry, fear and distraction. Long before the pandemic, our culture was losing a sense of the sabbath, the day of rest. For many, Sunday is just another day. How many of us felt weary during the pandemic because Tuesday seemed no different from Friday? That weariness came from a lack of the rhythm we all need. Every Sunday during lockdown, when I celebrated Mass, I dressed in a clerical shirt, black pants and my good black shoes. Some Sundays, I wore one of my suits. During the week, I wore casual clothes, sometimes a sweatshirt, under the vestments. But Sunday needed to look and feel different; or I would go mad. For our mental, spiritual, and physical health, we need a Sunday centered on the Lord.
Gathering for Sunday Mass and receiving the Eucharist –the true presence of Christ—is the central activity that identifies us as Catholic. At the Second Vatican Council the bishops stated the Eucharist is the foundation of the Church.
The Eucharist is the foundation of all we do. When it isn’t, serving the needy become social work and Confirmation becomes a rite of passage. But when the Eucharist is the center of Catholic life, then everything we do becomes our response to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: do this in remembrance of me. The Bishops of our country will soon start a several year process of having Catholics reclaim the importance of the Eucharist. They are motivated by polls indicating a majority of church attending Catholics do not believe or understand the Eucharist is the real presence of Christ.
I want us to have a conversation about what the Eucharist means to each of us, what difference it has or can make in our lives. To discuss how we can better help parishioners see the importance of Sabbath rest and how the Eucharist can be a more central part of our lives.
During the pandemic many of you wrote to me, stating how prayer helped you in those dark days. Maybe it was praying the rosary, or sitting quietly with scripture, or journaling. Many of you found new ways to deepen your spiritual life in your home. That is a blessing many received during lockdown. As we move forward, how do we help each other develop a deeper spiritual life without a pandemic outside our door? How can we help adults, as well as families with children, see more clearly that developing a spiritual life is as important as the gym, the diet, the sports clinics, and the professional development that is part of our lives? Many times, more important.
A spiritual life helps you be a better parent, spouse, child, friend. It is what helps you embrace patience, hope and forgiveness. In these conversations, I want to hear about your spiritual life, no matter what it is or isn’t. I want to know how our parish can keep you grow spiritually closer to the Lord.
For my entire priesthood I have used these words as the final blessing at Mass: as God has blessed us, may we always be a blessing for each other. That is the calling given to us as we leave Mass: to be a blessing. We are called to live as a blessing for others: to use our time, talent and treasure in formation and service, accompanying others by being the presence of Jesus for them. Our conversations will be about how we help each other embrace the call to share our time, talent, and treasure. How do we help parishioners discern and use their gifts? Looking at the signs of the times, it may be a blessing to realize we must change or end some programs, so what is needed now can flourish.
To be rich in the things that matter to God.
- Worshipping together each week at Mass and embracing Christ in the Eucharist; that matters to God.
- Developing our spiritual life so that we can together face a world of conflicting values and never-ending challenges; that matters to God.
- Allowing the Eucharist and a spiritual life to strengthen our choice to share time, talent and treasure in study and service, that matters to God.
For the past forty years the Catholic Community of St. Charles has been rich in these things. They have mattered to us; all of us.
Now, as we face the next forty years, we are called to embrace them in a new way, in new circumstances and with new enthusiasm. Our parish’s strength includes a hardworking pastoral and administrative staff who are committed to this process.
This time of conversation will begin in a few weeks and continue until Lent. Lent will be a time of prayer. And a time when our parish staff and leadership will reflect on what we have learned and heard. In the Easter Season we will present a pastoral plan based on what parishioners shared and what they are willing to help with or participate in.
When the plague ended in December of 1577, our patron Charles Borromeo invited the people of Milan to recommit themselves to faith. May his words to them be now the mission of this parish which bears his name: I will now begin to live for God who has given me life. Let there now be a beginning of that true spiritual renewal to which God has called and is calling me in so many ways.