Bishop Joseph A. Galante was greeted with placards calling for his resignation and even some boos last night when he appeared at St. Mary's parish in Malaga, where dozens implored him to keep their little church open.
"Small, vibrant parishes have a right to exist," read a placard carried by Tom Mazzola, 72. "The bishop should resign."
Parishioners from a half-dozen other parishes around the Diocese of Camden also stood outside St. Mary's bearing signs asking Galante to keep their parishes open.
"Don't make our parish perish," read one.
Galante announced last month he was cutting the number of parishes in the diocese nearly in half, from 124 to 66. About 30 parishes will close outright starting next year, he said during an April 3 news conference. Most of the others will become "worship sites" within newly formed parishes, he added.
The closures, which Galante described as "radical" in their sweep, are among the largest ever undertaken by an American diocese.
Last night, Galante went to St. Mary's to hear parishioners' concerns and to explain why he was making such a sweeping reconfiguration of the diocese.
The atmosphere inside the 83-year-old Gloucester County church was charged with intense emotions. Some people were openly defiant, and others were sad and tearful.
"I don't think you're here in good faith," said the very first speaker, who did not identify herself. "We believe your entire parish reconfiguration is in error," she told Galante to vigorous applause.
Many of the 30 or so speakers appealed to emotion, telling their bishop how much they valued the intimacy of their 250-family parish.
"How is this configuration allowing the children to come to Jesus?" asked one woman.
One 9-year-old boy, James Kelleher of Franklin Township, won a round of applause when he told the bishop: "I want to be a priest right here. I can't be a priest here if this church is closed."
"Our church is
," a woman said. "You're looking at us. You're nodding at us. But are you caring about anything we're saying?"
And so it went for about 90 minutes, speaker after speaker expressing disapproval and disappointment while the bishop and his staff sat quietly, taking it all in.
When it was his turn to speak, Galante said, "I hope I can explain what I'm doing."
He reminded his audience that he had spent 15 months conducting "speak-up sessions" in nearly every parish in the six-county diocese before he made any decisions.
Galante said parishioners in those sessions had told him that they wanted to see more vocations, better liturgies, more community outreach, youth ministries, and better teaching of the faith to adults.
"Our faith has to be a faith that translates itself into action," Galante said. "A parish can't be a drop-in convenience store. It has to be a vibrant place."
"I am responsible for the whole church in South Jersey," he reminded the crowd. "A great deal of prayer and consideration went into this."
Afterward, parishioner Cynthia Hetzler of Turnersville, like most of the people there, seemed upset.
"If he wants to see vibrant parishes, this church has it all," Hetzler said. "I'm so disappointed. I don't think he's going to change his mind."
Galante has said he is closing so many parishes because the diocese will have only half its current supply of priests in 2015, and cited what he called an "appalling" Sunday Mass attendance of just 24 percent.
Despite his explanations, members of 21 parishes marked for closure or merger have joined a protest organization, the Council of Parishes of Southern New Jersey, and at least two parishes are asking the Vatican to overturn Galante's decision.
"We at St. Mary's have filed an appeal with the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome, asking them to review his decision," parishioner Leah Vassallo said yesterday before the meeting with the bishop.
Vassallo, 34, said that her great-grandparents had contributed to the construction of the parish in the 1920s, and that her great-grandfather had rung the bell that called parishioners to worship.
"We're saying that the reasons he has given as the necessity for parish closings, like the priest shortage, are not valid," she said, because Galante has refused to consider bringing in priests from nations such as India and China, which have surpluses.
"He seems to be working to create a priest shortage," said Vassallo, adding that the 500,000-member diocese had grown steadily in recent years and was "financially sound."
Under Galante's plan, St. Mary's would merge with St. Rose of Lima parish in Newfield, Queen of Angels in Buena, and Our Lady of the Lakes in Collings Lakes to form a new parish - yet to be named - of about 2,400 families.
Members of Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Wildwood Crest, which would merge nine months of the year with St. Ann's in Wildwood, have also begun the appeals process, but have not yet filed documents with Rome.
"We have filed an appeal asking the bishop to suppress his decision," parishioner Nicholas Nastasi explained in a phone interview yesterday. "He has 30 days to reply. . . . We will file an appeal [with the Congregation for Clergy] if it's not in our favor."