After nearly nine years as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden, Bishop Joseph Galante announced Tuesday that he was retiring because of poor health and would be succeeded by Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan of New York.

Sullivan, 67, who served as a parish priest in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the Archdiocese of New York before becoming an auxiliary bishop in 2004, will be installed Feb. 12 at St. Agnes Church in Blackwood.

"I do not come here with a plan," he told a news conference following Galante's introduction of him. "I come here to serve."

The third child of a taxi driver and an Irish-born housekeeper, the Bronx-born Sullivan also spoke at length in Spanish, and stressed that the church "must never abandon the inner city."

"We belong here," he said of Camden, one of the nation's poorest cities, which saw 67 homicides last year. "The church must try to be a beacon of light . . . for this city."

Galante, 74, who has diabetes and end-stage kidney-failure, said he had written to Pope Benedict XVI a year ago asking that a successor be named, but that it had taken longer than he anticipated.

Noting that he had served for 20 years as a bishop, in three Texas dioceses and Camden, he said, "The happiest of those have been here."

Galante will turn 75, the standard retirement age for Catholic bishops, in July.

In 2008, he announced that he was closing or merging nearly half of the diocese's 124 parishes, in what would become the most sweeping consolidation of any Catholic diocese in the history of the United States.

Despite initial anger and resistance, the result has been "new enthusiasm, new vitality" in some parishes, Galante said. He said he had not expected to stay long enough to see the "full flowering" of his vision, "but the tender shoots are coming up."

He spends four hours on dialysis three days a week, but "it's not as bad as it sounds," he said.

Sitting with an iPad, he is able to do paperwork during treatment, he said, and also uses the time to read his breviary, with special attention to the psalms.

"Tethered to that machine, I feel tethered to God," he said.

While overweight, he said he had lost 25 pounds since starting dialysis a year ago and felt "pretty good." Despite "bone-on-bone" joint pain in his knees and back - he walks with a cane - he has accepted Sullivan's invitation to conduct occasional confirmations. He will live at his Shore home in Somers Point.

Speaking rapidly and enthusiastically, Sullivan told diocesan leaders and news media at diocesan offices that he felt "very welcome," but wanted to "spend a lot of time listening" before attempting any visionary plan.

His would be a "pastoral ministry," he said, and he pledged to use his position to "spread the good news" of Christian salvation. "What I'm about is the love of God."

Prior to his appointment, he served as vicar for administration in the 10-county, 2.6-million-member New York Archdiocese, the nation's second largest Catholic diocese.

In that role He oversaw the closing of 27 parishes, "so I was not the most popular bishop in New York."

Although he is described on one Catholic blog as having been a "roll-up-your-sleeves parish priest," some members of his archdiocese complained in 2007 that he turned the parish closings into an unnecessarily "long, drawn-out process."

Sullivan becomes the eighth bishop of Camden. The diocese, with nearly 500,000 members in Camden, Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem, Atlantic, and Cape May Counties, is the nation's 40th largest out of 195.

The exact size of its membership is difficult to measure. The diocese estimates that it is home to 100,000 Catholics recently arrived from Latin America, many of whom do not register with a parish.

Sullivan, who spent 11/2 years at Iona College before entering the New York Archdiocese's St. Joseph's Seminary, said he recognized in seminary the need for clergy to learn both the Spanish language and Hispanic culture - "the food, the love of family, the celebrations."

Two years before his 1971 ordination, he spent a summer in Puerto Rico, and later "lived for many months in a remote village" in the Dominican Republic, he said, to better understand the Dominicans then flowing into New York.

Several dioceses in the area hailed the appointment. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York praised Sullivan as "my right-hand man." Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput extended "warm and prayerful congratulations." Chaput said he was praying for Galante's health.

Sullivan said he had no immediate solution to the homicides plaguing Camden, but said the diocese would "do everything we can to [encourage residents] to give up the violence and give up the guns . . . and make sure the prophetic word of the church is heard by all people of good will."

He holds a bachelor's degree, and a master's of divinity from St. Joseph's Seminary.

Galante, who grew up a grocer's son in Northeast Philadelphia, attended St. Joseph's Prep before entering St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where he was ordained in 1964.

After receiving advanced degrees at pontifical universities in Rome, he served as a parish priest in the Philadelphia archdiocese and in Vatican offices before being ordained auxiliary bishop of San Antonio, Texas, in 1992.

Starting in 1994, he spent six years as bishop of Beaumont, Texas, followed by four years as coadjutor bishop of Dallas. He was named to Camden in April 2004.

Four years later, following 130 "speak-up sessions," he announced that he wanted to replace the diocese's many small congregations with larger parishes like those he encountered in Texas.

Likening the process to the quick sting of "pulling off a Band-Aid," he conceded his "radical" approach would upset many whose parishes were dissolved, but predicted it would foster community, "vibrancy," and financial solvency in those that emerged.

"Inaction is not an option," he declared as he unveiled his consolidation plan, which saw 32 parishes remain intact and 92 others be merged into 38.

The process was heated. When he visited Malaga's little St. Mary's in 2008 to explain why it was closing, Galante was greeted by boos and placards calling for his resignation.

Bill Cipollone, a parishioner, said Tuesday he thought St. Mary's its closing was "not fair at all." He said he had no opinion about Sullivan, whom he does not know. "We'd just like our church reopened," he said.

Larry Farmer, head of the diocesan planning commission, said last year that average Sunday Mass attendance in the diocese had dropped by about 8,000 people, to 103,000, since the consolidation, but that he believed the number had stabilized.

Diocesan spokesman Peter Feuerherd said Tuesday that the consolidation was virtually complete, and that if Sullivan gives his blessing, the diocese was preparing to embark on an ambitious effort to better engage the faithful in worship and parish life.

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com.