Church Reform from Below: An Interview with Bishop Frank Caggiano
The Most Rev. Frank Caggiano is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport. A Brooklyn native, he graduated from Regis High School in 1977 and attended Yale University briefly before deciding to study for the priesthood. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Cathedral College and an M.Div in theology from Immaculate Conception Seminary.
Ordained for the Diocese of Brooklyn in 1987, Bishop Caggiano served as a pastor and director of permanent diaconate formation before being named monsignor in 2003 and auxiliary bishop for the diocese in 2006. On September 19, 2013, he was installed as bishop of Bridgeport, where he has convoked a local synod to formulate a new pastoral plan for the future of his diocese. The synod begins its formal work this September and will conclude in September 2015.
On July 24, I interviewed Bishop Caggiano by telephone about the Bridgeport synod and its implications for church reform. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.
What inspired you to call for this synod, which is the first in the Bridgeport diocese in 32 years?
When I first came to the diocese, I felt I needed to spend a significant amount of time listening and learning. Because I have an active personality, it was a conscious decision on my part to be receptive. Soon after I began to visit the different parishes and schools, I realized there was a need to engage the laity in a very significant way—the lay leadership in particular, given the wonderful people we have in the diocese. Many are very professional, they’re very well educated, they want to learn about their faith and they want to take rightful leadership in the church. I thought to myself that the best vehicle we had to engage them in discerning what the challenges really are which exist in the diocese, and prioritizing what we have to address and how to address them, was to call a synod. I made that decision at the beginning of January and it really has been very well-received by the people of the diocese.
How is the Bridgeport diocese a microcosm of the larger church?
Part of this learning process I’ve gone through over these past 10 months as bishop has been coming to recognize the great richness, diversity and variety of the diocese—which, to be honest, I was not aware of as a New Yorker looking at Fairfield County with the stereotype that it is a monolith. It really is not. In many senses, it really is a microcosm of the church. For example, 18 percent of the population of Fairfield County is Hispanic. We have tremendous diversity economically from areas of significant affluence—like Darien, Westport and Greenwich—to places of economic challenge like Danbury and sections of Norwalk, to sections of real economic hardship like Bridgeport. We also have a tremendous ethnic diversity. We have a very large Vietnamese, Brazilian and Haitian population in addition to the Hispanics. So in many ways, Fairfield County is very reflective I think of the American church, particularly in its larger metropolitan areas.
What are the most vibrant areas of Catholic life in your diocese?
There are a number. I am very impressed, for example, with Catholic education and its mission. We have 35 Catholic schools and 18 of them are blue ribbon presidential schools. So we provide an excellent, superior, I think unmatched education in the county that’s also very Catholic. The Catholic identity is extremely strong and my hope is to strengthen it even more. That’s one area that’s vibrant. I think Catholic Charities does a phenomenal job of reaching out to the poor, the disabled, the immigrants. Recently, I myself was surprised to learn that Catholic Charities is the largest provider of social services in Connecticut outside of the state government itself. They do tremendous, effective and I think indispensable outreach to the needy.
Other areas? I mean, our parishes are very different, but overall I’ve been very impressed. There is overall a great attention to liturgy in many of them, an interest in justice and charity. Our priests, by and large, are very dedicated to their work. I think the synod is going to pay special attention to how we can help them, particularly pastors, reimagine their work given the administrative burden they carry. We’re blessed with a great college seminary, St. John Fisher, that has celebrated its 25th anniversary. About 80 of our priests have come out of that program and now serve in the diocese. So there are many aspects that are vibrant. There are also challenges that we face.
What are the biggest challenges right now?
First and foremost, there’s a tremendous need for evangelical outreach. We have perhaps 20-25 percent of our Catholics attending Mass on Sunday, maybe closer to 20 percent, which means four out of every five Catholics are not worshipping regularly. I think that’s the single greatest challenge. That challenge highlights other challenges. For example, those Catholics who no longer feel they are welcomed, those who are disaffected because of the state of life they live—perhaps they’re divorced, perhaps they’re divorced and remarried. Perhaps some disagree with the teachings of the church in social areas or moral areas. But we have too many Catholics not involved in the life of the church. The same is true with the young. The young people I’ve dealt with, and I’ve dealt with hundreds of them in these listening sessions for the synod, are tremendous. But for every one that’s involved in the church, there are perhaps eight or nine who are not involved. What came across clearly in the seven listening sessions—almost 2,000 people made interventions—is that the single greatest challenge that everyone agreed on is this need for outreach to Catholics, to welcome them back to the church, both the young and everyone else.
In dealing with these sorts of pastoral challenges, Pope Francis has encouraged bishops to formulate creative solutions at the local level. Why should church reform start at the bottom rather than at the top?
Two basic reasons. First, all religion and all politics is local. And if that motto is true, then the church has been and always will be most alive at the parish and school level. The diocese is at its best when it’s at service to the parishes and schools and is almost invisible in the life of the church. The more locally we engage discussion, the more creative it is, the more receptive it is, and the more reactive it can be to the real problems. So that’s number one. The second thing is “many hands make light work.” My experience has been—both in Brooklyn and now certainly in Bridgeport—that most people are eager to be of help. But they need to be part of the solution-making process. They need to be asked their thoughts and input and then encouraged to become involved. People don’t just want their opinions asked; they also want to have some possibility of formulating what the program and the response is going to be. So on both levels, I think the Holy Father is absolutely on target, and at times we have not done such a great job of engaging lay leaders in creative and constructive ways. The synod is really meant to be the catalyst to do that.
Part of your synod’s work will involve lay participants attending learning sessions at Fordham University, discussing best practices from other places in the church. What does this sort of discussion contribute to the life of the U.S. church?
There are many benefits. But speaking about the delegates themselves, I’m hoping that—in exchange for all of their hard work, and their time, and their generous commitment to the process that is very significant—they will come out spiritually blessed and enriched. And both personally and theologically, more attuned and educated so that they are ready to do whatever God asks them to do. I want the delegates to be able to come out as more engaged, more knowledgeable, more on fire in faith. I want it to be a personal journey as well as an ecclesial journey. That’s why I asked for the formation sessions, and from what I can gather, the initial reports are that people are very enthusiastic about them precisely because they are coming away with material for them to reflect on personally in their own prayer life apart from what the synod is going to do. You cannot give what you do not have; you cannot give he who you do not know. I’ve mentioned that in my talks many times, and for many of these delegates, the synod is an opportunity for them to grow in faith personally. That is beyond price when it comes to the value to a parish, a school or a diocese. I mean, the Lord picked 12, and after the coming of the Holy Spirit 11 of them converted the world. Can you imagine, if we had 50,000 people, what they would do?
The local churches in Miami and Juneau completed synods last year. Do you think more U.S. bishops should hold local synods?
Two other dioceses have already contacted our office inquiring about the process we’re going to use. I think there is more interest now among bishops to have synods. To be honest, I think there is precious little to lose and far too much to gain when a bishop discerns whether or not to have a synod. I would encourage every diocese to have one because we all face challenges. Some are unique to our areas and some are universal to the church. But to engage all leadership—not just lay leadership but priests, deacons and consecrated men and women—and bring them to a forum where we can really begin to discuss issues in a very frank and transparent way can only strengthen the church.
So I would encourage all bishops to have one. If you were to ask me “what are some concerns bishops may have in calling a synod,” it’s true that I’ve had a number of people say to me: “Well, how do you control the synod?” And my response is it’s not for me to control. There is nothing to be afraid of when people speak their minds honestly and respectfully because the truth is the truth. The truth prevails regardless of circumstance, person, participants or venue. I firmly believe that with all my heart. When we allow people to speak their minds, then that process itself is healing. People sometimes just want to be heard even when they know that what they’re asking cannot be. But that’s a service to that person and to the church if we allow that venue to happen. Growing up in an Italian house, which was for lack of a better word quite a lively experience, I don’t have any fear of the synod being a place where people speak frankly. I encourage it. Even when people disagree, I encourage that too if it’s on people’s minds, provided they do it respectfully.
Reports from the pre-synod listening sessions you held in the spring indicated a wide variety of perspectives, with some people wanting a stronger devotional life and others voicing more progressive concerns. As a bishop, how do you balance people’s pastoral needs in a way that makes everyone feel cared for?
This is at the heart of what a synod is and I think it’s going to be very hard for most people, and at times even myself, to understand that a synod is more a process of discernment than it is of deliberation. And that is where, as Americans, we might be a bit behind the eight ball, because we tend to understand gatherings of individuals assembled to address problems as a deliberative action. That is, we identify what the problem is and we make a decision to address it. That is not what a synod is, though. A synod is a discerning process in which, once the issue has been clarified, we need to sit and listen to the voices who can inform us of what the program or solution needs to be. And I think that’s part of that formational process. We need to suspend our initial reaction that “we’re going to solve this problem by doing X” and take a step back and deliberate—to allow a discernment to occur, to allow the Holy Spirit to enlighten us about what God is asking us to do. Because it’s not our church, it’s his church first and foremost.
So that’s where I think the challenge is. Now the second piece of the question is “to whom do we listen?” That is where the rubber hits the road. There’s a bias in contemporary society that the only voices we hear are the ones who speak to us here and now. You know, I call it the “blog phenomenon.” But in fact, the voices we listen to are the voices of the tradition, starting with the apostles and working our way up to you and me. And that’s where the discernment comes in. And that’s why the synodal process is personally enriching, but it’s also a heck of a lot of work to get all the voices in the mix. It’s the magisterium, it’s sacred scripture, it’s the tradition and all the great teachers from the Fathers of the Church onward who are able to inform us of what the Holy Spirit might be asking us to do. Because the bottom line is this: There is precious little that is new under the sun. We as contemporaries think all of our problems are new, and that we have to come up with new ideas, and new programs, and that’s baloney. There is very little that’s new after 2,000 years that the church has not struggled with in other ages. So why reinvent the wheel? Why not go back to those times and have those voices inform us? I’m not sure, but for the synodal delegates, I think that will be the hardest piece of this process.
As you’ve mentioned, one of the themes for your synod is building bridges to those who have left the church. Do you have any initial thoughts on how to move forward with that issue?
Yeah, I have just one, and it’s a foundational principle that has come to the fore in my own reflection and prayer over the last six or seven years—and it is a radical change from what I used to think. I say “radical” because it really reworks a lot of what I used to consider the hallmarks of success. It’s this: Up to recently, the church has usually turned to creating a pastoral program when facing a pastoral challenge, to address that challenge. Now, that will always have a place in the life of the church. But I think the genius of Pope Francis is that he has expressed in words what I was intuiting, when he speaks about missionary discipleship, that we need to reach out one person at a time. That has phenomenal implications for the life of the church. If the methodology is “one person at a time,” then each and every baptized person is called to get involved. That’s the only way we’re going to do it. It also implies that we’re going to have to invest time to sit and listen to the people who we wish to invite back, to allow them to tell us their story, for healing whatever needs to be healed. And it implies that success has to be measured by sowing seeds, even when you don’t see the seed grow initially, because the person who comes after you sees the seed blossom. It demands a spirituality, it demands a discipline in prayer and it demands a pastoral faith reflection which will for many people be a brand new experience. That’s my initial insight going into the synod. It could be leaven for tremendous renewal of people’s lives because there are no more spectators at the synod.
In the minds of many people, Pope Francis has issued his own pastoral game plan for the universal church in his apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium." Do you see any particular areas of congruence between what the pope’s doing and what you’re doing in Bridgeport?
It’s this intuition I just mentioned that I’d like to bring to the synod as one of the foundational principles for everything we’re going to do, because I think that’s ultimately what the pope is challenging us to do. The only additional reflection the pope is offering is to emphasize what allowed the primitive church, in our initial history, to grow in such an unparalleled way. Why was there such unparalleled growth? It was missionary growth, one person at a time, and the charism of the early church was joy. As the pope is saying, joy is infectious. I mean, the early Christians went to their crucifixion singing the psalms, expressing a deep-seated joy. The Romans probably looked at them and said “what is the matter with these people? They are going to get crucified, so what is it that they have and we don’t have?” Of course, it’s not a “what” but a “who.” Again, the pope has hit the nail right on the mark, it’s the joy. But joy is not a program. The synod’s not going to say, “O.K. we’re going to be joyful.” It will be the fruit of the work of the synod, if we do it well. In my dealings with young people, if there’s anything in the faith that resonates in the hearts of young people, it’s when they encounter real joy. Then they are hooked, because there’s precious little joy in the secular society of their ordinary experience. There’s plenty of happiness in the “pursuit of happiness,” but there’s precious little joy. Joy is the only other element I hope we’ll bring out of our synodal process.
In terms of reform or renewal, what do you believe the Catholic Church needs most right now?
We need to force the dialogue on every level. That ultimately is what we need to do going forward into the future. Now most people would suggest that there are ecclesiastical structures that have to be changed, that disciplines have to be changed, but in my estimation it is a posture that’s more important than those sorts of changes. It’s a change of attitude towards listening and dialoguing. Too many people feel isolated and alone and unwelcomed, even within the church. And even among clergy and religious, many of them feel their superiors are not really listening to their concerns. So that would be my greatest suggestion, whether it’s really reform or just renewal, that everyone adopt more of a stance of dialogue and listening with the heart. I think that would bring the church a long way towards the renewal that we want.
What are your hopes for the future?
My hope for the future, at least for the Diocese of Bridgeport, is that in a few years all of our parishes and schools will be growing, our vocations will be on the rise, we will have an army of lay leaders engaged in the life of the church in every aspect and at every level of our diocese. If we could realize that, I would be absolutely delighted, and that’s my hope.
Any final thoughts?
It’s a lot of work, but I find it very gratifying to be part of this process in Bridgeport, and I owe it really to the work of the Spirit. If you had asked me when I was named the bishop last September if we’d be going through this process, I would not have believed it myself, and yet we’re in it. I’m grateful that we’re in it and I don’t believe it’s my doing. I believe it’s the work of the Holy Spirit that’s moving all of us that way. So my last thought is that I’m grateful to the Lord and I’m looking forward to some great things happening.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.
Thank you all for reading. I'm glad the interview came out so nicely and gave some food for thought! Let's continue to pray together for renewal in our church.
Sean Salai, SJ