In what Jamie Dance, Voice of the Faithful chairwoman, called a "historic occasion," Bishop Frank Caggiano met with the organization for what he said was the beginning of a conversation.
Several people noted the group was established to seek reform within the Catholic Church and to support those sexually assaulted by priests, but Caggiano was not asked to formally address the topic nor did he volunteer an opinion during the nearly two-hour meeting.
The question-and-answer session in Norwalk, punctuated by moments of humor provided by the Brooklyn, N.Y., transplant, was held Thursday night on Pope Francis' first anniversary as leader of the church.
And like the pope, Caggiano has already proven to be very different from his predecessor.
While then-Bishop William E. Lori refused to let Voice of the Faithful meet in churches in the diocese and did not respond to its requests for a meeting, Caggiano's meeting with the group comes just halfway into his first year as leader of the Diocese of Bridgeport.
At the meeting, the bishop embraced the group, calling it part of his family.
"We're family, and that's how I understand our gathering," he said. "We are truly sisters and brothers. That does not mean at times we won't have our disagreements. Of course we will."
And the event did have the feel of a cozy family assembly, with more than 120 people -- the vast majority individuals 50 years old and over -- packed into a small room at First Congregational Church on the Green. Some individuals came from New York and Massachusetts.
There were also half a dozen priests, which one attendee publicly noted, prompting the audience to applaud.
Caggiano \spoke for only about 10 minutes before offering to answer questions. He did not engage in a monologue, "but I'll give a homily, if you want," he joked.
A great number of questions centered on why women are not allowed to participate in the church hierarchy, the priesthood or the deaconate.
"In our 20th century church, numerous Catholic women have master's degrees and PhDs in theology scripture and divinity, and some are even here tonight," said Rosemary McIntyre, a member of St. Ann's Church in Bridgeport. "Yet we are excluded from the ministries of preaching and deaconate and priesthood, for which we've been trained. I feel a deep concern that our Catholic Church is deprived of the Holy Spirit's gifts to women."
She asked Caggiano if he could envision a time when that would change.
Reminding them he promised to be honest and speak openly, Caggiano said he did not -- because Jesus set a precedent by choosing to elect only men as apostles. Read Full Article
"I've heard many a person say, `Well that's because he was socially and culturally bound by his age. Well, that is true," Caggiano said. "But Jesus did break every norm in Judaism."
"He did choose only men," he then repeated. "So the question is can the church revise that decision ... The answer to that is no."
Caggiano also spoke about his desire to include the group in the delegation of the upcoming synod, or council, the first in the diocese in more than 30 years. The event should serve as a way to unite Catholics and bring forth any questions or concerns in order to find solutions together, he said.
To that effect, the website www.2014synod.org will go live Monday.
On that site, individuals will be able to fill out a questionnaire and share their misgivings as well as the things they enjoy about their parishes.
Charlie Costello, a member of St. Cecilia Church in Stamford, also asked Caggiano whether anything had changed or was changing in programs for priestly formation.
He said that while priests learn about intellectual and spiritual pillars during their formation, they didn't always learn to look within themselves and understand themselves before becoming ordained.
Another woman said priests should have more exposure to women and their issues before being ordained. Caggiano agreed, and going further he would like to see priests who will take on the role of church pastors be educated in financial and managerial skills.
Too often priests are asked to lead and manage church finances without any training, he said.
Several people also asked about how Caggiano planned to bring people back into the church. Barbara Richmond, a Norwalk resident who converted to Catholicism, asked how he planned to take on evangelization.
Before answering, Caggiano, noting her conversion, wrote her name down and, smiling, told her she was signed up to help him.
"I think it is the great challenge of our age," he then answered. "We need to go into their virtual world and baptize it, because the pornographers have already done that."
Asked by another how he planned to bring more young people to the church, Caggiano said in order to keep converts, the church first had to create an environment in which people can feel God's love often.
"Religion has become rules and regulations because there is something profoundly missing in people's lives," he said. "Where there is no love truly felt in the heart, religion is just a burden."
Not addressed at the meeting was how Caggiano planned to handle possible future cases of sexual abuse or other bad behavior by priests.
Also not mentioned was his decision to appoint Monsignor Martin Ryan as pastor of Our Lady of Grace in Stratford despite past allegations of abuse and sexual harassment against him.
Several people did note the group's desire to begin meeting at their own churches. "We would like to find a home back in our Catholic churches," said John Marshall Lee of Bridgeport.
Caggiano's response was to reiterate the reason he agreed to meet with the group. "I think this is the beginning of a conversation. We will talk about that," he said.