In this phone interview Bishop Michael Saporito discusses parish life, evangelization and reaching people who aren’t sitting in the pews.
Bishop Michael A. Saporito is still surprised at being named one of three new auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Newark, but he is excited and sees it as an opportunity to share his insights into evangelization and help strengthen parish life.
“I’ve grown up in the Archdiocese of Newark,” he said in a recent interview. “I’ve lived my whole life here and it’s always been a vibrant, great place to live in this part of New Jersey.”
Bishop Saporito was the parochial vicar in several parishes before becoming pastor of Saint Joseph in Maplewood and then Saint Helen in Westfield. The switch from parish priest to Episcopal Vicar for Bergen County means that his family is now a whole lot bigger.
“It’s a little bit of a different thing because I’m not tied to just one community now, but a lot of them,” he said. “I want to see our Catholic Church thrive here and I think it can. We’re in a time of change. It’s certainly a challenge but I think we can, and it’s just bringing people together to be able to do that and I hope to make a contribution in that way.”
Since his appointment, Bishop Saporito has set out to establish new relationships and recently held meetings with the Deans of Bergen County. He has also been visiting parishes where he’s been celebrating Mass each weekend and getting to know priests and members of the parish staff. He said he is available to listen, support, and do whatever he can to help make parish life better.
“As a pastor, that was a big focus of mine – the area of evangelization,” he said. “I think people are looking to make stronger and deeper connections to their faith and we have to be intentional to do that. We have to be seeking to make people grow.”
In recent years, Bishop Saporito has been most devoted to the new evangelization, offering programs of faith development and awakening people to a deeper faith in Jesus Christ, while working tirelessly to foster parish renewal and intentional discipleship.
He has served on the Evangelization Commission of the Archdiocese of Newark and as a board member for Christlife, an Evangelization apostolate of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland.
“I believe that the parish is a great instrument of the local level,” Bishop Saporito explained. “It’s the heart of where the church lives and their ministries.”
He emphasized the importance of fostering small groups and meaningful engagement.
“Any parish is made up of smaller communities who know people’s stories, people’s struggles, and we can offer prayerful and faithful support to those people and we can nurture people’s faith in small groups,” he said. “I’ve seen it work. And I’ve seen it be extremely, extremely effective.”
Bishop Saporito recently organized a virtual workshop entitled, “ReThink Advent and Christmas: An Innovation Workshop!”. The event was meant to help pastors, parish staff, and lay leaders explore best practices and creative ways to help people experience Christ and be Christ-like to others at Christmas. It explored questions like, “What can we do that has worked well in the past?” or “What have we never done that we might try?” and “What can we learn from other parishes around the country?”
“We are anticipating that advent and Christmas are going to look a little bit different this year with the pandemic and people are concerned about that,” he said of the workshop. “What is this going to be like this year? We often have people coming to church for Christmas but how does the church go to the people this Christmas? Maybe we need to think creatively about that. Maybe there’s a way the church can make an impact in our local communities. Who are the lost in our communities?”
Bishop Saporito hopes his position will enable him to share what he’s learned during years of studying methods of evangelization. He said he has already been getting questions about it from his brother priests.
“It’s not changing the message of faith but sometimes the methods,” he said. “Are we asking our people to grow, or are we just maintaining what they already had? And do we have steps in place that allow them to grow?”
Bishop Saporito expressed a desire to care for and support pastors, parish staffs and Catholic institutions and to make them the best they can be. Sometimes people simply need encouragement, he said.
“We’re all short-staffed,” he added. “We’re all pushing against tides. There isn’t enough time in the day. We’ve got cultural things that make it hard sometimes for the presence of faith to take hold and want to support each other in that work and not just be little islands onto ourselves.”
In speaking about the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the church, race relations, and the state of politics, Bishop Saporito said this is a moment of opportunity.
“When the pandemic first broke and we were hearing the news, I think most of us thought that maybe we’d be out the other side of it by now,” he said. “It’s pretty apparent that it’s going to be a while longer. There’s a lot of reasons that one could be pessimistic or can feel there’s darkness. I want to look at it as an opportunity. We know that things aren’t going to be the same, and we can lament that, but I think maybe it’s an opportunity for us to say, ‘What are some new things we’ve never tried before and how can the church be more present to people?’ This whole idea of us going out to them.”
Bishop Saporito said Pope Francis often talks about the peripheries.
“We think about the poor and that’s good,” he continued. “We should always think about them. But peripheries can also be the forgotten. I think much time or energy has been put on the people sitting in the pews. There’s a lot of people who aren’t sitting in our pews. What are we doing to reach them and how would we even go about that? And that of course takes a lot of thought. It takes a lot of courage. We have to take a little bit of a risk to reach out and to do those things. But maybe that’s the opportunity.”
Bishop Saporito said it’s this sort of outreach that will be remembered and inspire people to belong to the community of the Catholic church.
This article is the third of a series featuring the four auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese of Newark.