The new executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference is dedicated to assuring that the mission of the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops is understood by all.
“Ultimately, our goal is for people to see the compassion, mercy and love of God through not only what we say, but through our actions, specifically in the public square,” said James King, who, after serving as interim director for the past year, has taken the helm of the NJCC, headquartered in Trenton.
“What I would like to accomplish is to raise awareness and understanding that when the Church weighs in on an issue, it’s not just from a place of theological teachings. Our faith is the foundation and reason for what we are doing – but when we speak out on these issues, we are also talking from a place of experience,” King said. “These are social justice issues – right to life, and services that help people find housing, help people with drug addictions or mental issues, help people who may have food insecurity or need job training.”
Liaison between Church, State
The New Jersey Catholic Conference, established more than 70 years ago, represents the state’s Catholic Bishops on matters of public policy in areas such as social concerns, education, faithful citizenship, respect life and family life. This includes the Archdiocese of Newark; the Dioceses of Camden, Metuchen, Paterson and Trenton; the Eparchy of Passaic and the Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Diocese.
“The Conference is the voice of the Catholic Church in New Jersey in the public square – and by public square, we mean the state government, state agencies and in some cases, the federal government. Generally we work with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when it comes to federal issues,” King explained.
“Our primary job is to monitor legislation and public policy here in New Jersey and throughout the country. Under that comes the review of that legislation; what, if any action the Church should take on speaking up, and facilitating communication among the dioceses and state legislators/state agencies so that the Church’s message on policy and legislation can be heard,” he said.
The NJCC website, njcatholic.org, includes statements issued by the N.J. bishops; links to the five (arch)dioceses’ websites and media outlets; information on legislation/bills; links to state and federal legislators; and a “Faith in Action” platform to help voters contact legislators on specific legislation.
As executive director, King is responsible for the overall supervision of the NJCC office and staff. He provides advice to the Catholic bishops of New Jersey on legislation and other matters of statewide concern, and serves as the liaison between the Church and government agencies.
A New Role
King, a graduate of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia, joined the NJCC staff in 2012 as director of the Office for Social Concerns. He previously served as director for the Office of Pastoral Care for Migrants and Refugees in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and working as an aid in the Hamilton congressional district office of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith.
He succeeds Patrick R. Brannigan of St. James Parish, Pennington, who serves as a deacon in the three parishes that comprise the Catholic Community of Hopewell Valley. Brannigan retired in 2019 after 13 years of service to the organization.
“I am grateful for having had the opportunity to work with Deacon Pat Brannigan,” King said. “Pat was very generous with his time to discuss issues and strategies and to offer the various lessons that he learned in his 40-plus years of public service. He provided me with opportunities to grow in my previous role, always encouraging me to work harder and never to settle. I consider him a close friend and mentor. Even in retirement, Pat continues to make time to help me as I enter this new position. As I look back on my time with Pat, I realize I have big shoes to fill.”
Taking on a new position within the NJCC was a decision that required discernment and discussions with his wife, Sarah, King said. After years of watching Brannigan’s hard work and dedication – as well as spending the past 12 months working diligently during COVID – King was concerned what impact these new responsibilities could have on his family.
“She said if you think this is something the Lord is calling you to do, you have my 100 percent support,” King said. “So I prayed about it, and said if this is what the Lord is asking me to do, I’m happy to serve the Church in this capacity.”
King said the Church will never waiver from its commitment to defending all life from conception to natural death, which includes the child in the womb, the poor, the immigrant, and society’s most vulnerable. However, the Church must be aware of the means by which legislation and proposed policy attempts to address these issues.
“You have to be cognizant of the details,” King explained, saying attention must be paid to the way policy is crafted. “We can’t support legislation or policy just because it claims to produce a good result. The means by which the legislation and policy achieve their goals is just as important.”
Part of working for the common good is collaboration between various faith groups and secular agencies in areas of mutual concern such as food insecurity, environmental concerns, housing or poverty, education and more.
“Community ties are extremely important,” King said. “When you bring a message that is presented by a diverse group of people, it garners more attention not just among legislators, but with the public, too. If you have a group of individuals who may not agree on every issue but are talking about this one issue, it tends to create more attention.”
He continued, “Our job is to see Christ in every person we encounter and treat them as such. So when you have these dialogues, when you work on issues of mutual concerns, it also helps foster understanding.”
When it comes to understanding, King stresses the importance of not only knowing one’s Catholic faith, but an understanding of civics as well, especially the legislative process and staying informed on local, state and national issues, and visiting the NJCC website for updates.
“I want people to realize the important role they play in the work of the Church in the public square,” King said.
The Business of Evangelization
Looking ahead, King said one of his goals as executive director will be to help people see that the NJCC is primarily about evangelization.
“What drives me is how to get all sides working together to embrace more positive and charitable outcomes,” he said.
With King moving into a new position, the NJCC continues to look at its overall staffing structure to see if any other adjustments will be needed. “We are trying to determine how we move forward to serve the bishops in the public policy area and serve the Church as best we can.”
In the meantime, King and the NJCC staff – Dr. George Corwell, Office of Education director; Deshawn Burnett, budget and technology manager, and executive assistant Anne Conte – will continue to monitor legislation and public policy that could have an impact on the Catholic Church in New Jersey and throughout the country.
“I’m very grateful to New Jersey’s bishops for giving me this opportunity,” King said. “I think we are extremely blessed as a state to have such talented, knowledgeable and caring bishops who are dedicated to service and helping the people of their dioceses and statewide.”
This article originally appeared on www.trentonmonitor.com, and was reprinted here with permission.