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New Shepherd in Connecticut: 'Witness Is the Most Powerful Vehicle for Conversion'

Bishop Frank Caggiano will be installed as bishop of Bridgeport on Sept. 19.


| Posted 9/13/13 at 5:00 PM

Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn.

Pope Francis recently appointed Brooklyn, N.Y., auxiliary Bishop Frank Caggiano to be the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., which had been vacant since Bishop William Lori was appointed to the Archdiocese of Baltimore in March 2012.

The Bridgeport Diocese, which has produced two cardinals and an archbishop, includes more than 460,000 registered Catholics, representing 45% of Fairfield County’s total population.

Bishop Caggiano was born less than 70 miles away in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn on Easter Sunday 1959, the second of two children. His parents emigrated from Italy a year earlier. He grew up in an overwhelmingly Italian and Italian-American neighborhood.

Before being named a Brooklyn auxiliary bishop in 2006, he studied in Rome, served as a pastor and as diocesan director of the Permanent Diaconate Office and vicar for evangelization and pastoral life.

Before his installation on Sept. 19, Bishop Caggiano spoke Aug. 28 — the feast of St. Augustine, the patron of the Diocese of Bridgeport— with the Register about his vocation, youth, the New Evangelization and spiritual matters.


Please tell us little about growing up and discovering your vocation.
I had a wonderful experience of what I call old-style neighborhoods, where I had perhaps 12 or 14 friends who lived on the same city block I did, and we grew up together. Everyone’s parents knew each other and basically looked out for one another.

I was fortunate to attend Sts. Simon and Jude School. The Sisters of St. Dominic of Kentucky were my teachers — a wonderful, faithful group of woman religious. They began to speak about the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood [for me].

My mother was deeply religious, and she also, very much in her own way, had nurtured the vocation.

My father, on the other hand, was not too thrilled over the idea of the priesthood. My father came [up from being] relatively poor, had built a decent life for us and had very much wanted us to build on what he had done.

I went to Regis High School [a Jesuit college-preparatory school], but I had no desire to be a Jesuit. But their sense of service, teaching, the charism of the Jesuits intrigued me. It kept the vocation idea alive.

That gave great clarity in the end to the fact that, yes, the Lord was calling me to this. It was what I needed to do if I really wanted to be happy and make a difference.

I entered the major seminary and have not looked back since. It’s been a wonderful life. It’s not always been easy, but it’s been a wonderful life.

If you asked me the factors for the vocation, in addition to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which is a given, it was the witness of the religious that I had in my life and the nurturing prayers of my mom. Since yesterday was the feast of St. Monica, it resonates very much in my mind: the importance of parents in fostering vocations.


As one of the bishops catechizing at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, how did you find today’s youth?

Rio was my third experience catechizing at World Youth Day. I went to Sydney, to Madrid, and now to Rio de Janeiro.

In Rio de Janeiro, I came away absolutely enthused at the level of energy and joyful enthusiasm I saw in the young people … their attentiveness, their reverence at Mass.

It was phenomenally exciting. No one could argue: “Well, that’s the Holy Father and the excitement of being there.” The proof occurred 12 days ago.

I had the privilege to go to Ireland to preach the Youth 2000 Summer Festival in Tipperary. There were over a thousand young people from every corner of Ireland — enthusiastic, joyful, reverent, prayerful. It surpassed in some ways what I experienced in Rio de Janeiro. So then it’s not a question of being excited simply because of the [WYD] event, because none of them went to Rio.

There’s a great hunger among young people. The challenge the Church needs to face is how we effectively interact, encounter and communicate with young people in the very different world that is evolving, in an Internet, Web-based, social-media-based experience.

There is no reason for us to be anything other than hopeful when it comes to the youth, but we must apply ourselves. This is the moment when the Church has to become courageous, creative, innovative in the methods by which we evangelize.

Christian truth does not change. And young people will receive the truth if they can encounter the truth. It comes down to that.


What barriers do we need to overcome?

There’s also another impoverishment, too. Not only do many not come to Mass, but they don’t have the benefit of growing up in what I grew up with. The neighborhood was overwhelmingly Catholic, which meant there was a culture to life, a rhythm to life that taught, even if you were not sitting in a religion class.

Because we were overwhelmingly Italian in the neighborhood, there was a rhythm to the festivals, the street fairs, the holy days, the Sunday meal and the patron saints people had devotion to — even to the point they’d put statuary in their back yards and front yards.

That culture is gone in many places. But that, in many ways, teaches the faith as effectively or more effectively than intellectually teaching the faith, which comes in a classroom.

So we had great advantages growing up that way. These young people don’t have those advantages.

They have to encounter the person of Jesus Christ and fall in love with him. … So part of the outreach to young people is to create a contemporary culture of Catholicism that resonates with their experience and can help them to be formed, not just educated. Education is not enough. It is formation that we need to do.


Then this also ties into today’s major problems in the culture and world.

If the Church were united, and Catholics were really alive, on fire with their faith, much that society is proposing would not even be proposed. But politicians sense that the Church leadership may be united in teaching, but many Catholics do not necessarily follow what the Church is teaching.

We have to ask the Holy Spirit to really bring a new fire into the lives of believers.

Witness is the most powerful method of conversion. Not confrontation. Witness. If Catholics by the millions were able, in every walk of life and in every community, to clearly witness to the fullness of the faith that rises like the person of Jesus Christ, whose mystical presence is the Church in the world, society would be taking a whole different trajectory.


What are your impressions of how Pope Francis is battling indifference?

Many people point to the Holy Father’s humility and his openness, and rightfully so. But I would point to something else. One of the greatest challenges the Church faces in evangelization is the need to overcome indifference. It is one thing to hate the Church, to be violently opposed to the Church, because if you are that emotionally invested, you still have a relationship with the Church. But if you are indifferent, then you are far away.


How do you overcome indifference?

It seems to me there are two moments. First, there is what I would call the "wow moment," [when] by act of grace, by circumstance, by the intervention of the Holy Spirit, by some symbolic gesture, people are invited and sometimes forced to take a second look. Then you create an opening. Suddenly, the person who is indifferent is at least minimally engaged.

The second step would be for someone on the local level to be able to engage the person personally, so the healing process may begin. … Pope Francis is creating that first step across the whole Church, in every venue and walk of life, among believers and nonbelievers, which is remarkable.

But what most people in leadership don’t realize is that he’s creating a window that will not last forever.

This is the hour when people have to say, “Okay, ladies and gentleman, now we, on every local level, have to reach out and show a vibrancy and joyfulness to the world.”

The Pope is really, I presume — and perhaps he doesn’t realize it, which is just as well, because it is a work of the Holy Spirit — engaging the indifference of the world.


What do you see causing this indifference?

One of the great effects of this world that is evolving is it creates a numbness in life. To the young people in Ireland, I called it being a "spiritual zombie." There is a lack of engagement in life simply because everyone lives in overload — sensory overload, information overload and, quite frankly, relational overload.

When I grew up, we had guys on the block who were like the little gang that we formed. But out of that gang, there were probably three, four who were really close-knit friends.

Now you go on Facebook — you have a thousand friends. What does that mean? How do you keep up with a thousand people? Why do a thousand people need to know what I had for breakfast?

It’s like too little butter on too much bread. Everybody is spread so thin that relationships almost become vacuous. And what does that do in the end? It creates a lot of anxiety, fear, loneliness, detachment. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O God” [as St. Augustine said].

The only answer to that is the Lord. But the very methodology of life is leading people to other answers. That is why we have to get into it and … eventually baptize that media for the real evangelization of young people.


Pope Francis is showing that he is deeply Marian. Are you?

I have a tremendous devotion to Our Lady of Fatima.

Again, it’s a convergence. I think to myself, "It’s amazing how the power of grace works in our lives." Months before I came here, 12 of my colleagues, friends, banded together, and we created a not-for-profit foundation in New York, the Mater Ecclesiae Foundation, an outreach to young people.

We have tied it to a project that I’m seeking approval for at the [Basilica of the] National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception [in Washington]: to erect — at the entrance of the Rosary garden they are proposing adjacent to the shrine — an image of Our Lady of Fatima and the three visionaries.

The foundation is going to work to create that statue in honor of Our Lady, and we hope to ask the young people of the country to sponsor that project. It will be the first shrine at the basilica that will be put up not by an ethnic group, but by young people.

And Our Lady is at the center of it. As this evolved ,little did I know that Pope Francis would be elected, would devote his papacy to Our Lady of Fatima and consecrate the whole Church to her in October. So go figure!


Do you have any favorite saints?

My patron, St. Francis. He’s very dear to my heart. Mom had a great devotion to St. Anthony, so that always was a part of the religious atmosphere of the Caggiano house. And my sister is named Antonia after St. Anthony.

It’s ironic the patron saint here is St. Augustine. My background is in patristic studies, so Augustine was always a big part of that world. That feels right for me.


Please share a couple of favorite authors or books.

The Tolkien trilogy opened my entire mind [and] religious imagination. But I’m a big fan of C.S. Lewis. Periodically, I will reread [his works].

Now that I’m here, I have a beautiful collection of the Fathers of the Church, and I’m going to start with Augustine and try to carve out some time each day and read Augustine’s works from cover to cover.


What do you recommend Catholics should read?

I would tell them: "Go back and read the Fathers of the Church. Start with St. Ignatius and work your way up." Because I have experienced firsthand that an enormous amount of individuals, particularly young adults, have conversion experiences to the Catholic faith through reading the Fathers of the Church.

A dear friend of mine, Rabbi Gerald Meister, who died this past March, God rest his soul — his degree was in Christian studies, actually Catholic theology — said to me, years ago, that Christians, and Catholics in particular, had lost the sense of the importance of the Fathers as the commentary on the sacred Scripture.

Most Christians have forgotten that all of those homilies and all of those treatises are basically reflections on the word of God.


What will your episcopal motto be?

It remains the same, which is Philippians 2:11, Jesus Christ is Lord. That’s getting right to the heart.

I chose it because my background is Christology, and my doctorate is in St. Cyril. But having listened to and read some of the works [Father] Robert Barron has published, there is one section … where he is so simply brilliant.

He draws the analysis of the beginning of the Gospel of St. Luke as the story of the two lords — the lord Caesar and the Lord born in Bethlehem. Luke writes it with that in mind.

I said to the young people in Ireland, “If you’re going to say, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord,’ then you’re making a pledge of allegiance. To whom do you owe your allegiance? Because you will, in the end, owe it to some lord, whoever you choose to be Lord.”

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.