Kevin Riordan: 'Blessed time' for Camden's ailing bishop

Bishop Joseph Galante , a diabetic suffering from kidney failure, has dialysis three times a week. ED HILLE / Staff
Bishop Joseph Galante , a diabetic suffering from kidney failure, has dialysis three times a week. ED HILLE / Staff
Posted: July 09, 2012

Bishop Joseph Galante rises from his chair with difficulty, but the strength in his handshake - and in his gaze - conveys a vitality undiminished by age or illness.

A third-generation diabetic who is suffering from kidney failure, Galante, 74, must undergo four hours of dialysis three times a week in Cherry Hill.

We meet on one of the two days a week he is able to work in his downtown Camden office. It's atop a former bank headquarters and offers a dramatic view of the skyline of Philadelphia, the city where the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Camden was born in 1938.

"For me, it's a very graced and blessed time," Galante says, referring to the treatments that began in February. "I'm very conscious that, tethered to a machine, I can have a great quality of life - and tethered to God, I can have an even better quality of life."

With his mandatory retirement age of 75 arriving next July 2, the erudite leader of the diocese's 475,000 Catholics continues to lead the revolution he started after discovering that one-third of his parishes were "totally unable to pay their basic bills."

Since Galante was installed as bishop in 2004, he has overseen the consolidation of 124 parishes into 71, the reduction in the number of physical churches or "worship sites" from 133 to 107.

Faced with declining enrollments and increasing costs - the result in part of changing demographics - the number of elementary schools was reduced from 51 to 30.

The goal of the downsizing has been to create fiscally stable parishes that can offer a lively range of ministries to serve, retain, and attract members. "You need ministries that meet people's needs," the bishop says. "You want to see cars in the parking lot all week. Not just on Sunday."

Now, armed with the results of a $21,690 survey he commissioned to assess the depth of faith among Catholics and other Christians in the six counties within the diocese, Galante is pressing to change the focus of Catholic education.

The 2012 "community study" by the Barna Group, of California, found that 53 percent of Catholics in the diocese believe that Jesus Christ committed sins, a misconception of doctrine the bishop calls "appalling" but not surprising.

"If you ask someone what does the Catholic Church teach, you're going to hear all about [moral issues]. You're not going to hear about doctrine," he says.

"At the heart of who we are as Catholics is Jesus Christ, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. If we don't get back to focusing very much on that, then we'll keep turning out, basically, religious illiterates."

This is one reason Galante has established a continuing-education program for laypeople, in which the diocese hosts courses by Villanova and Georgian Court Universities and other Catholic higher-education institutions.

"We've basically created a Catholic university here without a building," he says, adding that 300 people have completed degrees or received certifications through the program.

Galante, who respects journalism - he has strengthened the Catholic Star Herald newspaper and embraces social media - is also savvy about journalists. While not deviating one iota from any official church positions, he is candid, and quotable, during our 90-minute conversation.

Not offering longtime, yet undocumented, residents a path to citizenship is "crazy," he says. "For a country that invites people here through all the things that we do, starting with the Statue of Liberty, and then say, 'You can't come,' is schizophrenic."

Galante also describes the church as "wounded" by the sexual abuse of youngsters by priests and their superiors.

"What we've experienced, through the scandals, ought to teach us to be more humble," he says. "We're flawed."

While some see the institution of celibacy as a culprit, Galante calls it "a great gift" that has deepened his own spirituality. "Celibacy is not a cause" of abuse, he says, blaming instead the "psychosexual immaturity" of some candidates for the priesthood.

"We really have to look at how we form priests," says Galante, who believes seminarians ought to spend more time in the real world of parish work.

As for nuns, lately the target of criticism from the Vatican, Galante says, "the majority of sisters are hardworking, very, very dedicated, faith-filled women. I think it's unfortunate to try to portray so many as off the tracks."

The bishop says he is "not concerned" about his health, noting that some fellow dialysis patients have lived for more than a decade. Nor does he seem worried about the possibility of work left undone.

"I had said from the beginning, I'm only planting the seeds," Galante says. "I don't expect to see the flowering."

Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at

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