Arthur J. Serratelli says that when he told his 90-year-old mother the Vatican appointed him bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, Eva Serratelli of Belleville kept her advice simple: "Make sure you start wearing two socks that match."
The job should only be so easy.
At an introductory news conference yesterday, just hours after his appointment, Serratelli took questions on topics that included abortion and Communion, clergy sex abuse, and whether a lay church reform group should be allowed on church property. He struck moderate tones in his answers.
On the contentious issue of whether bishops should deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, the 60-year-old Ironbound native said he will wait for a related report by the U.S. bishops conference before he decides his stance.
"I would think it would be premature for me to make any statement before then," he said. "But I have a sense -- and it's only a personal sense -- that most bishops are not thinking of making the altar a place of confrontation."
Some bishops recently have said they would refuse Communion to politicians who favor abortion rights. Newark Archbishop John J. Myers has said it's dishonest for those politicians to receive Communion.
Serratelli, who served under Myers as vicar general of the Newark archdiocese, appeared yesterday at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Paterson, where he will be installed July 6 as head of the diocese that includes about 400,000 Catholics in Morris, Sussex and Passaic counties.
He replaces Bishop Frank Rodimer, whose resignation letter, written when he turned 75 in October 2002, was accepted by the pope yesterday, ending his 26-year reign as bishop.
"It's a big load off my shoulders," said Rodimer, adding that he plans to help around the diocese as needed and live near relatives in Rockaway.
Serratelli, a Bible scholar who has taught sacred scripture at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University and speaks fluent Spanish and Italian, said he plans to follow Rodimer's policy tolerating the group Voice of the Faithful.
Myers has banned the lay church reform group -- which sprung up because of the clergy sex abuse scandal and whose goals include shaping structural change in the church -- from meeting on Newark archdiocese property, saying it is anti-Catholic and that its goal is "to act as cover for dissent."
But most bishops, including Rodimer, have let the group meet. Serratelli said yesterday that "at the present moment, I would follow the policy that's in place in the diocese of Paterson."
He stressed that as bishop he will meet with people he disagrees with, and, without being specific, contrasted opposition among laity on main tenets of Catholicism with disagreement over other issues.
"There are certain things in the church that have been given to us, and as Catholics we believe handed down by the Lord through the apostles. When it deals with those issues, I think a bishop and priest must be clear.
"However there are other changes, and the priests, bishops (should) listen to the laity ... I see the role of the bishop as shepherd, and he is to be shepherd of all his people, of both those who agree and those who disagree with them ... The Holy Spirit that dwells in the clergy also dwells in the laity, and we must listen to those who speak inspired by the spirit."
The Paterson diocese is home to New Jersey's most notorious case in the clergy sex abuse scandal. At St. Joseph's in Mendham, more than a dozen people accused the former Rev. James Hanley of having molested them as children.
Rodimer's reputation as a fair-minded and pastoral bishop was tarnished by the scandal. The diocese forced Hanley to retire in 1988, but it was not until last year that Hanley was removed from the priesthood. Rodimer has acknowledged he underestimated the seriousness of the allegations until it was too late to prosecute.
Rodimer also vowed, in 2002, to reimburse $250,000 to the diocese that the church's insurance company paid out several years ago to end his liability in a lawsuit that claimed Rodimer should have known about an abuse case.
Yesterday, Rodimer said he is more than halfway done paying back the diocese.
"This is the third year of a five-year pledge, and I'm paying it off," he said.
Serratelli said it is too early to know if his own policies regarding abuse cases in Paterson will differ from Rodimer's. Victims groups have criticized the Paterson diocese's review board that investigates abuse claims.
With Rodimer by his side yesterday, Serratelli said, "There's been a good direction set in the last years by Bishop Rodimer, and I hope to continue in his good footsteps."
The head of the main clergy sex abuse victims group in New Jersey has praised Serratelli.
In his introductory statement yesterday, Serratelli was lyrical about his new job:
"I have been privileged as student and teacher to travel often from the shores of Tiberias to the banks of the Tiber," he said. "... I am most happy to make my home along the banks of the Passaic, and to give my heart and my life to this bride of Christ, the church of Paterson."Jeff Diamant covers religion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-1547.
Contrast Serratelli's humility with some of the bloviation that we've seen from other hierarchs of late.