By Kenneth J. Souza
NORTH ATTLEBORO, Mass. — Deacon Joseph E. Regali has always sensed that God had a plan for him.
“I believe everything that’s happened in my life up to this point has been because that’s where God wanted me to be,” Deacon Regali said.
When he first moved to the diocese 19 years ago and bids on houses in Milford and Mendon fell through, those closed doors led him and his family to settling in Plainville and eventually finding a home at Sacred Heart Parish in North Attleboro.
When he read an article in The Anchor about a group of men being ordained to the permanent diaconate in 1997, it solidified his vocation to the ministry and led to his own ordination 13 years ago.
So when he saw an advertisement recently in The Anchor seeking candidates for the position of diocesan Pastoral Planning Director, he didn’t hesitate to throw his hat into the ring.
“I had been looking on CatholicJobs.com, but I didn’t see it there — I saw it in The Anchor,” Deacon Regali said. “I sent in my resume and came for an interview, and I had a final interview with the bishop and here I am.”
Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., appointed Deacon Regali as the new director of the diocesan Office for Pastoral Planning, effective August 3, filling an important position that had been vacant since Diane Rinkacs resigned back in March.
And timing couldn’t have been better.
After a nearly 40-year career in law enforcement, last year Deacon Regali had decided it was time for a career change.
“I retired from the Maine State Police in 1995,” Deacon Regali told The Anchor. “I came from the New England State Police Information Network, otherwise known as NESPIN. It’s a regional information sharing group, in which there are six centers across the country. What we do is to provide support services for law enforcement. I was the manager of the analytical section, so I would do a lot of analytical work on criminal investigations from our member agencies, which were the various police departments in New England.”
Noting that his former job required a specific set of managerial and analytical skills, Deacon Regali thought they would be ideal for the Pastoral Planning Office as well.
“What we were doing was very analytical and that’s what this job entails,” he said.
It also didn’t hurt that the longtime North Attleboro parishioner and graduate of the sixth permanent diaconate class in 2002 had a working familiarity with the diocese and its ever-changing pastoral needs.
Ordained by Bishop Sean P. O’Malley, OFM. Cap., on May 18, 2002, Deacon Regali has a master’s degree in adult education from the University of Southern Maine and holds a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Boston College, which he earned in 2012.
It was while working toward the latter degree that Deacon Regali was introduced to the inner workings of the Pastoral Planning Office firsthand.
“At the end of my tenure at Boston College, you had to do an internship, so I spent two semesters working at the Pastoral Planning Office,” Deacon Regali said. “I worked with (former Pastoral Planning director) Doug Rodrigues and (associate director) Diane Rinkacs — she’s also a fellow parishioner at Sacred Heart Parish — so I had a good sense of what was going on with pastoral planning during those two semesters. The focus is a little bit different today than it was back then, but I’ve had some experience with the office.”
According to Deacon Regali, when Doug Rodrigues was appointed to head the Pastoral Planning Office in 2008, his main focus was to assist parishes in creating individual pastoral councils and help them plan for the future.
“Bishop da Cunha’s emphasis right now is moving from what he terms parishes being in maintenance mode to a mission mode,” Deacon Regali explained. “When a parish is in maintenance mode, we’re just looking at the number of people who are there. Going into mission mode means to become a fully active (parish) that has a mission — not only for those individuals who already go to church, but also to reach out to those who don’t. We want to help bring everyone back into the fold — that’s what we’re looking at.”
Deacon Regali said it’s a much more proactive approach to rebuilding parish participation.
“I guess down the road my job will entail assisting the leadership in our parishes to carry out the New Evangelization, which is not really new anymore,” he said. “I see that as one of the major roles that I’m going to play.”
To that end, Bishop da Cunha has already appointed two committees — a Task Force on Parishes and a Task Force on Schools — that will advise and assist the Pastoral Planning Office in this effort.
“As I understand it, my role is going to be to implement the recommendations of the task forces as the bishop sees fit,” Deacon Regali said. “They’re developing some sort of assessment tool that all of the pastors will have to go through and complete — and once those come back, that’s when I’ll get busy. I’ll be working closely with the bishop to communicate his vision for the future of our diocese as far as pastoral planning goes. Hopefully we can move those parishes that are in maintenance mode to mission mode.”
During his initial meeting with members of the Task Force on Parishes, Deacon Regali said they set an “aggressive” deadline to have their work completed by December so that his office can begin implementing the recommendations in January.
“I’m not sure about that timetable but I think once the committees complete their work we’ll have a better handle on the timetable for implementation,” he said. “From what I observed, they’re all eager to do the work — they’re very serious about it — and they’re taking all of these elements into account.”
In addition to looking at the number of active parishioners and the maintenance needs of various parish buildings, Deacon Regali said they’ll also have to consider the number of available priests within the diocese in their assessments.
“I know a lot of pastors — like my pastor, Father David Costa — are running two parishes and a school,” Deacon Regali said. “He’s very busy and I’m shocked that he’s been able to do this for as long as he has.”
Admitting there is a preconceived notion that the Pastoral Planning Office’s sole purpose is to close, merge or suppress parishes with dwindling attendance numbers, Deacon Regali hopes to be able to reverse that trend.
“The whole point is not really to close parishes, although there probably will be some closings,” he said. “We want to assist those parishes as best we can to get out of the maintenance mode and become fully involved, active parishes. And in speaking to the bishop last week about this, anything goes. I know we’ve seen some parishes that have turned around and have become fully involved, viable parishes. So it’s not out of the question.”
Having been on the job for less than two weeks now, Deacon Regali already had his baptism by fire with St. Kilian Parish in New Bedford, which the secular media erroneously reported would be closing September 20. In reality, all Masses and services have been relocated to the neighboring St. Anthony of Padua Church until a decision can be made about the church’s maintenance needs.
“I know St. Kilian Church looks good on the outside, but it needs a lot of work inside and to do the repairs is not cost efficient right now,” Deacon Regali said. “It’s a very small parish community, so the decision was made to have services at St. Anthony of Padua Church.”
With this one exception, Deacon Regali has spent the bulk of his first two weeks attending meetings, reading reports, looking over past data, and familiarizing himself with the 83 parishes and 11 mission churches that currently comprise the Diocese of Fall River.
“I have looked over the parish statistics, but it’s too early for me to make any evaluations on them — I don’t have enough information yet,” he said. “But I’m hoping the task forces will give us a better picture and we’ll be taking a hard look at those figures. I’m hoping we can help the parishes as best we can. But ultimately it will be the bishop’s decision on where we go from here.”
While he’s spending his first weeks on the job getting acclimated, Deacon Regali said the only challenge he sees for the foreseeable future is maintaining a healthy balance between his work and family commitments.
“I remember hearing in (diaconate) formation that it’s family, then work, then ministry — in that order,” Deacon Regali said. “I remember when I was in the state police being away from my family a lot, because I was stationed at the training academy for about eight years. I spent a lot of time away from home and so coming into the diaconate and knowing how busy I’d be, I’ve always tried to keep that balance.”
And he will continue to believe that sometimes a closed door leads to an even better opportunity.
“Three or four years ago, I never would have suspected that I’d be sitting here now,” he said. “But some of those closed doors have led me here and I think it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.”