By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — Since his installation as the eighth bishop of Fall River in September, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., has made a concerted effort to go out and visit many of the faithful who comprise the parishes, schools and apostolates within the diocese now under his pastoral care.
So when it came time last week for the annual rite of passage for middle school students about to enter high school — a traditional tour of and Mass celebration at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River for all eighth-graders about to graduate from diocesan schools — it was an ideal opportunity for him to continue that personal, one-on-one interaction that everyone has come to expect.
It seemed more than appropriate that the eighth bishop of the diocese would be standing before a cathedral filled with eighth-grade Catholic school students and engaged in a candid question-and-answer session that ranged from topics like how God can allow evil to exist in the world to naming his favorite soccer team.
“Today we come together in this beautiful cathedral to celebrate Mass, to pray together, and to spend some time together,” the bishop said by way of introduction. “I’m so happy to meet all of you, and we have a little time for conversation before Mass and I’m happy to entertain some questions.”
Since not all of the 400-plus students present on May 7 would be continuing on at a Catholic high school next year, one of the first questions was what advice he would give to those attending public school.
“That’s a good question,” the bishop said. “First of all, I think the best advice I can give to you — or anyone in that situation — is to take with you all that you’ve learned in Catholic school; all the values that you’ve learned about your faith, about God, about yourself and keep them in your heart and mind and treasure them.”
Acknowledging that the environment in a public school will be decidedly different than what they’ve been used to in a Catholic elementary and middle school setting, Bishop da Cunha admitted it would be a challenge.
“But I would say do not allow yourself to be influenced by possible negative sources that you may encounter, and stay close to your values, to your faith and to your family,” he said. “Talk to your parents — if there’s anything you hear that might be bothersome to you, go back home and share it. And going to church and praying should be part of your life, even though you can’t do that in a public school, you can do it in your home and in your parish.”
Another student wanted to know how someone knows if they are being called to become a priest or maybe take up another vocation.
“It would be nice if we were able to get an email or a text message from God saying: ‘Joe, I want you to become a priest,’” Bishop da Cunha responded, getting the first of several laughs during the session. “I think that would make things a lot easier. But God doesn’t use email, He doesn’t have a cell phone, He doesn’t text, but He knows how to communicate with us. He communicates with us through prayer, through Scripture — He speaks to us through the Bible, He speaks to us through people, He speaks to us through events in our lives.”
The bishop noted it could be something as simple as seeing the example of another priest celebrating the Sacraments, or someone making a suggestion.
“If you feel that calling, that desire, then you pray about it and you ask God to help you and guide you and to nourish that feeling,” he said. “The most important thing in life is to discover what God is calling you to do — what is your vocation? Because when you discover and follow that calling, you will be happy.”
For Bishop da Cunha, that realization came to him when he was 17 years old.
“By that time I pretty much knew I was going to become a priest,” he said.
It was probably around this same time that the young Edgar da Cunha also developed a passion for soccer and, as if on cue, a student wanted him to name his favorite soccer team.
“Well, I’m from Bahia, Brazil, so my favorite soccer team is Bahia from my home state — which, by the way, just became the state champions this past Sunday,” he proudly answered. “It’s funny, because my second favorite soccer team in Brazil is Santos, which is where Pelé used to play, and they also just won the state championship this past Sunday. My two teams both won on Sunday, so I was very happy Sunday night.”
When asked what his biggest responsibility was as Bishop of Fall River, the bishop said there are many duties associated with the job.
“My main mission is to proclaim God’s message to all the people in the Diocese of Fall River,” he said. “Then to help the priests in the diocese to lead people in their faith, to nourish their faith, to challenge them when they need to be challenged, to support them when they need to be supported, and to lead all of us together closer to God, closer to Jesus — that’s my mission. There are other things I have to do to run the day-to-day operations of the diocese — helping with finances and pastoral planning and the assignment of priests. But my ultimate goal is to bring people closer to God.”
One of the more deeply theological questions was raised when a student asked how God could allow evil to exist the world.
“That’s a good question and it could take three hours to answer,” the bishop said. “But the short answer is, God made us all with free will — that’s the way He created us and the way He established the world. Many of us have chosen to do good — and I hope all of us here today have chosen to do good. But then there are others who decide to do what they want, and there are people who decide to do evil things.”
Bishop da Cunha said the battle between good and evil has been ongoing since the beginning of mankind and that is why it is important for us, as followers of Christ, to continue to do good so that “evil doesn’t overcome us and take control.”
“There’s a story of a child who once asked his grandfather about feeling like there were two wolves inside of him — a good one and a bad one,” the bishop added. “And he asked which one was going to win the fight? His grandfather said the one he feeds would win the fight. If we feed the evil that is in us, it’s going to win. If we only feed and nourish the good in us and in our world, then it will win.”
When a student asked how he found out he was going to become Bishop of Fall River, Bishop da Cunha confessed he was at the doctor’s office when the apostolic nuncio — the representative of Pope Francis here in the United States — first attempted to contact him on his cell phone.
“I remember it was June 24 — the feast of St. John the Baptist — and my cell phone rang and I couldn’t answer the call,” he said. “I walked out of the building and saw the (caller ID) said ‘Washington, D.C.,’ so I said to myself: ‘Uh-oh.’ I got to my car and called back. When I asked for the nuncio, the secretary said: ‘Oh, yes — he’s expecting your call.’ He came on the line and said: ‘Congratulations, the Holy Father has just appointed you Bishop of Fall River.’ I was frozen for a minute, then I said: ‘Where’s Fall River?’ I had never been to Fall River in my life! I had heard about it, but I had never been here.
“So on July 2, I took a train from Newark, N.J. and arrived in Providence, R.I. and Bishop Coleman was waiting for me and that was the first time I ever saw Fall River. The next day we had a press conference and the rest is history. And I’m very happy to be here.”
The bishop had barely completed the story when a ringtone echoed throughout the cathedral — aided, in part, by the wireless microphone he was wearing to amplify his responses.
“Oh, my cell phone just rang,” he said, eliciting laughter. “I hope it’s not the apostolic nuncio calling again!”
When asked about his daily routine, Bishop da Cunha said it differs from day to day, “and that’s a good thing because it’s never boring and it makes life interesting,” he said.
As Mass time approached, a student asked how Christians today should react when others around them deny the faith, which gave the bishop an opportunity to bring the discussion full circle while providing a parting bit of advice.
“As we all hear on the news today, Christians are often persecuted and killed because of their faith,” he said. “If some of you are going on to public schools, you are probably going to encounter some negative comments from people who are not practicing the faith. But that should not stop you from being truthful, from supporting the faith. Thanks be to God we live in a country where people are not killed for being a Christian as they are in other parts of the world. We are free here to practice our faith, even though there may be a lot of other negative influences — the media, peer pressure, and many other people who will try to influence you and draw you from the Catholic faith. My hope and prayer is that all of you here who are Catholics and practice your faith will not be influenced by these negative forces and stay faithful, remain close to God, and remain faithful to what you believe.”