Diocesan judicial vicar appointed first-time
pastor of Santo Christo Parish

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — When the judicial vicar for the Fall River Diocese, Father Jeffrey Cabral J.C.L., was summoned to the bishop’s office for a meeting last month, he just assumed it “had something to do with my Tribunal work,” he said.

“One part of the meeting did deal with that — but then the bishop surprised me with it,” Father Cabral recently told The Anchor.

The surprise Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V. had in store for Father Cabral was an appointment to his first-ever pastoral assignment at Santo Christo Parish in Fall River, assuming administrative duties from longtime pastor Father Gastão Oliveira, who opted to retire next month.

“He prefaced it by saying, ‘I know that you’ve moved a lot in these last few years (and) this next assignment should bring you a little bit more stability,’” Father Cabral said. “So that’s how he prefaced it.”

The key reason for the lack of stability in Father Cabral’s ministry in recent years has been his full-time responsibilities as the judicial vicar for the diocese, dealing with Marriage annulments and judging canon law cases at the Tribunal Office. As such, he has been alternately “in residence” at a rectory or has assisted as a parochial vicar in a variety of parishes.

Since his ordination in 2002, Father Cabral has served as parochial vicar at St. Anthony’s Parish in Taunton; was chaplain to Taunton Catholic Middle School and Coyle-Cassidy High School in Taunton; was in residence at Holy Family Parish in East Taunton, along with Good Shepherd Parish and Holy Name Parish in Fall River; was parochial vicar at St. Mary’s Parish in Mansfield; and was most recently in residence at St. Mark’s Parish in Attleboro Falls. He even had a brief stint as parochial administrator for five months in 2012.

“With the untimely death of (pastor) Father Raul Lagoa, I was asked to be the administrator at St. John of God Parish (in Somerset) in addition to my Tribunal work, which I think along with all the other assignments has helped in my future work as a pastor,” Father Cabral said. “Even though I was assigned full-time to Tribunal work since I came back from Washington in 2010, I’ve always been involved in parish life in the parishes where I’ve resided.”

Noting that his almost yearly relocating routine had become something of a running joke among his family members, friends and even some of the clergy here in the diocese, Father Cabral said he is looking forward to finally settling down in one place.

“I always joke around saying my first assignment was five years at St. Anthony’s in Taunton and I have yet to beat that record,” he said. “My second longest assignment was the three years I spent studying at Catholic University down in Washington D.C. Ever since I came back from Washington, I’ve yet to beat three years.”

Like so many diocesan priests today, Father Cabral will now be handling two jobs, as he will also retain his full-time role managing the Tribunal, but will now reside at and additionally oversee the day-to-day operations of the oldest existing Luso-American parish in the Fall River Diocese.

“I was the last full-time priest working for the Chancery who wasn’t also serving as a pastor,” he said. “Even the vicar general and the moderator of the curia are also pastors.”

While the appointment came as something of a surprise, Father Cabral realized that eventually he would be called upon to shepherd a parish.

“I never wrote in for a change (of assignment),” he said. “I figured if they need me, they’re going to ask me. Every year I write an annual report about the ongoing state of the Tribunal and it was either on last year’s report or two years ago, I had mentioned how I know with the decreasing number of clergy that eventually I would most likely have to serve as a pastor and judicial vicar, as some of my fellow judicial vicars have. Many are also serving as both judicial vicar and a pastor.”

Although the appointment means his workload will increase, Father Cabral said he is prepared for the challenge and welcomes the opportunity to “oversee a portion of the people of God and attend to their Spiritual needs” while remaining “mindful of the needs here at the Tribunal.”

“I guess it’s more responsibilities, but at least I’m looking forward to the 10-minute drive versus the 45-minute drive,” he said.

Being of Portuguese descent, there’s also a sense of pride in Father Cabral becoming the pastor of the historic Azorean parish, named after the church on the island of São Miguel that annually pays homage to its patron namesake, Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres (Holy Christ of the Miracles), with a well-known feast and procession.

“The annual Santo Christo Feast here is one of the major events I’ll have to oversee,” Father Cabral said.

Although he has visited his new parish’s counterpart in São Miguel, he has never attended the famous celebration.

“I’ve been to the church in St. Michael’s, but I’ve never been to the feast there,” he said. “My family’s from the island of Santa Maria, so on our way we spent the day on St. Michael’s, and one of the things you do is you visit the church of Santo Cristo.

“I grew up with Portuguese (traditions), but my family was also very Americanized in a sense. I was baptized at a Portuguese parish, but I remember more growing up at St. Julie’s Parish in North Dartmouth. We would go sometimes to one of the Portuguese feasts and attend some of the processions. I’m from a Portuguese background, but I also got the American experience as well.”

In fact, despite his name, Father Cabral has the distinction of being the first-ever American-born pastor of Santo Christo Parish.

“I guess you could say that’s a big change in that there’s no longer a priest coming from the Azores, or from Portugal,” he said. “We’ve reached a point where we have to promote more vocations from within the diocese.”

Facing the prospect of celebrating three weekend Masses in Portuguese — there’s currently just one in English at the parish — Father Cabral said he’ll have to start brushing up on his Portuguese.

“It’s been officially more than five years since I’ve been assigned to help out with any type of Portuguese ministry on a regular basis,” he said. “That was my time at Good Shepherd Parish in Fall River. When I lived at Holy Name Parish, I occasionally helped out with Portuguese Masses, maybe the occasional Confession in Portuguese — but it will probably be a time of adjustment for me to get back into that.”

As for his immediate plans when he becomes pastor next month, Father Cabral said he just wants to ease into the job and get to know the people of the parish.

“I remember back in my seminary days, they taught us never to make any changes in the first year,” he said. “So I will try to keep that attitude in mind. I think with any new person there’s going to be new ways of doing things, maybe new understandings, perhaps ways to bring the parish into the 21st century. But no glaring changes overall in the beginning. As another priest told me, just being yourself to the people will be a change from their previous pastor.”

In the next few weeks Father Cabral said he’ll be meeting with Father Gastão and “learning from him and perhaps even seeking his help when he’s in retirement.”

Unfortunately, one of the things he’ll have to miss is this year’s Santo Christo Feast — the last to be celebrated under Father Gastão — as Father Cabral is already committed to serving on the team for the Christian Leadership Institute retreat, or CLI. This year’s feast will be held the weekend of June 23-24, and CLI runs from June 23-28.

And with next year’s Santo Christo Feast looming on the horizon, this may be Father Cabral’s final CLI appearance.

“In terms of CLI, I know that Santo Christo Parish has always sent youth to CLI and to the YES! Retreat, so I’m really looking forward to continue having the youth being involved at Santo Christo,” he said.

After his return from CLI, Father Cabral will begin the annual process of packing in preparation for another move — only this time he can at least take comfort in the fact that he won’t be merely “in residence.” 

“I think any priest always looks forward to the day when they become a pastor,” Father Cabral said. “I think when you’re trained in the seminary as a priest, you’re trained to be a priest for the people, a priest in a parish. Except my priesthood took me on a different path. So, I’m very much looking forward to it.”

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts