Bishop outlines strategic planning process,
calls for faithful to get involved


By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff
kensouza@anchornews.org

FALL RIVER, Mass. — As a way to get more diocesan faithful “engaged and involved” in the future of the local Church, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., recently met with members of the press at the Chancery Offices on Highland Avenue to discuss the launch of a comprehensive 12- to 18-month strategic planning process for the Fall River Diocese.

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The press conference was held in response to the bishop’s recent letter, “Rebuilding in Faith and Hope: Introducing Strategic Planning” that was provided to parishioners throughout the diocese on Easter Sunday.

“We want to be as transparent to the people in the diocese as possible in everything we do,” Bishop da Cunha told The Anchor. “By doing this (press conference) we hope to get the word out about what’s happening in the diocese so that people will feel they are a part of the diocese, that they want to be involved, that they want to share their gifts and their talents and their abilities with us to rebuild for the future so that we will be stronger.”

Noting that “a lot of things have happened” since he arrived in Fall River three-and-a-half years ago, the bishop immediately began addressing concerns such as dwindling Mass attendance and a noticeable shortage of priests by appointing several task forces to study the various ministries and apostolates within the diocese. Data was collected through interviews and a parish survey conducted by the Diocesan Task Force on Parishes last December, and now the bishop is in the midst of conducting a series of “listening sessions” to hear from those who populate the pews.

“We have faced a lot of the challenges that the Church faces as a whole, our diocese in particular, and all churches face,” the bishop said during the press conference. “But we have begun to connect with people, to listen to people, to engage people. And those things have really given us a lot of hope for the future of our Church, of our diocese. We’ve been uncovering how people want to be engaged, how they want to be involved, how they want to share their gifts and their talents and how they care about the Church.”

Recalling his first pastoral letter released in April 2017, Bishop da Cunha said he remains committed to “renewing and rebuilding the local Church in faith and hope” and that it is important to move all parishes from “maintenance mode into a mission mode, and also move from a ‘silos’ mode into more of a collaborative mode,” he said.

“We come from a culture where ‘my parish is my little kingdom,’” the bishop further explained. “So you stay there and I stay here. Don’t bother me and I won’t bother with you. That culture needs to change and we are helping to change it, where the Church sees itself as a community of faith. The local Church is the diocese; it is the parishes. It’s not just bricks and mortar — it’s really people working together in collaboration with each other.”

To that end, the bishop extended a personal invitation to the more than 600 faithful who attended the second annual Diocesan Women’s and Men’s Conference held at Stonehill College last month. He was pleased that more than 240 people responded positively, expressing interest in volunteering.

“People have said (to me) many times: I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to become involved,” the bishop said. “I think the more that we communicate with the people, the better we are and the more people will be willing to participate. The majority of our Catholic population may just go to (Mass) and go home. But this is a new way of being the Church, a new way of being Catholic, and I want people to encourage that.”

Moving forward, strategic planning for the Fall River Diocese will focus on three major areas: revitalizing the parishes; renewing the ministries of the diocese; and strengthening support for the clergy.

Acknowledging that changing demographics and financial constraints have taken a toll on some of the 82 parishes in the Fall River Diocese, the bishop agreed that “merging or closing some churches can be a part of this process.”

“We have not completed the process of deciding which churches are not going to be surviving, but that’s part of the process we’re starting and as it goes and as it moves forward we will see which churches are sustainable and which (ones) may not be sustainable,” Bishop da Cunha said. “We want our parishes to be there and to be able to offer services to people. But in some cases not every building or every church that is there now will be able to be there in the future. And those that will be there, we want them to be able to provide all the services that people need: the evangelization, the catechesis, the Sacraments, the preaching of the message.”

Even when taking into consideration the noticeable decline in Baptisms, Confirmations and weddings, the bishop stressed that closing or merging churches may not be the only remedy. In some cases, more collaboration or sharing of resources between parishes might prove to be beneficial.

“For example, you may have a parish that would like to do some youth ministry, but they can’t afford to have a youth minister,” he said. “But if you have two or three parishes in that town or neighborhood come together, they can hire a youth minister and they can have a youth program for all the three parishes together. If they put together their resources, they will be able to do it as a group rather than individual parishes.”

While the bishop said he understands the unique attachment and cultural significance of church buildings in the Fall River Diocese — many of which were built by the “devout and dedicated” Portuguese, Hispanic, French, Irish and Polish immigrants who came here a century ago — today’s world is much different and we have to “be honest, be transparent, be sincere, and be assertive with this change of reality.”

“Emotionally, we understand how important it is for people,” Bishop da Cunha said. “For the people who built these churches in this diocese, they want to preserve the cultural values and the faith that their ancestors established here. But we also need to think in terms of ‘a church is not a building.’ We are working here not just to preserve buildings, but to preserve the faith — to preserve the Church as God’s people gathered in this Diocese of Fall River.”

Going back to his earlier point, the bishop repeated: “people don’t want to live in silos anymore. They don’t want to live in isolation from the rest of the diocese, or from the rest of the other churches. They realize that they can gain from a sense of collaboration, a sense of sharing with others.”

Although the bishop wouldn’t commit to naming specific parishes or churches that might be in danger of closing, he admitted “there are parishes that are struggling with the numbers of people attending, with the condition of the buildings, and with finances.”

“But we have parishes that are very strong and alive and sustainable,” he added. “Definitely there are parishes that need to be reviewed (as to) their future and how they are going to be sustainable. So all those things are being analyzed and will be taken into account as part of this strategic plan. We are looking at these things now so that we can better plan for the future.”

In the end, however, the bishop said he hopes the parishioners themselves will come to the realization that their parish may need to merge with another or close. If so, “we will work with them and move in the direction that they identify as their need.”

“There will probably be people who are unable to see, because they are acting just from emotions and sometimes when you act just from emotion, you don’t have a clear, logical, reasonable direction,” the bishop said. “But I think once we go through the process, many people will be able to say, ‘yes, we’ll be better off if we merge with another parish.’

“We have to help them see the light. We have to do what is necessary, what is needed and what is important for the future and hope that those people who may not be able to see the light at that point will be able to see it later on when their emotions have settled.”

Paralleling parish planning efforts will be a diocesan strategic planning process to renew diocesan ministries. Bishop da Cunha expressed his “hope to engage a broad and diverse coalition of our priests and parishioners to evaluate our many diocesan ministries, to consider how we may improve them and, perhaps, expand them in partnership with our parishes.”

“We’re looking to (revitalize) Religious Education and youth ministry and Catholic Social Services,” Bishop da Cunha said. “The healthcare facilities, the hospital ministries, the shelters — all kinds of ministries that we want to bring people to and become involved in and support. We’re casting the net very wide in the services that we are providing, but also in the people that we want to be engaged in the process.”

The third goal of the strategic planning process is to strengthen support for diocesan clergy.

To that end, the bishop has already made great strides by introducing the Catholic Leadership Institute’s “Good Leaders, Good Shepherds” program for members of the clergy here in the diocese. In addition, a committee of priests is finalizing plans for a collaborative Boston College/Jesuit program to provide comprehensive and multi-phased support for diocesan clergy, including relief so busy parish priests can take some time off.

“Our priests today face increasing challenges,” Bishop da Cunha said. “I am committed to doing whatever I can to support them in their ministry and ensure their overall well-being.”

The bishop suggested it may be time to have laypeople take over some of the administrative work at the parish, so the pastor can “dedicate more time to doing priestly work.”

“A lot of priests spend a lot of time in administration and so by involving laypeople more, then the priest frees himself to do the ministerial part of the apostolate — preach the Gospel, counsel people, and celebrate the Sacraments — and not spend as much time and energy on administration,” he said.

Although some priests may be overburdened with pastoring multiple parish assignments, the bishop said “right now we have enough priests to maintain all the churches that we have.”

“We’re not doing this because we don’t have enough priests, but our strategic plan has to take into account the number of priests that we have, the number of priests that are retiring, and the number of seminarians that we have,” Bishop da Cunha said. “We have 15 seminarians in formation now. We have three who will be ordained this coming June to the priesthood; and one will be ordained as a deacon. And then we have all the others in various stages of formation.”

Despite the scope of the plan and its many moving parts, Bishop da Cunha said he sees strategic planning as “important and necessary” for the future of the local Church.

“If I don’t do anything, then we’re going to be worse off years from now,” he said. “So this, for me, is a must do. But I see it not as a discouraging thing, but as a really hopeful thing, because I’m not doing it by myself. And that is what gives me the courage and the enthusiasm and the hope — because people are responding.”

And although he’s set a 12- to 18-month timeframe for final recommendations, Bishop da Cunha said strategic planning will remain “a continuous process for our parishes.”

“By the end of this year we’re going to evaluate where we are and where we need to go,” he said. “But it’s not start January 1 and then when it’s December 31, that’s it! It really is a continuous, ongoing process — that’s important for people to know.”

Upcoming Listening Sessions with Bishop da Cunha:

— April 20 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Julie Billiart Parish in North Dartmouth;

— April 23 at 7 p.m. at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Centerville;

— May 4 at 6:30 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in New Bedford (in Spanish);

— May 9 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Ann Parish in Raynham; and

— May 11 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River (in Portuguese).


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