By Kenneth J. Souza
RAYNHAM, Mass. — Convening what he called “a very important meeting for all of us,” Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., led his brother priests in prayer before listening to what was termed a “Presbyterate Research Briefing” in the aftermath of the recent parishioner and parish leader surveys commissioned by the diocesan Task Force for Pastoral Planning.
Conducted by the Boston-based TDC non-profit consulting firm, the diocesan-wide study took the form of two primary survey tools — an individual parishioner survey and then a self-evaluation done by parish teams.
“The survey tools were launched in the spring of 2016 and were out in the field through summer 2016, and then we aggregated that information, synthesized it, analyzed it, and brought it back to a working group that was really our sounding board on this,” explained Mike Arkin, project manager for TDC. “They helped debrief us about the information and also provided guidance about what additional inquiry we should be doing.”
Having collected all this data, including an overview of some of the noteworthy demographic trends across the diocese, a summary of what Arkin called “Topline Research Findings” was presented to the priests gathered in the parish center of St. Ann’s Church in Raynham on February 15.
Arkin first noted that over the past 10 years, the number of total registered Catholic households in the diocese had declined by seven percent. The total population is aging and is expected to remain flat over the next five years, but households with children is expected to decline.
In the past five years, 40 percent of those parishes surveyed experienced a significant decline in average weekend Mass attendance. Based on data collected from 2015, 70 parishes in the diocese used less than 50 percent of their total capacity on average, while 18 parishes used less than 25 percent of their total capacity.
Over the last decade, parishes have also reported a notable dip in participation, with Marriages down by 47 percent; Baptisms down 44 percent; overall enrollment in Religious Education down 27 percent; Confirmations down 24 percent; and First Communions down by 16 percent.
With 84 parishes currently located in 46 distinct cities and towns across the diocese, Arkin cited that 10 towns have multiple parishes, with the greatest concentration located in New Bedford and Fall River, with 12 each, and Taunton, which claims six.
About half of the parishes in the diocese are also located within close geographic proximity to each other, or less than a two-mile radius. Of these 43 close-knit parishes, the Fall River Deanery tops the list at 17; the New Bedford Deanery has 16; while the Attleboro and Taunton Deaneries each have five. There are no parishes less than two miles apart within the Cape Cod Deanery.
With 72 percent of the parishes in the diocese reporting flat or declining revenues over the last three years, there’s also a concern that an estimated 28 parishes now have critical or serious facilities needs totaling an estimated $25 million according to an assessment done by Deacon Thomas Palanza, facilities consultant for the Fall River Diocese.
“There are many indications that there are some parishes in distress,” Bishop da Cunha said, after assimilating all the data. “We see that Mass attendance has gone down; the Sacramentals have gone down; there are parishes in debt and facilities are in need of repair — so there are parishes in distress, we can’t deny that. And there are parishes that may not be sustainable for the future, and we have to accept that reality.”
While Arkin presented a generalized, diocesan-wide overview of the survey results to the presbyterate, parish-specific profiles were also made available to individual pastors after the meeting.
Before delving into these detailed assessments, Father Jay Maddock, pastor of Holy Name and St. Bernadette parishes in Fall River, wanted to know what indicators were used to denote a “parish in distress.”
“In the profiles you are going to receive, we have not indicated that, but assumptions could be made if you were looking at the different rankings and you saw your parish is in the bottom 25 percent in all those key categories,” Arkin said. “However, the group hasn’t yet decided how they are looking to fully codify the data to assign to a ‘distressed parish.’ That will be the work conducted by the (implementation team) over the next several months.”
“There are also indications that the number of parishes within the diocese, as we saw in those cities and towns that had parishes within a two-mile radius, may also not be sustainable,” Bishop da Cunha said. “So given the demographic capacity of the parishioners — and the number of people attending Masses, we have to recognize that something has to be done.”
To that end, the bishop said he will establish an implementation team comprised of existing members of the Task Force for Pastoral Planning along with “new members” who will “take all this data and formulate a final report with specific recommendations that we can address.”
“We will ask the committee to outline a set of recommendations as to the specific path that each parish will need to take,” Bishop da Cunha said. “There are options that we need to seriously consider. Some parishes will remain as they are canonically, as parishes. But they all have to begin a process of renewal. And we’re going to have to work with each one of them.”
The implementation team is expected to convene this month, with an eye on having a final pastoral planning report with recommendations ready for release in May.
“At that time, I’m also expecting to publish my first pastoral letter,” the bishop said. “That’s going to be released in conjunction with this final report. It will be called ‘Rebuilding in Faith and Hope,’ and that’s going to be pulling everything together to launch this new revival for our diocese.”
“There will most likely be some collaborations and investments in key programs in some of the parishes, especially those that are in close proximity to each other,” he added. “How can we collaborate and share resources? There are many ministries that parishes can do in clusters and as partners.”
Admitting there will be “situations where a merger or closure may be necessary,” Bishop da Cunha said they will have to be “honest, courageous and discerning with the pastor and parish leaders in making this most difficult decision.”
“You’re not going to get a letter from me saying ‘Your parish is merging or closing.’ This is going to be a process and we’re going to walk through it with you and your parish leaders,” the bishop said. “We’re going to talk — there will be dialogue and conversation — and we’re going to explore the options, but we have to be courageous and sincere with the reality of the situation.”
Perhaps of greatest concern to the bishop and his brother priests is the fact that 29 parishes within the Fall River Diocese now have a pastor who is at or within five years of retirement age. Nine parishes have a pastor aged 70 and above, while another 20 parishes have a pastor between the ages of 65 and 69.
“At the outset, I talked about 29 priests who are at or within five years of retirement age, and I believe we have nine currently in seminary, so the way that stacks up is it looks like the talent pipeline is not ultimately going to meet the needs of the diocese moving forward were the number of parishes to remain the same,” Arkin said.
Given the statistics on the number of diocesan priests eligible for retirement over the next five years, Father Andrew Johnson, pastor of Good Shepherd and St. Stanislaus parishes in Fall River, asked how this matter should be addressed.
“I think people in the parishes are going to want some kind of a mechanism or procedure in place to know how we’re going to do that,” Father Johnson said. “We’re talking about 2020 coming up.”
Bishop da Cunha agreed that one of the key factors in considering whether existing parishes are sustainable in the diocese is going to be the number of priests available to pastor them.
“We have 29 pastors who are going to reach the age of retirement in the next five years,” Bishop da Cunha said. “That’s a serious number. We can’t just wait for that day to happen. We need to begin to talk about it and figure out how we’re going to address it. Thanks be to God, we have nine seminarians now and we may have three of four entering next year and we’re going to have, hopefully, three transitional deacons ordained in May. That’s good news. But it’s not enough to replace those who are coming up for retirement. So that’s certainly going to be part of our recommendations.”
Noting that the pastoral planning survey had presented them with some challenging data to consider, Bishop da Cunha urged his priests not to leave feeling “discouraged, disappointed or down.”
“This has given me hope and an opportunity to work with all of you — to rebuild in faith and hope. And if we do that, we will be OK, we will be fine, and we will be successful,” the bishop said. “The Church of Fall River is not going to die. Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done. Nobody can deny that. But we all have to embrace this challenge together.”