Diocese forms pastoral planning team,
schedules ‘listening sessions’

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Taking the next step in its ongoing pastoral planning review, the Fall River Diocese has formed a pastoral planning leadership team comprised of priests who have been tasked with assisting Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., in implementing the results of the diocesan pastoral planning survey and gathering additional information via a series of upcoming “listening sessions” to be held throughout the diocese.

Members of this new leadership team include Father Gregory A. Mathias, vicar general; Father John M. Murray, moderator of the curia; Father Timothy Reis, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Norton; Father Mark R. Hession, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk; and Father James H. Morse, retired.

The pastoral planning process began more than a year ago, according to Bishop da Cunha, when priests were presented with the results of the diocesan-wide survey conducted by the Boston-based TDC non-profit consulting firm that was commissioned by the diocesan Task Force for Pastoral Planning.

Pastors and parochial administrators then convened with parish leaders to review the findings and, within the context of Bishop da Cunha’s first-ever pastoral letter entitled “Rebuilding in Faith and Hope,” determined what things needed to be done to begin the parish renewal process.

In that letter, the bishop stressed the importance of ensuring that all parishes were moving from “maintenance to mission mode.”

“This team has really been put together to help revise those reports and revise the plan that we are putting together for the whole diocese,” Bishop da Cunha recently told The Anchor. “But this is just a small team, we’re still going to put together a larger diocesan commission comprised of laypeople to oversee the whole (pastoral planning) process.”

To that end, there will be a series of seven “listening sessions” held throughout the diocese beginning on March 20 to “help collect input from the parishes and parishioners,” the bishop said.

Although he stressed that no predeterminations have been made as to whether a parish might warrant closure or consolidation, they have to take a hard look at a parish’s “demographics, the conditions of the buildings, or its financial situation” to determine if a particular parish is sustainable.

“Some parishes may not be sustainable, so that’s what the process will help us determine,” Bishop da Cunha said.

Among the survey findings first presented to priests in February 2017, it was determined that 70 parishes in the diocese use less than 50 percent of their total capacity on average, while 18 parishes use less than 25 percent of their total capacity.

With 84 parishes currently located in 46 distinct cities and towns across the diocese, it was noted 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 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.

Over the last decade, parishes have also reported a sharp decline in participation, with Marriages down 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.

Given the fact that 72 percent of the parishes in the diocese reported flat or declining revenues over the last three years, there are serious concerns about meeting the critical facilities needs of some 28 parishes moving forward, which could cost more than $25 million to repair.

“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,” Bishop da Cunha said last year. “There are parishes that may not be sustainable for the future, and we have to accept that reality.”

As he prepares to meet with diocesan faithful to address these concerns, Bishop da Cunha said they have identified an initial pilot group of 11 parishes that “have each formed their own parish implementation committees.”

“These are the parishes that we will be addressing first, and we’ll slowly be moving to other areas and expanding to involve all parishes in the diocese,” he said. “All parishes will eventually go through a process of revitalization where they are going to form a revitalization team to work with our diocesan consultants and diocesan commission to do whatever they deem is necessary to move the parish from maintenance mode to mission mode.”

The upcoming pastoral planning listening sessions with Bishop da Cunha will be held as follows:

Tuesday, March 20 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at St. Mary’s Parish in Norton;

Wednesday, March 21 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at St. Ann’s Parish in Raynham;

Thursday, April 5 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Christ the King Parish in Mashpee;

Thursday, April 12 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River;

Wednesday, April 18 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Orleans;

Friday, April 20 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at St. Julie Billiart Parish in Dartmouth;

Monday, April 23 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Centerville.

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