Diocesan priests gather for convocation in Mansfield 
Sexual abuse crisis dominates discussions, prayer


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

MANSFIELD, Mass. — About 100 priests from the Fall River Diocese gathered with Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., at the Holiday Inn and Convention Center in Mansfield for a priests’ convocation on September 4-6. Typically held every three years, the convocation has supplanted what was once an annual retreat and gathering of the presbyterate to discuss mutual diocesan and pastoral issues and to share in prayer and brotherhood.

convocation

In light of recent revelations of sexual abuse crimes committed by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons in the Pennsylvania area and the news about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and his subsequent removal from public ministry, the format of this year’s convocation was changed at the 11th hour to provide an opportunity for discussion and reflection on the situation.

Most of the priests not only welcomed the change, but encouraged it.

“The focus was changed within the last couple of weeks,” said Father David Frederici, pastor of St. George Parish in Westport, and one of convocation organizers. “I think many priests have appreciated the fact that the bishop didn’t see this (convocation) as ‘business as usual’ and he’s really taking his role seriously to minister to his priests, which is one of the functions of the bishop that often gets forgotten.”

“I’m quite grateful to our bishop for hearing his priests calling for that change, because this is exactly what we need to be talking about right now,” agreed Father Chris Peschel, parochial administrator of St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in Attleboro.

“It’s been good to hear that a lot of the guys share some of the same concerns and insights and things that we feel really need to be addressed in the Church and in the diocese,” said Father Kevin Cook, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk. “A lot of priests have that awareness of how much it’s been a struggle for the people, too.”

“It’s always good to be together as brother priests and to be together with our bishop,” agreed Father Thomas Washburn, OFM, pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in Buzzards Bay. “And certainly, in these times with everything that’s going on, it’s really important to come together to support one another, pray for each other, and to pray for the Church and all the people that we serve. There’s a nice, supportive spirit here.”

“I think there was a little bit of nervousness beforehand, and some were thinking that we were just going to be reiterating the same policies and procedures,” Father Frederici told The Anchor. “But this (meeting) has really been about listening and the bishop has not only listened but shared himself, too. That’s been helpful. And really this is just the beginning of where we need to go as a presbyterate.”

The three-day convocation agenda was dominated by group discussions and question-and-answer periods, but also provided ample time for prayer and reflection, including daily Mass, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and lauds and vespers.

On Tuesday the convocation began, appropriately enough, by having all the priests renew their ordination vows.

“I think the crisis is a reminder to all of us to recommit to the most important things, and we did that as a group on the first day when we renewed our ordination promises together,” said Father Jack Schrader, parochial vicar at St. Mary and Sacred Heart parishes in North Attleboro and St. Mark’s Parish in Attleboro Falls. “That’s one way as a diocese, as priests, and as brothers for us to come together right away and recommit ourselves to what God is calling us to do.”

During the Wednesday Liturgy, Bishop da Cunha addressed the prevailing topic of the convocation by drawing parallels to that morning’s first reading from 1 Corinthians 3:2 in his homily.

“As I read these words of St. Paul, three words came to mind; and the first is honesty,” Bishop da Cunha said. “I think St. Paul was being very honest with the Corinthians. He wasn’t pulling any punches, he wasn’t sugar-coating it. I think people respected him and liked him even more for his honesty.

“The second word I thought of was humility. If we want to be honest with somebody, and if we want to call someone to be accountable and to change, we have to be humble in doing that. If we want to correct somebody arrogantly, we’re not going to get much accomplished. Humility — Jesus speaks so much about that, and we need it in our Church today more than ever.

“And the third word is accountability. We all were born, raised, educated, formed and live in a culture where if we can avoid accountability, we will. And that has created so many problems. Unless we honestly and humbly accept the fact that we need to be held accountable to each other, to the Church, to our people, to the laity, we’re never going to have credibility and we’re never going to be trusted anymore.”

While many Catholics have been understandably upset and even angered by this latest round of clerical sexual abuse and the delayed response from Church leaders, just as many parishioners in the Fall River Diocese have remained supportive of their parish priests.

“The parishioners have been very supportive, even when we told them that we were coming on this convocation and what issues would be discussed, it was kind of nice to hear: ‘Oh, we’re going to have a holy hour for you and all the priests of the diocese,’” said Father Michael Racine, pastor of St. Bernard’s Parish in Assonet. “It’s nice to know that we’re being prayed for every day. That’s very supportive. I’ve found from the very beginning when all of this was coming back out, people have been praying for us and they’ve been praying for a resolution. That’s very heartening.”

“While people often focus their anger on the institution and all this sort of stuff, locally they seem to love their priests and their parish community,” Father Washburn agreed. “So, I think we’ve all expressed the same sentiment that we are so grateful for our flocks, our people and the support they have given us. There are really good people here.”

“We need prayers from the people, because we are all the Church,” said Father Michael O’Hearn, chaplain at Catholic Memorial Home in Fall River. “It’s us — the people and the priests together. It’s not us and them.”

Given the current 24-hour news cycle and instant access to social media, Father Frederici said he’s seen an equal amount of positive and negative comments over the past two weeks.

“Social media being what it is, part of it is just allowing people to vent some of their anger,” he said. “We’re all human beings and sometimes we just need to express our anger and move on. But most people have been great and they recognize that this isn’t just a Catholic problem or a Church problem, we have a serious issue in our society that needs to be addressed.”

In his capacity as director of Vocations and Seminarians for the diocese, Father Kevin Cook said the recent revelations could raise some concerns for the 15 young men currently studying for the priesthood, but he’s confident that they all “seem strong about their vocations.”

“A lot of them are very young, so some of them may not have dealt with it back in 2003,” Father Cook said. “But I think for most of the seminarians, they just want the truth, they want transparency, and they want to be able to trust. We have to address it and I think the Church really needs to be cleansed of these types of things. It may affect vocations if they find friends or family members aren’t being initially supportive because of all the negative news, but I think for those who really have a sense of God’s calling, they have an awareness that they’re going to face some real challenges — and they’re embracing it. I really think they have a greater sense of what it means to say ‘yes’ to the Lord.”

“In the conversations I’ve had with our seminarians, the consensus is they want to be part of the solution, they don’t want to perpetuate the problem,” agreed Father Chris Peschel. “I remember that was a question my own father asked me when I entered the seminary in 2007, because it was only a handful of years after what we endured in 2002 and 2003. He asked me if I was sure this is what I wanted to do. And I told him I wanted to be part of the solution. When you love the Church that much, you don’t want to perpetuate the suffering that’s going on. And I think there’s a good number of us here at this convocation who just really want to get at the root of the problem and make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”


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