Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha

Area Catholic churches are being asked to take a close look at themselves as part of a revitalization effort aimed at strengthening missions, supporting clergy and winning back faithful who have drifted away.

Edgar M. da Cunha, bishop of the Fall River Diocese, announced the start of a strategic planning process in a pastoral letter published Friday in the diocesan newspaper, The Anchor.

A Diocesan Planning Commission will be established to work with local parishes and oversee the revitalization process, da Cunha said. In turn, local parishes will be asked to have their own discussions about topics of interest ranging from improving communications to how to attract young people to the church.

The announcement comes roughly a year after da Cunha called on Catholics in an earlier pastoral letter to join in a "journey that will lead to the renewal and rebuilding of our Church."

The bishop also announced a number of regional "listening sessions" between parish members and diocesan officials extending  through April. One session, which included the bishop, was held earlier this month at St. Mary's Church in Norton. About 170 people attended.

Local parishes have been asked to hold their own listening sessions and create a five-year plan, said The Rev. Christopher Peschel, parish priest at St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent De Paul churches in Attleboro.

"I heard an overall feeling of hope and a great deal of enthusiasm," Peschel said of one such meeting at St.Vincent de Paul. He said church members were quick to offer their talents to aid the church's mission.

The Catholic Church has suffered a number of challenges in the past several years, including a falloff in attendance that has forced the closing or consolidation of a number of parishes.

In Attleboro, St. Stephen's parish closed its Dodgeville church in 2010 following a merger with Our  Lady Queen of Martyrs in Seekonk. St. Joseph's Church closed its South Main Street building in 2012 and merged with Holy Ghost Church to form St. Vincent de Paul.

Nationally, the church's membership has been in decline, as has attendance at other Christian denominations. According to a 2015 Pew study, the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic went from just under 25 percent in 2007 to about 20 percent in 2014.

John Kearns, a spokesman for the Fall River Diocese, said the planning process outlined by the bishop is intended to strengthen local churches and their missions, not as a prelude to further closings.

However, he said there is no guarantee that some churches won't shut down in the future.

In the letter, da Cunha called on local churches and parishioners to collaborate with diocesan leaders as part of the process of renewing and revitalizing the church.

"In today’s Church strategic planning is no longer hierarchical, top-down, or dictated by the opinions of one or a few," the bishop wrote. "It is not imposed on us by outside experts; it is guided from within. It is not focused on our deficits, or what we have been doing wrong; rather it is built on our assets — the wisdom, judgment, talents, skills, passions, and aspirations of those within our Church community, clergy and laity.

"In short, we must figure this out together."

Peschel said he's already witnessing signs of strength within the local Catholic community. St. Vincent de Paul may soon need to add a second Spanish language Mass because of rising Hispanic membership, he said.

The volunteer-run St. Joseph Food Cellar, a legacy of the old St. Joseph's Church, distributes free food to 85-100 families a week.

Peschel said that, based on present measures of vitality and volunteerism, he doesn't see any danger of either St. John's or St. Vincent de Paul closing.

"I think they're here to stay," he said.

Rick Foster can be reached at 508-236-0360.

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