The Rev. Christopher Peschel wears a priest’s cassock wherever he goes.
It’s a risky move to don the robe-like garment that falls dangerously close to the ground.
It can get splashed with mud or coated with wind-borne dust as he walks city streets.
It can get caught on sharp objects.
Mustard or mayo can drip out of sandwiches and cause unholy stains.
There are all kinds of hazards out in the world for cloth worn by a man of the cloth — hazards that are not found at the altar.
But Peschel, a Catholic priest, is not bothered by any of that.
He goes into the streets.
It’s important for people to know who he is and what he does, he said.
He wants people to talk to him and he wants to talk to them.
The cassock helps.
It identifies him and makes him available.
“They know what I do,” he said with a big smile during an interview in his office at St. John the Evangelist Church, from which he oversees two parishes, St. John’s and St. Vincent de Paul.
And while he describes his office as “nice,” it’s not a place he likes to spend a lot a time in.
In an era when fewer Catholics than ever go to Mass and fewer than ever priests are there to greet them, he believes priests must be willing to go the people. And that means leaving the office, nice or not, and hitting the streets, where he meets and greets anyone who wants to talk to him.
That attitude may be one that helps revive a church that’s fallen on hard times with its faithful and finances.
Not just his parishes, of course, but the Catholic Church as a whole, from sea to shining sea and beyond.
The loss of the faithful is a trend that’s been underway since 1957, according to data collected by the Gallup organization and reported by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in 2005.
Things haven’t gotten better since.
In 2016, numbers gathered by the Pew Religious Landscape Study and published at opentabernacle.wordpress.com showed that in 2007 Catholics made up 24 percent of the U.S. population.
By 2016 it had fallen to 18 percent.
A report in Crux, an online publication that characterizes its mission as “Taking the Catholic Pulse,” quoted a Pew Forum study that said the church lost 3 million members between 2007 and 2015.
A report by Public Religion Research Institute concurred.
The numbers were different but the losses were still great, with the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. falling from 31 to 21 percent.
The article added that only 22 percent of Catholics attended Mass “on a regular basis” in 2016, down from 39 percent in 1990.
But for context, the Catholic Church is not alone in losing numbers among religious denominations.
A report in religionnews.com from 2014 said “religiosity” has been on the decline since the 1960s.
It’s had ups and downs, but overall it’s been down, especially in recent years. The steepest decline started around 1999.
“This decline is much sharper than the decline of the 1960s and 1970s,” author Tobin Grant said. “Church attendance and prayer is less frequent. The number of people with no religion is growing.”
That aside, the Catholic Church appears to have taken the biggest hit. A Pew Forum study published in 2015 found that the church is bleeding out.
“For every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church,” the author said. “Taken a step further, Catholicism loses more members than it gains at a higher rate than any other denomination.”
No exceptions here
The Fall River Diocese, comprised of 82 parishes in 46 cities and towns in southeastern Massachusetts, has not been spared.
According to diocesan figures, the number of people identified as Catholics has dropped by 92,248, or 25.5 percent, since 2000, when it was 361,350.
That year boasted the highest number of Catholics recorded for the region in the last 68 years, according to statistics going back to 1950 published by catholic-hierarchy.org
The diocese now serves 269,102 Catholics, the second lowest number since 1950, when it served 214,515. Numbers for each of the 68 years individually were not published.
The 82 parishes are the fewest in the last 68 years, according to the website, which reported the greatest number was 113 in 1990.
The greatest drop came between 2000 and 2018 when 28 parishes were lost, falling from 110 to 82, a loss of 27.4 percent.
By contrast, from 1950 to 1976 the diocese gained 16 parishes and held steady, losing only three the next 24 years until 2000.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of available seats in church on Sunday.
In the past five years, 40 percent of parishes reported a decline in average weekend attendance and 20 parishes, or almost 25 percent, reported drop-offs of 15 percent or more, according to the diocese.
Peschel’s flock doesn’t seem to be declining as fast as others in the diocese, but the trends are not great either.
He gets about 1,600 a weekend between his two churches.
The numbers of worshipers in all Masses, except in the Spanish language Mass at St. Vincent de Paul, are showing “slight declines” in the last two years, he said.
Peschel said the Spanish Mass is growing and draws worshipers from Pawtucket, Seekonk, North Attleboro and Attleboro, to fill the pews.
Bishop hits the road
While Peschel, a parish priest and low in the diocesan pecking order, is walking the streets in hopes of changing all that, his earthly boss, Fall River Diocese Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, has a more comprehensive effort underway.
He’s issued a 16-page letter called “Rebuilding in Faith and Hope” that details a long-term effort for the diocese to resurrect itself.
One of the key early measures is a series of “listening sessions” where da Cunha visits seven parishes in various parts of the diocese to hear from the people.
Two dates have passed. The next will be at Christ the King Church in Mashpee on Thursday.
“Parishioners will be invited to attend to express to me their hopes and dreams for our church,” he wrote. “My role, along with that of the planning commission members, will be to listen.”
In addition to gathering information, he’s also releasing information, in particular on finances.
The bishop has begun an effort to create financial transparency within the diocese and has issued its first-ever annual audited financial report to help parishioners understand the financial workings and condition of the diocese.
It took a year to accomplish.
The money may not be flowing in like it once did, but accounts at the dioceses are in order and comply with professional standards, the bishop said.
“I am happy to report that the audits performed for FY 2016 and FY 2017 received unqualified, or ‘clean,’ opinions indicating our financial records and statements are fairly and appropriately presented,” da Cunha said in a press release.
So, the high and the low are both on the street.
Peschel, a 29-year-old native of Taunton who attended seminary in Philadelphia and Boston before his ordination four years ago, often leaves the office and the hum-drum paperwork that’s part of his job.
He takes off for a walk, robes flapping.
It’s part of his mission and it’s more satisfying than staring at a computer screen or reading reports, he said.
He wants to make himself available.
And people respond.
“There hasn’t been a time when I haven’t been stopped by someone asking me to pray for someone,” Peschel said. “It sparks conversation in grocery stores and gas stations. I’ve given blessings in Dunkin’ Donuts.”
He’s taking his cue partly from his heavenly boss, who didn’t spend much time in offices or even churches, temples or other holy buildings.
He went to the people, too.
“We have to take the message to the streets; after all, Jesus walked in the streets,” Peschel said.
Peschel has only been in town since July but is well aware of the rhythms of the city and the direction that leaders are taking it.
Efforts to create a vibrant “urban village” clustered around the commuter rail downtown is an opportunity for the church, he said.
He’s considering the possibility of a “store-front mission” of sorts in the future to serve busy commuters who are expected to live in the center and at the crossroads.
“We’ve got to be going into the streets,” he repeated
Priests few and far between
Peschel’s taken on his role in the midst of church troubles. It’s a time when few men of the millennial generation, those born between 1981 and 1996, are willing to live the life of a priest.
So he does double duty — he ministers and administers two parishes.
There are not enough priests to go around. He is one of eight who does double duty in the Fall River Diocese.
The reason is the staggering decline in the number of priests. Numbers nationwide have been dropping since at least 1965.
Statistics published by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, show that from 1965 to 2017 the number of priests in the U.S. plummeted from 58,632 to 37,181, a decline of 36.6 percent.
Peschel, who arrived in Attleboro in July of last year from his first posting at St. Pius X Church in South Yarmouth, was born in the middle of that steep decline.
Ironically, around the same time, 1990, the number of parishes in the nation topped out at 19,620.
With the number of parishes going up and the number or priests going down, something had to give, and it did.
Since then, the number of parishes has shrunk 12.5 percent to 17,156 nationwide, lower than it was in 1965, when the total was 17,637.
In the diocese, the number of “active priests” has gone down by 12 since 2013, from 86 to 74.
Meanwhile, total number of priests, active and retired, plummeted to 140 in 2013 from a high of 244 in 1966, according to catholic-hierarchy.org
All of this combined is representative of a trend that’s been in motion for years and is responsible for the closing of churches, the combining of parishes and the imposition of a parish tax.
The tax, dubbed by some as “pay-to-pray,” aims to make up for huge financial losses stemming from a drop in parishioners and, by a bigger measure, losses inflicted by legal settlements resulting from sex abuse scandals that have plagued the church for decades.
Attleboro has lost two parishes in recent years as a result of falling attendance, falling revenue and a lack of priests.
St. Stephen’s merged with St. Mary’s in Seekonk in 2010 to become Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and St. Joseph’s was combined with Holy Ghost to form St. Vincent de Paul in 2013.
St. Stephen’s was razed. St. Joseph’s was bought by the Holy Family Coptic Orthodox Church.
Meanwhile, there are rumblings from Fall River that more closings and mergers are coming.
What that could mean for the Attleboro area is unknown.
It has, however, been announced that St. Mary’s Primary School in Taunton will close at the end of the school year — too few students. Its children will be sent to Our Lady of Lourdes School, also in Taunton.
But striking an optimistic note for Attleboro, Peschel said St. John’s school has avoided those problems.
“I’ve got a waiting list of people who want to get in,” he said.
Faithful are aging
The uninspiring attendance at St. John’s and St. Vincent de Paul’s does not mean those churches will fail, but they are in danger because those who come to Mass are aging.
The young, mainly millennials, stay away, Peschel said.
“The upper edge of the millennial generation are not church-going,” he said.
Peschel has theories as to why.
They may have a “fear of commitment,” he said, noting as an example that they wait longer to get married than previous generations. They seem to want a kind of “independence.”
Peschel said that independence is an independence from groups in general, including fraternal clubs like the Elks, for example.
“I don’t think it’s just religion,” he said.
Father Tim Reis, 58, of St. Mary’s in Norton has been instrumental in efforts to revitalize churches throughout the diocese and echoes Peschel.
“There is a greater sense of ‘free spirited-ness’ that has developed over time,” he said in a email to The Sun Chronicle. “For many, the idea of following a set of religious principles or beliefs restricts a person’s right to experience personal freedom. This seems to be coupled with people seeing answers to life challenges in other, more contemporary trains of thought and philosophies of life.”
A second reason may be a reliance of that generation on social media instead of social interaction.
“A potential contributing factor is that a lot of people in my generation grew up with a screen in front of their face,” Peschel said, referring to computers, telephones and TVs.
Many communicate through technology rather than face-to-face or even voice-to-voice, he said.
It may make them less comfortable in groups or in one-to-one relationships. Those social skills and the benefits of those skills may never have been learned, honed or appreciated.
“For some people it’s hard to make a connection after a life lived in front of a screen,” Peschel said.
And, if connections are difficult for them with people, that goes double for a connection with God.
Young men and women enmeshed in technology their whole lives may well have a hard time appreciating or absorbing the “sense of mystery” around God, faith and things that are not apparent, questions that are eternal, Peschel said.
Based on those thoughts it’s become apparent to Peschel that if the young are to be reached, he’ll need to pick up the phone and call them.
“It’s changed my approach to ministry,” he said.
He’s willing to venture into their world and call them forth into his.
Peschel said a phone app is being created for the church as one way to do that. Meanwhile, Facebook pages and websites are both well-maintained and up-to-date.
“If this is where people are, if they are on the phone, then we’ve got to be there too, if we want to connect with them,” he said. “It’s never a substitute for coming to church, but if it gets them in the door, then praise be to God that (technology) is being used for something good.”
Meanwhile, he’s optimistic about his parishes.
Peschel points to a fundraising effort at St. John’s that has come up with $1.5 million to replace the slate roof on the North Main Street church.
While there are fewer faithful, their devotion is strong, he said.
Father Ted Brown, director at LaSalette Shrine for three years, also believes the omnipresence of technology in a highly scientific and secular world has played a role in separating the young from the church.
It’s a gap that needs to be bridged, he said.
Brown believes the church offers teachings that can’t be had on Google. Before his assignment to LaSalette, he spent 28 years as the Catholic chaplain at Long Island University and tried to convey that message to his young congregants.
Technology and science may make their lives longer, but not necessarily better, he told them.
“Some of you will live to be 120 years old,” he told them. “And most of the stuff you learn here will be obsolete.”
Brown tried to impress upon them the undying usefulness of lessons learned in the humanities and the message of love and light brought into the world by Jesus.
“You still have to learn how to be hopeful and open to others,” he told them. “These are things you still need to learn — hope, trust and meaning. Even at 120 you still need to know how to do those things and that’s the mission of the church.”
The National Catholic Reporter concurs that those missing from the pews are mainly millennials.
For some churches, it’s a matter of demographics.
An article by Father Peter Daly said sometimes there are few young people living near churches, especially in big cities where the costs are high.
But it goes deeper, he said.
Many of the young are unhappy with the church’s treatment of gays and lesbians. Others dislike its treatment of women and the roles to which they are restricted.
Daly quoted one young Catholic as describing the church as “the most sexist and homophobic institution of significance in our culture.”
Sex abuse scandal
While plummeting attendance helped cripple church finances, the sex abuse scandal that exploded in the 1990s and forced huge payouts to thousands of victims across the nation and world had an even bigger impact on church treasuries.
Writers in the National Catholic Reporter calculated that the church has forked over $3.9 billion since 1950 because of sexual abuse cases.
If that cash was divided among every diocese in the nation, 197 in all, each would be $20 million richer today, authors Jack and Diane Ruhl said.
Massachusetts was hard hit.
Readers in The Sun Chronicle area were shocked by revelations in 1992 about former priest James Porter, who was accused of molesting 68 children in North Attleboro’s St. Mary’s Parish and dozens of others in southeastern Massachusetts in the 1960s.
There were 200 accusations against Porter nationwide. He was eventually found guilty of 28 sexual assaults and sent to prison.
And in 2002 defrocked priest John Geoghan, who worked in the Archdiocese of Boston, was imprisoned for sexually abusing a young boy. There were 130 allegations against him over the years.
Those cases alone cost the church hundreds of millions of dollars. One report put the figure at more than $600 million.
Peschel said he was too young to be affected by the scandal’s storm when it raged with its greatest ferocity, but the mission of the church is clear in the aftermath, he said.
“It calls us to a greater sense of holiness,” he said.
Brown believes the sex abuse scandal had a big impact on church attendance. Unlike Peschel, he was old enough to experience the horror of those revelations.
He said attendance had been in decline for a long time, but it fell of the cliff with the scandal.
“Since the sex abuse crisis, the drop-off in Mass attendance has been the most significant,” he said
He said the church is not the only institution whose leaders have sexually abused children, but it was exposed before others and is possibly the worst.
“We’re the one that got caught up in it first and we’re certainly not through it,” he said.
At LIU, he was confronted with questions about the scandal. Students were disillusioned.
“They saw it as an abuse of trust,” Brown said. “They asked, ‘How could it happen?’” he said.
“I could sense kids weren’t sure of our motives,” Brown said.
Some of those kids left the church, never to return.
Back to the street
But some stayed and learned, and some lessons learned were taught on the street.
Brown took his students to the byways and back alleys of Manhattan to give blankets and sandwiches to people who called those places home.
One enthusiastic young man wrote to Pope Francis and asked him to join them on one of their after-hours sojourns to the dark places where blankets and bread are among the few bridges to the bereft.
Brown said it sparked a humorous moment of panic.
“What if he accepts?” he remembered asking himself.
Francis, who’s seen by some as more of a priest than a professor, did not come — but he was probably busy.
Brown said there’s a rumor that Francis slips out of the Vatican under cover of darkness and gives out blankets, bread and blessings of light and love on the streets of Rome — wearing a common collar or none at all.
True or not the message is the same.