FALL RIVER — Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha said Thursday the Diocese of Fall River is embarking on a 12 to 18-month strategic plan that could result in the closing and merger of some parishes.
The bishop, while maintaining a positive but firm tone throughout his nearly one-hour news conference at the Chancery, only spoke in general terms about church buildings in need of major repairs, low finances and declining attendance and did not identify any struggling parishes that may have to close or merge with others.
Attendance has declined across the diocese, which is evident in a drop in confirmation services, weddings and baptisms, he said.
"People have an unique attachment to a building as a place of worship and we understand how important that is, but we happen to think a church is not a building," he said.
Many parishes cannot provide all the services that they need to offer, but two or three parishes working as one can, he said. The bishop offered youth ministries and confirmation programs as examples.
Many people believe "my parish is my kingdom," a view that has to change with the help of the church for the diocese to thrive, he said. He called it "necessary, needed, important for the future."
He said the diocese will be worse off if nothing is done. "This is a must-do for me," he said.
He stressed how important the process of listening to parishioners and building a consensus is. "It's not bricks and mortars. It's people working together," he said.
The bishop's comments Thursday are a continuation of his letter to parishioners about his view on rebuilding the diocese. Parishioners are encouraged to attend a series of so-called "listening sessions," where problems will be discussed. At the end of this year, the diocese will evaluate "where we are and where we need to go."
The bishop stressed the importance of the process of engagement with parishioners at these listening sessions and making people aware of their church's needs.
Asked specifically if some churches will close or merge in the next one to two years, the bishop said, "mergers and closings can be a part of the process. We will see which churches are sustainable and which churches are not sustainable."
Pressed further if mergers are inevitable, the bishop answered that it is "very much possible."
People attending Holy Hour on Thursday at Our Lady's Chapel in downtown New Bedford expressed support for the bishop's plan for the most part, while remembering another era when the church was the center of many people's lives.
Chris Pacheco of New Bedford, who attends Our Lady of Mount Carmel in New Bedford's South End, said he understands and supports the bishop's ideas for change. But he also recalled another time when there was no need to downsize.
He remembered that the former St. John the Baptist Church, St. James Church, Mount Carmel Church, St. Hedwig's Church, Our Lady of Assumption thrived, despite being clustered together and people walking to Mass. He also recalled waiting lists to attend Catholic schools and people from outside a parish paid higher tuitions.
Kathleen Madden of Dartmouth said she is waiting for more details, specifically which churches are proposed for closing or merger. "If they are small parishes and there is a need, then that is what you have to do," she said. She attends St. Francis Church in Acushnet and is very happy there.
"We want the people to realize what their parish needs. We want the people to be part of the process," the bishop said of the listening sessions.
The hope when the process is over it will "bring people to Jesus and bring people to salvation" and parishes will be renewed, he said.
He stressed how important faith is in today's world, a world that is hurt by drug addiction and broken families. "I see everyday how important faith God is. How important faith is. That gives me a lot of hope and encouragement.
"We want people to know how important their faith is," he said. "Take faith out of families and that is what we will end with. We have to help people understand that.
"People say, 'I'm not religious.' That doesn't mean we're going to throw in the towel. We're going to continue doing our work," he said.
The bishop talked about building on the diocese's strengths, citing the region's growing Hispanic culture, Brazilians and young people. "The church needs to be with them and for them," he said. "Thanks be to God we have our Catholic schools."
Other subjects the bishop touched on:
The possible consolidations and mergers are not a consideration because of a lack of priests, he said. "Right now, we have enough priests for all the churches," he said, adding there are also 15 seminarians.
He said it is "possible" that laypeople would perform the day-to-day functions at some churches.
Asked what effect decades of priestly abuse have had on attendance, the bishop agreed that is "a stain" on the church and it is a time for healing. But even without the scandal, the church would be dealing with declining attendance "in some form."
Follow Curt Brown on Twitter @CurtBrown_SCT .