God’s plan and God’s doing

“I could never, in my wildest dreams, imagine myself standing here as the future bishop of this diocese,” declared Bishop Edgar da Cunha, who was appointed on July 3 by Pope Francis to become the new spiritual shepherd of our diocese. “Only God’s plan and God’s will could make it possible,” he added.  “I am convinced that this is all God’s plan and God’s doing.”

Since God is not whimsical but orders all things according to His eternal plan, the background for Bishop da Cunha’s appointment to Fall River extends to far before his name was presumably recommended to Pope Francis by the apostolic nuncio in Washington and the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. As the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah attest, God implants vocational seeds at conception and thereafter He routinely provides the necessary skills and training to form the person to fulfill that mission.

We can see clear glimpses of God’s plan for Bishop da Cunha to lead the Diocese of Fall River in the talents and experiences God has given him until now. When you look at the objective needs of our diocese in 2014 and beyond, they neatly align with Bishop da Cunha’s proximate and remote preparation. 

Our diocese is multilingual and our new bishop is a polyglot, fluent in English, Portuguese and Spanish.

Our diocese is full of first generation immigrants, with all the attendant struggles and virtues. Bishop da Cunha himself emigrated from Brazil to the United States in his mid-20s and has served on the U.S. Bishops’ Committees on Migration and on Cultural Diversity, making him particularly sensitive and capable of the needs of immigrants today.   

Our diocese has a great need for priestly vocations — presently we have only seven men studying to be priests for the diocese — and Bishop da Cunha spent most of his first 20 years as a priest in vocations work, serving as the vocations director for the religious community to which he belongs, the Society of Divine Vocations, serving on the board of the Eastern Religious Vocations Directors Association and later for seven years as the novice master and director of formation for his congregation.

Over the next decade, our diocese will be heavily involved in the arduous task of pastoral planning since by 2020 we are projected to have about 55 diocesan priests for what are now 76 parishes diocesan priests staff (there are also an additional eight parishes run by religious orders). This means that some difficult decisions are inevitably on the horizon. Bishop da Cunha has been the chairman of the Newark Archdiocese’s Implementation Team for the “New Energies” Parish Transition Project, tasked at a larger scale with many of the same issues and decisions that our diocese is going to have to continue making.

Pastoral planning, however, is more than about merging and closing parishes; it’s ultimately meant to revitalize parishes and the entire ecclesial mission of a diocese. Bishop da Cunha is on the Board of Trustees for Renew International, whose programs have helped to reinvigorate hundreds of parishes across the United States, including within our own diocese through the Renew 2000 effort under Bishop Sean O’Malley.

One of a bishop’s foremost duties is to strengthen his brother priests, for which he must understand their daily struggles, pressures, routines and joys. Bishop da Cunha was himself the pastor of St. Nicholas Parish in Palisades Park for five years and then a regional bishop for a decade helping pastors throughout Essex County, N.J. He should have a good sense of the factors that impact priestly morale so that, God-willing, he will bring out the best in his priest collaborators. The fact that he is a religious who lived his priesthood in community may also make him more proactive in battling the issues of isolation some priests who live and work alone experience.

For a bishop to do what’s most important — preaching, teaching, celebrating the Sacraments, accompanying his people as a shepherd who knows the smell of his sheep — he must be an able administrator and know how to surround himself with an effective team so that he can spend less time on these less important but patently necessary tasks. During the last year, he served as vicar general of the Archdiocese of Newark, overseeing many of the day-to-day operations of a diocese four times the size of our own. Diocesan administration is seldom easy but hopefully he’ll find it easier than what he’s had to manage.

For these reasons and others, it’s easy to see God’s hand behind the appointment and why Pope Francis and his advisors would have deemed him a good fit.

But it doesn’t seem that our new bishop will focus fundamentally on that preparation.

An episcopal motto always says a lot about the bishop who selects it. Bishop da Cunha’s is, “My grace is sufficient for you,” quoting Jesus’ words to St. Paul. It’s a reminder to us that whether we have or lack the human preparation for a task, God is always present to strengthen us in weakness.

That focus on God’s grace was evident on July 3 when Bishop da Cunha said, “I see this new mission as a gift from the Lord and an opportunity  to use the gifts God graciously gave me to serve the faithful people of this diocese.”

Any mission God gives is always a gift before it is a task. Bishop da Cunha seems to be well aware that God’s grace, which has sufficed to sustain him until now, will strengthen him and support us together with him moving forward.  

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River. fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts