By Dave Jolivet
FALL RIVER — For the last few years the world has been in a state of flux. Today, still, many things have changed, but there are many good signs out there showing positive changes.
That, in and of itself, is good news for most of us, but for Fall River Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., it only adds to a year that holds for him much to be thankful for and much to celebrate.
Bishop da Cunha is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his priestly ordination; four men will be ordained as priests for the diocese in a short while; and the founder of the order in which he was ordained, the Society of Divine Vocations, Blessed Justin Maria Russolillo, will be canonized on Sunday May 15 by Pope Francis at the Vatican with Bishop da Cunha scheduled to be in attendance.
“When Father Justin died I was two years old,” Bishop da Cunha told The Anchor during a recent interview. “I had no idea he existed until I joined the Vocationists, and it is so interesting that he is being canonized during my 4oth year as a priest. I am looking forward to be a part of the canonization ceremony in Rome, with my being the first Vocationist ordained as a bishop.”
Bishop da Cunha’s journey that has ultimately brought him to the Fall River Diocese was a faith-filled, adventurous journey beginning in his home town of Riachão do Jacuípe, Bahia, Brazil, where he was born in 1953.
“We didn’t live close by to a church, so we didn’t have Mass every Sunday,” the bishop said. “We had it when the priest came. But we had a strong faith life in the family and in the neighborhood. We prayed together and God was so important in the lives of the people in my home town. The traditional values and faith that we received from our parents and grandparents continues living on.
“The day the priest came everything stopped. Everyone went to church. It was a whole-day thing. It was so important to us when those days came, like feasts, processions and the feast of the patron of the town.”
The young lad who grew up attending Mass when it was available now celebrates the Eucharistic every day of his life.
“When I was reflecting on this, the first thing that came to my mind was how I feel a connection to the Eucharist,” the bishop told The Anchor. “When I took my first religious vows, we always add a religious name to our baptismal name, and I added ‘Of the Eucharist,’ because I always felt that connection to the Eucharist. So celebrating the Mass every day, having the Blessed Sacrament in the house in a little chapel, like I have here, is such a source of blessing for me because even when I wake up in the middle of the night, I always turn to my thought to the Blessed Sacrament. So I connected to that room where the Blessed Sacrament is.
“So if I am in a house or when I’m on vacation in a place where the Blessed Sacrament is not there, I feel different and I feel something is missing.
“I do feel such a blessing, be able to celebrate the Mass and be able to have the Blessed Sacrament wherever I am.”
Along with his family and neighbors with whom young Edgar lived the Catholic faith, he was greatly influenced by the Vocationist Fathers. “I grew up under the influence and Spirit of the Vocationists, whose primary mission is to promote vocations,” said the bishop. “The pastor of my parish built a vocationary [minor seminary] there. So I saw other young men join the seminary and heard them talking about the Vocationists promoting vocations. I kept becoming more and more interested in the joy of the seminary.
“It’s funny because even before I joined the seminary, even before I told my pastor, he pulled me aside and said, ‘I think you’re going to be a priest.’ And I said, ‘Well, I might, but I think I have to think about it some more.’ Eventually I did decide that’s where I wanted to go and joined the vocationary there.”
As a seminarian, he was asked by his superior if would be willing to journey to the United States, to Newark, N.J., where the Vocationist Fathers had recently established a presence at St. Michael’s Parish. “I always had an adventurous spirit,” the bishop added. “And I said to the Superior General, ‘You know what? I would like that.’”
In 1978 the young man made the more-than 4,000 mile trip northward. Four years later, on March 27, 1982, he was ordained as a Vocationist Father at St. Michael’s Church and soon after was appointed vocation director. He became pastor of St. Michael’s less than four years later.
Besides his roles as pastor and vocation director, Bishop da Cunha’s experiences in the Archdiocese of Newark included being appointed vicar for evangelization and vicar general and auxiliary bishop. He was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Newark in June 2003.
“The experiences I gained were pastoral and administrative,” Bishop da Cunha said. “You need to be able to strike a balance between the two. It is so important. Those two things coming together is not easy. I had a tremendous opportunity for gaining experience in running a diocese. I feel this was preparing me to become Bishop of Fall River.”
Pope Francis appointed Bishop da Cunha Bishop of Fall River on July 3, 2014, and he was installed at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Sept. 24 that same year.
Thinking back over the last 40 years, the bishop told The Anchor that many wonderful memories fill his mind.
“The actual day of my 40th anniversary, when I woke up in the morning, the first thing came to mind was relieving the day of my ordination,” he shared. “That was a vivid memory; even though it was 40 years ago, I could remember every detail: what the weather was like, the people who were there. I happened to go back and look at pictures because I just wanted to relive those things.
“There were so many people there then who are no longer with us, who have gone to the home in eternity. Just looking at those pictures and seeing those people who are still here and those no longer here, I recall how they have been an important part of my life and touched my life in so many ways.
“And as I told my family, 40 years have been filled with challenges, learning experiences, difficult sacrifices, pains, but also so many joys, so many accomplishments, so many things that God has done through me and used me to do so many of His works.”
Along with the cherished memories are the challenging times: the abuse tragedies, declining priestly vocations and church attendance, and the pandemic.
“Well, I’m more hopeful,” said the bishop. “When I celebrated the Mass for the opening of the Synod at the cathedral last year, I opened my homily by saying that I have a dream that our Church will rise from the ashes of the pandemic and all of the challenges that we have faced, and we will see a new Church being born: a Church that is more participative, that lay people are more engaged in, that people might be committed to their faith. I keep hoping for that. I continue being hopeful that our Church will be vibrant, active, a necessary part of our society. And that people will continue finding the Church as a way to connect with God, to live their faith and to build community and to continue making this world a better place. Without God, without faith and without the Church, I don’t know how we could ever do it.”
The bishop extolled the efforts of the laity and his brother priests, who, throughout the pandemic found ways to stay connected with God, with the Church and with each other.
“I continued, during the pandemic, to be encouraged by the faith, the commitment of our clergy, and of our faithful,” the bishop said. “So many people were still praying. They were still watching Mass on TV or live-streaming.
“It has been a challenge for the clergy. It has affected some of them spiritually and emotionally. But many of them have also found this to be a nurturing time of prayer, of spiritual enrichment, of connecting with their people in a different ways. And some of them have been creative and found new ways of connecting with the people, being their pastors and reaching out to them.”
The bishop also told The Anchor that he’s buoyed by the fact that there will be four men ordained as diocesan priests this year.
“I’m encouraged that this is the largest ordination class that we have in 20 years”, he said, “adding that the number of men in formation to become permanent deacons is very good as well. I hope that’s a trend that will continue, but it’s going to take a lot of work to continue, uh, building our vocation efforts. We can’t be complacent about the need to promote vocations, because the need for priests still very great.”
The bishop’s family is also in celebration mode for his 40th anniversary. “They, are obviously grateful for it. We have a family group online on which we share family information. So I posted some pictures of my ordination and some reflections and everybody responded. They connected and celebrated and prayed for me, even though I’m far away from them all. We still virtually celebrated.
“My dad is no longer around and my mom doesn’t remember much. She couldn’t really celebrate and remember those things, but my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews did.”
From a small village in Brazil to celebrating 40 years as a priest and bishop, the journey has been rewarding and has seemingly passed quickly for Bishop da Cunha. “I’m grateful for all that God has allowed me to do and has helped me to accomplish in the last 40 years,” he concluded. “I continue dedicating my life and my energies and my faith to the Diocese of Fall River, where God has placed me. And I hope that the time that I have remaining here in the diocese will continue to be fruitful with the support and the participation of all our priests and religious and laity and everyone working together.”