Diocesan Strategic Planning effort to kickoff February 7

Father Tom Washburn to lead Youth and Young Adult Commission

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — A general session meeting for the diocesan Strategic Planning effort will be held on Thursday, February 7 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at White’s of Westport.

This celebratory kickoff meeting will bring together the more than 300 volunteers who have already signed up to serve on one of three commissions in response to an invitation from Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V. to participate in his “Rebuilding in Faith and Hope” initiative. 


The three commissions include Catholic Social Services, Diocesan Governance, and Youth and Young Adults.

Father Thomas Washburn, O.F.M., rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral and head of the newly-formed Catholic Community of Central Fall River, has been asked by Bishop da Cunha to lead the Youth and Young Adult Commission.

“There’s been a great response so far to Bishop da Cunha’s call for volunteers,” Father Washburn recently told The Anchor. “We’ve had more than 300 people who have signed up for the various commissions, which is fantastic. So to kick things off, the bishop really wanted an event, because this is the kind of thing that doesn’t typically happen in the diocese.

“We imagine that the people who have signed up are those devoted people that we all know, parish-by-parish. So we thought rather than just start the work, this could also be an opportunity for the bishop to meet with these key laypeople of the diocese. So we decided to have a kickoff event. It’s also another way for the bishop to show how important he feels all of this is for the future of the diocese.”

Father Washburn said the February 7 kickoff will “basically be a sort of two-part structure,” wherein Bishop da Cunha will first welcome everyone and thank them for volunteering and “hopefully inspire them moving forward.”

The second half of the evening will provide time for members of each of the three commissions to gather and meet.

While the Catholic Social Services Commission will be looking at ways to rebrand and galvanize CSS’ ongoing mission to “better serve the poor and marginalized in our society” and the Diocesan Governance Commission will examine four key areas of diocesan oversight: Communications, Human Resources, Finances, and Property and Real Estate, the Youth and Young Adult Commission will primarily focus on ways to recruit and better engage the so-called “Generation Y” Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1994, ages 24 to 38) and members of “Generation Z” (those born between 1995 and 2012, ages six to 23).

“How do we get young people involved in the Church?” Father Washburn asked. “That’s our challenge moving forward, but it’s a challenge I think we can meet. And it’s not just with youth and young adults — it is really a challenge for the Church at large. We need to evangelize people. We always focus on the catechesis, but the catechesis without the evangelization is just information. So it doesn’t bear fruit and that’s what we’re seeing.”

Prior to the February 7 kickoff event, Father Washburn will be meeting with a core “executive committee” that includes Father David Frederici, pastor of St. George Parish in Westport and diocesan director of Campus Ministry; Beth Mahoney, principal of St. Margaret Regional School in Buzzards Bay; and youth leaders Bea Furtado and Brian Sardinha to help jump-start the commission.

“I think there are close to 100 people signed up just for the Youth and Young Adults Commission,” Father Washburn said. “We wanted some of those youthful voices to help lead us and guide us, and we really want this to be a process of dialogue, so it’s really going to depend on how things unfold. But I imagine that we will definitely come up with something for the diocese.”

One of the group’s initial efforts, according to Father Washburn, will be to conduct a survey of every parish to “just assess at a very basic level what everyone is doing in terms of Faith Formation and in terms of Youth Ministry.”

“That’s the quantitative side of it, but we also want to know the qualitative side, where we also have in that survey questions about what’s working,” he said. “What are the things that you’re doing that are really working? We want to use this as an opportunity to kind of uncover what might be hidden gems throughout the diocese.”

Father Washburn attributes today’s lack of participation from youth and young adults in the Church to several factors.

“I think there’s a variety of reasons — it’s not any one,” he said. “My guess, from my own experience, is that it probably has more to do with the ‘busyness’ of young people today. I think they’re programmed every second of every day. It’s also the changing landscape of Church participation, where people are stepping away from organized religion in so many ways.”

That’s why Father Washburn is adamant that the Church can’t just sit back and “surrender and think that’s the only possibility.”

“It gets back to that evangelization piece — that we need to have programs that have a strong emphasis on creating relationships with Jesus,” he added. “And when we create those relationships with Jesus, we do it in and through the community of the Church. That’s how we can bring them back into an active community.”

Taking a page from Pope Francis’ playbook, Father Washburn said the Church can no longer rely on methods that were used to engage youth in the past.

“Pope Francis has spoken — and it’s one of his regular and major themes — about his desire to have a Church increasingly that goes out to meet people, and that’s again part of that evangelizing piece that we want to address,” Father Washburn said. “In terms of young people walking through our doors, it’s definitely a challenge. But what are we doing to meet them where they are and invite them in?”

Noting that “traditional entry points” in the past such as family and Sacramental programs are no longer working, Father Washburn stressed that they need to consider other options.

“That model has kind of fallen apart in the last several decades, so we’ve got to be open to different ideas and entry points that make sense,” he said.

As one of the three key areas that Bishop da Cunha has earmarked to help revitalize and rebuild the Fall River Diocese, the involvement of youth and young adults — often regarded as the “future of the Church” — will be essential to its success.

“When you think about it, the Youth and Young Adult Commission has got a large task ahead of it, and in many ways it’s a commission that is going to look at so many aspects of parish life,” Father Washburn said. “From Faith Formation and Sacramental preparation programs to Youth Ministry programs and then the Catholic schools would fall under that banner, too. There are so many different dimensions and I think there are some sporadic things happening in various (parishes), but I don’t think there’s been any sort of organized, systematic thing happening on (a diocesan) level.”

Given his past experience and assignments, it would seem that Father Washburn was destined to lead this youth-centric diocesan commission.

“I’ve always been heavily involved in youth and young adult ministry,” he said. “From my initial assignment, which was the largest parish in the state of New Hampshire, we had almost 1,000 young people in the Faith Formation program and it was a very active and lively program. Whether it’s been urban, suburban, rich or poor, I’ve been very actively involved in youth ministry. So I think because of that, the bishop thought it was a good fit.”

Father Washburn is optimistic that the February 7 launch will be a unique opportunity to get ideas and input from those who will be leading and sustaining the diocese and the Church into the future.

“We’re really trying very hard to not sort of overly direct the outcomes at the beginning; we really want to hear where people are coming from first,” he said. “But, hopefully it will have implications for the whole diocese — whether it results in guidelines or programs or suggestions to the bishop and the Chancery or things like that. Hopefully we will come up with some solutions that are broad in their reach and ultimately meeting that goal of really being supportive to what the parishes are doing, and especially helpful to those parishes that are maybe struggling to figure out what to do.”

“Hopefully there’s going to be a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy, and just this great aspect of us all coming together as a big group to really dive into this effort,” Father Washburn added. “The bishop’s goal was to really throw as wide a net as possible and to get as many people involved as possible, and it seems to be working.”

For more information about the Diocesan Strategic Planning initiative and future meetings, or to sign up for one of the commissions, visit www.fallriverdiocese.org

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