A Church on the peripheries

On the last weekend of each April, parishes all across the country take up a special collection for Catholic Home Missions to provide a financial lifeline for the work of evangelization carried out in poorer dioceses throughout the country.

Since 1998, the U.S. Church has raised $150 million to support its Home Mission Dioceses, which according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are “unable to provide basic pastoral ministries” to their faithful on their own. In the 84 dioceses supported by the appeal, priests, religious and the laity support their parishes on tight budgets but live out a rich Gospel witness.

In 2016 the USCCB distributed more than $9 million to the 84 mission dioceses to support efforts in evangelization, Hispanic ministry, seminarian education, lay ministry and other pastoral priorities.

Nicholas W. Smith writes from New York.

Chaldean
A woman receives the Eucharist at St. Matthew Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in Ceres, Calif. Courtesy photo

Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle

Headquartered in El Cajon, California, several miles north of San Diego, the Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle covers the western half of the United States, 19 states in total. It’s a part of the Chaldean Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church with ancient roots in present-day Iraq.

The Church has grown rapidly in America, where immigrants and refugees from Iraq have found a welcome home.

Bishop Bawai Soro, an auxiliary bishop of the eparchy, said that he sees his diocese as a mission territory in one sense because in ministering to the “sons and daughters of the Church, we’ve gone outside of our original homeland.”

Part of the Church’s task now is to welcome the waves of immigrants that have arrived after fleeing persecution by ISIS. Many of the faithful need the Church’s financial help in adjusting to their new life and assistance in navigating the U.S. cultural landscape.

“It’s a significant transition from a totalitarian society to living in a free capitalist world like America that they live in,” Bishop Soro said.

Most significant, though, is the spiritual formation involved, the bishop said.

“The main object of our education is Christ himself and the mystery of salvation.”

Bishop Soro once heard a preacher say that “the bombings in Iraq did not only destroy the physical structure, they also destroyed the human soul.” He describes many of the refugees who have arrived after the end of their long journey to the United States as “broken” and “shattered” by their experiences.

Newcomers are welcomed into an active and energetic Church. The eparchy has a number of sodalities for the workplace and schools, as well as two convents, a monastery, a seminary and parish youth groups, to live out the Faith and help the refugees “feel at home in America.”

Bishop Soro said that the size of the Chaldean Church in America has doubled within the past 20 years. At the same time, the Chaldean population has dwindled in Iraq, from nearly 1.5 million after the fall of Saddam Hussein to fewer than 250,000 today.

Around 60,000 Chaldean Catholics live in the eparchy, and the churches are nearly bursting at the seams. In El Cajon, where many Chaldeans live, 22 Easter Masses were split between the cathedral and the only other Chaldean church in the city.

Bishop Soro said that the eparchy is looking for a new location to build a third church in the area.

And the Faith continues to be strong among the community outside the holidays. Father Michael Bazzi, pastor emeritus at St. Peter Cathedral in El Cajon, told OSV that the people of the parish “are so faithful, and so glad.” He estimated nearly 2,000 people attend the Cathedral during the week, for Mass, Rosary groups and other ministries.

Father Bazzi said that an important initiative for his parish has been catechesis. For many parents, fleeing their country left little time for handing on the fundamentals of their faith and historical patrimony.

As a result, Father Bazzi said, the aim has been to not only teach the Faith to their young people but also learn how to defend it.   

Chaldean
Young people at Sacred Heart Parish in Emmonak present a “Living Stations of the Cross” on Good Friday. Courtesy photos

Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska

A diocese more than one and a half times the size of Texas would have enough difficulties on its own. But out of 46 parishes, only eight are connected to a road; the rest must be accessed by small planes. And there are only nine active diocesan priests and seven religious-order priests to serve more than 12,500 Catholics.

Those are some of the conditions that make Fairbanks, Alaska, a mission diocese, one of many in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the only American mission diocese as defined by the Vatican.

The majority of funding for the diocese comes from outside sources, Father Robert Fath, the diocesan faith and family formation director, told Our Sunday Visitor. That money is then channeled to the various parishes of the diocese.

About half of those parishes are in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, spread out in villages that dot the tundra. Father Fath said that priests often only can visit a parish once every 6-8 weeks, so the care for the local church is left in the hands of laypeople and religious. It’s a responsibility people like Patrick Tam, the parish facilitator at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Emmonak, a Yup’ik village of about 830 on the banks of the Yukon River, have met.

The scarcity of priests provides a challenge, Tam said, to being a Eucharistic Church, and people miss having a priest close to the community.

“IMAGE"
The Yup’ik village of Emmonak (Immangaq), which means “blackfish,” is home to more than 850 people. Courtesy photo

As much support as the lay pastoral leadership provides, Tam said, “there are times when we know we really need to have a priest present.”

While Bishop Chad Zielinski takes steps to bring more priests in, the parishes continue to build the Faith. At Tam’s church, there are programs for religious education, spiritual growth, social justice and inculturation, which is connecting cultural traditions to the liturgical life of the Church. Parish retreats are another feature of parish life, for sacramental preparation or during liturgical seasons, along with Bible studies or workshops on Church history.

“IMAGE"
Native Deacon Phillip Yupanik ministers in the Diocese of Fairbanks. Courtesy photo

Franciscan Sister Kathy Radich told OSV that people tend to be heavily involved in their parish “because they have to be if they want the Church to continue.” Without volunteers and deacons, everyone knows the parish will wither.

Along with the difficulty of transportation and funding, many communities are concerned about the youth disconnecting from their church and Yup’ik traditions, partially through the influence of technology. Father Fath said that a major initiative for the diocese is making real to young people their relationship to the person of Jesus Christ.

But the same technology that has disrupted a traditional way of life has also served the Church. Tam said that the internet has closed some of the distance for the diocese, allowing parish leaders to discuss problems and share knowledge in a way that otherwise would be difficult.

Sister Radich agreed, saying that there was also the possibility of sharing not only the Yup’ik experience of Catholicism but also broadening the perennially isolated region to the universal Church.

A great hope for many in the local Church, though, lies in Native American vocations. Tam believes that native vocations would be “one key” for improving the life of the Church, and after Sunday Communion services, his parish prays for its young men to discern a call to the priesthood.  


Brownsville
Bishop Daniel E. Flores blesses processional crosses at St. Anne’s Parish in the Diocese of Brownsville. Courtesy photos

Diocese of Brownsville, Texas

Tucked down in the southern tip of Texas, the Diocese of Brownsville roughly covers the Rio Grande Valley. Inside this corner of Texas, between the U.S.-Mexican border and the Gulf of Mexico, the diocesan territory could be called the most Catholic in the United States, with more than 80 percent of the population identifying as Catholics.

It is also among the poorest dioceses in the United States. The four counties the diocese covers each have a third or more of its residents living below the poverty line. Jobs can be hard to come by or can be wiped out by a seasonal drought. Many of the colonias, or border neighborhoods, lack basic infrastructure, such as sewage lines or paved roads.

But out of these circumstances has arisen a strong faith and a community that upholds each other. “I would like to say that the Church in here is a Church for the poor,” said Father Eka Yuantoro, MSF, parochial vicar of St. Joseph’s Church in Donna.

Father Yuantoro described how every celebration acts as an opportunity for solidarity in the community, from baptisms to quinceañeras to funerals. “Truly the Church is alive here because the community supports each other,” he said.

At St. Joseph’s Church there are 3,000 families and seven Masses a weekend. The parish hosts youth ministry programs, choirs and continuing faith-formation programs to keep parishioners growing in their faith. Other programs like the Knights of Columbus, Guadalupanas and Legion of Mary increase devotions and outreach in the parish.

“IMAGE"
Members of St. Anne’s process on the feast of St. Michael. Courtesy photo

The border has not been without its problems. Drug and human trafficking cross the border into the towns, and even if jobs are available for young people, the easy money promised by crime attracts some. In addition, immigration enforcement has been active for several years. Father Michael Montoya of St. Anne’s in Peñitas said that there are several different law enforcement agencies operating in the area — so many that at times it feels “like a war zone.”

While some of Father Montoya’s parishioners have generations of history in the area, some with land deeds originally issued by the king of Spain, many in his community have crossed the border illegally. The enforcement of immigration law has had a chilling effect on practicing the Faith, Father Montoya said. Some families have dropped out of RCIA or fear going to Sunday Mass because of the possibility of not returning.

And yet they still go because of how important their Catholic faith is in their lives. In these cases, Father Montoya said, “Going to church becomes a very radical move.”

That faith has led to continued growth in this part of the country. New churches are being built, and Father Montoya has made it a point to celebrate the Faith in public. During Lent the parish walks the Stations of the Cross through town, and for celebrations of Our Lady of Guadaloupe, Mary’s image is carried proudly around to visit parishioners’ homes.

Father Montoya said that, in a way, the diocese has been “lucky in its poverty.” The faithful rely on each other for strength, and on God, showing a faith “born out of the heart.”

Military
Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio baptizes a serviceman. Courtesy photo

Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA

The Archdiocese for the Military Services cares for active-duty military and their families, patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and Catholic Americans working for the federal government outside of the United States. All told, about 1.8 million people spread all over the world are cared for by the chaplains of the archdiocese.

The year 1917 saw the first establishment of an ecclesial structure devoted to the spiritual welfare of Catholics in the military, as Americans went overseas to fight in World War I. In 1985 Pope St. John Paul II established the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

Father John Barkemeyer, a priest with the military archdiocese, said that military chaplains “take care of everyone’s parishioners.”

The upkeep for archdiocesan efforts comes almost entirely through the generosity of the Church. While military bases can designate an offering to the archdiocese four times a year, much of the funding comes from direct fundraising, a triennial national collection or grants from the Home Missions, Catholic Extension, Knights of Columbus and other supportive organizations.

At the beginning of each fiscal year, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio said, he faces the prospect of coming up with “about $6.5 million,” in addition to half the cost of the seminarians’ education.

If a young man discerns the seminary and a vocation to be a military chaplain, he’s invited to be co-sponsored by the Archdiocese for the Military Services and the diocese in which he’ll be incardinated. Both diocesan entities fund his education, and after his ordination and a few years of service in the incardinating diocese, the priest is asked to serve at least five years as a chaplain in the armed forces. In the past academic year, the archdiocese had 32 co-sponsored seminarians.

Though he is fortunate to have 207 active-duty priests, Archbishop Broglio said that the priest shortage in the Church is “probably even more severe” in the Archdiocese for the Military Services because of how widely spread the needs are. The scale of the archdiocese’s ministry makes it “very difficult” to meet everyone’s pastoral and spiritual needs.

Father Barkemeyer said that there was an “extraordinary opportunity” for evangelization, in that many Catholics coming into the armed services lack a strong connection to their faith.

“One of our challenges, much like the circuit riders of old, is to minister to these people in their various locations,” Archbishop Broglio said. That means not only chaplains to celebrate the sacraments but all the other ministries like marriage preparation, RCIA and religious education.

Deacon Jay Horning, a transitional deacon preparing for military chaplaincy, said that he sees much of his job as showing service members the importance of God in their lives and to who they are as persons. Especially during basic training, he said, going to Mass for recruits is a reassuring experience of continuity and home, since “it’s the same wherever you’re from.”

While he looks forward to serving the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, Deacon Horning also recognizes the “tremendous need” for future priests like him in the military.

“Our goal is to allow God to be present in the military, and I’m looking forward to that a lot,” he said.

Kentucky
The interior of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Jackson, Kentucky. Courtesy photo

Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky

Out of 50 counties in the Diocese of Lexington, 40 of them are in Appalachia. Much of its Catholic Home Missions appeal grant goes to its Appalachian Missions Assistance Program, which funds staff leaders and expenses at parishes in the Appalachian region of the state. In quiet towns nestled between mountains, where the horizon is never far away, small communities of Catholics come worship together.

While Catholics originally came to the region in pursuit of jobs in the coal mines, their numbers were never large. Many Catholics moved away during the economic decline of the region, leaving some towns with only a single Catholic family.

At Holy Cross in Jackson, Kentucky, the parish covers the entire county and serves about 30 Catholics. Josh Van Cleef and his wife, Ellen, the parish life co-directors, lead the parish every day in its ministry to both Catholics and non-Catholics. Josh Van Cleef told OSV that the area has “consistent challenges but persistent beauty.”

After the coal mining that powered the local economy disappeared, few jobs were left that could support a family. And the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the country has left its marks on the area as well. But Van Cleef said people have remained resilient in the face of their hardships and continue to draw strength from their families and community.

The Church plays a vital role in the community, acting like a family: parishioners often call if they won’t be able to make it to Mass. During the week, the parish offers communion services, Eucharistic adoration and family faith formation. On Saturday evening Father Neil Pezzulo, a Glenmary Home Missioner priest, comes to celebrate the Vigil Mass before moving on to other towns to say Sunday Masses.

Even for those who aren’t Catholic, Van Cleef said, the local Church acts as a sign of hope. Neighbors view the Church as an important provider of social services and always know “that the Catholics will help.” 

Parishes like Holy Cross never have had a resident pastor and rely on traveling priests for their sacramental needs. Father Pezzulo drives about 600 miles a weekend, serving three parishes before he heads back to Cincinnati.

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“We don’t have large numbers,” the priest said, “so the burden of being the Church is very real.” That brings a sense of family that larger parishes can miss. Father Pezzulo noted, “Parish functions are an extension of the Eucharist.”

That unity in Christ, gathering for and through the Eucharist, is a microcosm of the universal Church. Van Cleef said that without support from others, “churches like this wouldn’t thrive and may not even survive.”