Mission dioceses minister to Catholics scattered over great distances

IMAGE: Nancy Wiechec

By Chaz Muth

(CNS) — Catholic missionaries played a large role in bringing European values
and religion to North America in the 18th century.

role of the Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans and other Catholic religious
orders was to set up missions that became economic, political and religious

mission church hasn’t gone away. It’s a vibrant part of the U.S. Catholic
fabric. It’s just evolved during the course of the past few centuries.

primary function of the 21st-century mission church no longer includes proselytizing
the indigenous people, but is aimed at bringing Catholicism to populations
throughout the land, regardless of the challenges to do so.

living in most of the territory of the U.S. are actually shepherded by a
Catholic home mission diocese.

what is a Catholic home mission?

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops defines a home mission as a “diocese
or parish that can’t provide the basic pastoral services to Catholics without
outside help.”

basic pastoral services include Mass, the sacraments, religious education, and
ministry training for lay ministers, deacons, religious sisters and priests.

of the mission dioceses, if you look at the map it will tell you that they are
very rural, very large usually, do not have the resources that our more urban
… dioceses like New York or Los Angeles would have, so we make ends meet with
very little,” said Bishop Peter F. Christensen, who heads the Diocese of
Boise, Idaho, which is a mission diocese.

‘little’ is subsidized by the work of Catholic Home Missions, which is
subsidized by the generosity of our people throughout the country,” added
the bishop, who is the former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on
Catholic Home Missions.

U.S. bishops established the Catholic Home Missions Appeal in 1998. It’s a
national collection taken up in parishes throughout the country, usually in
April, to help fund the pastoral outreach in the mission dioceses in places such
as Alaska, New Mexico, Idaho, the Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico and parts of

U.S. Catholic Church has a long history of sending missionaries to serve people
in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania, Bishop Christensen said.

mission dioceses in the U.S. are in need of the same kind of care, which is why
the grants that come from the annual appeal are so vital to Catholics in the mission
dioceses, which also include Gallup, New Mexico, and Little Rock, Arkansas, he

Lake City, another U.S. mission diocese, consists of 85,000 square miles, which
is the entire state of Utah, and some of the Eastern Catholic eparchies, which
also are considered Catholic home missions, cover the entire U.S. and consist
of millions of square miles.

priests, deacons, religious sisters and dedicated lay ministers can put 50,000
miles a year on their cars just to reach the Catholics they are charged with providing
pastoral care to, Bishop Christensen told Catholic News Service during an
interview in Boise.

ministry of Father Adrian Vazquez, a priest in his diocese, illustrates the
situation. He is charged with the pastoral care of four Catholic communities in
eastern Idaho, a parish in St. Anthony and three mission stations located in
Rexburg, Driggs and Island Park.

divides his time between all those locations, driving hundreds of miles a week.

the priest relies on the kindness of his parishioners in Driggs and Island Park
to put him up for the night, since his residence is at the rectory in far off St.

travel can be a real challenge, especially in the winter when there is a lot of
snow,” said Father Vazquez, a native of Mexico. “My parishioners have
to be patient with me sometimes if I’m running behind and we just start when I

U.S. mission church of the 21st century faces some of the same challenges 18th-century
missionaries encountered in that the faith remains poorly established in
several parts of the country, including the Rocky Mountain states, the South, areas
along the Mexican border and in the Pacific islands, Bishop Christensen said.

2014, the national Catholic Home Missions Appeal raised more than $9.3 million
and gave out more than $9.1 million in grants and donations to fund programs in
the mission dioceses, according to the subcommittee’s annual report.

dioceses received money for programs involving faith formation, cultural
diversity, strengthening marriage, repairs to churches, evangelization, prison
outreach, as well as priestly and religious vocations.

recent years, the mission dioceses have seen an increase in religious vocations,
which is desperately needed, but that too brings its own set of challenges for
financially strapped institutions in those areas.

educate a seminarian today costs an average of $37,000,” Bishop
Christensen said. “That’s not small change for a diocese that can’t
support that.

a (mission) diocese in Texas that has 23 seminarians,” he said. “Multiply
that out by $37,000 and that gets into some pretty amazing figures.”

permanent diaconate has become an important source of vocations for these
dioceses, Bishop Christensen said.

can provide various pastoral ministries, like preaching, baptizing, witnessing
marriages and conducting funeral services, helping alleviate the stress for
some priests who are caring for multiple faith communities spread across
hundreds of miles.

Diocese of Juneau, Alaska, has a total of 10 priests who serve a geographic
region that is about the size of the state of Florida, said Juneau Bishop
Edward J. Burns.

communities are small,” Bishop Burns told CNS during an interview in
Juneau. “We can have just a handful of people who gather for Mass at the
kitchen table, because we don’t have a chapel or church in some of our

priests, deacons, religious sisters and lay ministers say it’s important to get
into the small communities in the far reaches of these mission dioceses, not
only to bring them the sacraments, but to help them prepare for marriage,
strengthen their relationships, sometimes cope with poverty, morn the dead and
become positive models for their children, he said.

the missionaries of the 18th century, Bishop Christensen said much of the work in a
mission diocese is evangelization.

he was first appointed bishop of Juneau in 2009, Bishop Burns learned that 10
percent of the mission diocese’s population was Catholic and 60 percent didn’t
identify with any religion.

thought to myself, ‘What a wonderful challenge this is going to be,'” he
said. “It’s an opportunity for us to engage in the new evangelization,
because it’s not like these people have never heard of Jesus Christ, or the
Gospel message, or that they’ve never been in contact with the church. It’s
just that they choose to be secularists. They have chosen to step aside from
their religion or faith.

us, it’s a wonderful challenge,” Bishop Burns said, “to awaken in
them a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

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Chaz Muth on Twitter: @Chazmaniandevyl.

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