Vast distances create trials and joy for Catholics in mission dioceses

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

By Chaz Muth

Idaho (CNS) — Father Adrian Vazquez bolted out of his rectory in St. Anthony
on a cold November morning, brushed a thin layer of snow off of his Subaru
Outback, started the engine and raced down the road to make the 50-mile drive
to his mission chapel in Driggs.

scenery along the way was stunning, with spectacular vistas of the Grand Teton
mountain range.

Vazquez said he never gets tired of being surrounded by the rustic beauty of
rural eastern Idaho.

the amount of driving he does each week that wears on him.

makes the 100-mile round-trip drive to Driggs at least twice a week to tend to
his flock.

in addition to 30-mile-round-trip drive Father Vazquez makes to another mission
chapel in Rexburg and the 85-mile-round-trip drive to another in Island Park.

right, this priest is the administrator of Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in
St. Anthony and three mission chapels located in about a 200-mile radius.

like an enormous job for one U.S. priest?

not uncommon in U.S. Catholic home mission dioceses for a lone cleric to care
for several faith communities spread out over great distances.

of our priests in our country put on 50,000 miles a year to get to these
parishes so they can bring the sacraments and teach the word of God, as do
other catechists and lay leaders,” said Boise Bishop Peter F. Christensen.

early American missionaries also traveled extensively to bring Catholicism to
small populations spread out over great distances, a tradition that helps keep
the faith vibrant in rural areas today, Bishop Christensen told Catholic News
Service during an interview in Boise.

of today’s priests travel in nontraditional ways to reach their faith

instance, in Alaska, where the roads don’t always connect to the towns, church
leaders have been known to kayak to their mission chapels and others are
required to fly, said Juneau Bishop Edward J. Burns.

after Bishop Burns arrived in Alaska to assume leadership of the diocese in
2009, his new staff gave him a parish visit itinerary. When he asked what time
Mass began at St. Francis Chapel in Tenakee Springs, they laughed and told him
that it started when he arrived.

go out to Tenakee Springs, I had to go out to the dock to get onto the float
plane. … It takes off and we fly 20 to 25 minutes out to the village,”
he said. “Well, the people there hear the float plane arrive … so the
people don’t gather at the chapel until 20 minutes after the plane lands. So,
the plane becomes the modern-day church bell.”

Spending many hours behind the wheel of a car does create hazards for priests in home
mission dioceses, said Lynne Green, a parishioner of Good Shepherd Catholic
Church in Driggs.

long hours of ministry and driving caused her former pastor to fall asleep at
the wheel on his way home from Mass one evening, and though it ended up being a
minor accident, it made Green aware of some of the vulnerabilities involved in
this kind of pastoral care.

difficult,” she said. “Our priests are stressed. A lot of them end up
completely burned out by the time they finish with this assignment.”

burden of distance doesn’t just fall on church leaders. Many loyal
parishioners, like Anatolia Romero of Shoshone and her family, drive 45 minutes
or longer each way to get to church.

and her husband routinely work 12 hours a day as ranch hands but make the
45-minute drive to Jerome two to three times a week to attend Mass at St.
Jerome Catholic Church, take their children to religion class, attend social
events and help out with funerals.

don’t see the time as a sacrifice,” she said following an October social
function at the parish. “We need to be here. We need to be here for God.
We need to be here for us. It’s like home for us. It’s where we belong.”

some ways, the long travel times encourage parishioners to invest a deeper
commitment to the church, said Father Rob Irwin, pastor of St. Jerome.

it takes so long to travel to the church, these parishioners are not in a hurry
to drive home, so they spend more time in the parish socializing, participating
in other events, becoming active in the parish council, volunteering in social
ministry or taking faith-enrichment classes, Father Irwin said.

a special privilege … to have people come in from great distances, to
experience this missionary faith,” he said. “People make a choice to
come and make a choice to be engaged and involved. We don’t take them for
granted. Neither do they take their faith for granted.”

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Chaz Muth on Twitter: @Chazmaniandevyl.

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