WASHINGTON (April 11, 2006)—"Support the Mission Church Here in America" is the theme for the Catholic Home Missions Appeal (CHMA) which is scheduled nationally for the weekend of April 29-30.
Mission Church in America—can that be right? Most Catholics live in cities and suburbs where the local parish is only a few blocks away and the congregation numbers in the hundreds or even in the thousands. So when they think about the Church in the United States, that's the image that comes to mind.
But the Church is also North Dakota, where the Diocese of Fargo recently announced a plan to close about 30 of its 160 parishes. It's the Rocky Mountain states where, in the three contiguous states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, there is a total of only seven Catholic high schools. It's Alaska, where remote parishes might see a priest only once a month. Finally, the Church in the United States is the traditional mission areas of Appalachia and the Deep South, where there is usually only one Catholic parish, with 20 or 25 families, in each county. There are many places in America where being Catholic is not so easy.
In a letter sent to all Catholic bishops in the country, Most Rev. J. Peter Sartain of Little Rock, Chairman, Committee on Home Missions, urged the bishops to give particular attention to the collection this year and to ask their pastors to personally explain its purpose to their parishioners. That purpose, in a word, is to share the wealth. Nearly all the money the CHMA collects comes from areas of the country where the Church is well-established. It ends up in mission areas here in America.
The good news, said Bishop Sartain, is that the 2005 CHMA will yield $9.4 million, a 12% increase over 2004. But there is a downside. The Bishop reported that at the recent allocations meeting, the committee was faced with the difficult decision to reduce its maximum grant to the neediest U.S. dioceses from $175,000 to $150,000, and to reduce the amount of support given to other Home Mission dioceses. Among the reasons for this painful decision was the $3 million given to the five dioceses walloped by the hurricanes, eliminating the option of using reserves to supplement this year's grants.
"However, the two hurricanes' assault was unprecedented, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history," wrote Bishop Sartain in the Home Missions quarterly newsletter. "We had to respond. The Committee maintains a modest reserve, enough to cover the next year's grant commitments. We decided to give $3 million from this reserve to the five Gulf Coast dioceses most affected by the storms."
Immediately after the hurricanes struck, the Committee on the Home Missions awarded $1.2 million to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, $900,000 to the Diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi, and $300,000 each to the Dioceses of Houma-Thibodaux and Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Beaumont, Texas.
One of the bishops who serves on the Committee for the Home Missions, Most Rev. Thomas J. Rodi of Biloxi, has described in poignant detail the devastation which the hurricanes visited on his Mississippi diocese.
"We had a small wooden church in Bay St. Louis," Bishop Rodi recalled. "Immediately after the hurricane, I wasn't able to enter that area to check on this church. When I asked one of my priests what had happened to the little wooden church, he told me it was just a sea of debris. He couldn't find the exact place where it used to be. He couldn't find enough identifiable debris to indicate where it had stood for so many years."
In all, ten parish churches in Biloxi were destroyed while another 10 were damaged, six Catholic schools were destroyed and four were damaged and the diocesan pastoral center was damaged. The total damage to Catholic institutions in Biloxi was $70 million. Moreover, over 65,000 homes were destroyed.
"Our lives can be buffeted by winds of sorrow, strife and struggle," Bishop Rodi said. "We trust in the Lord's powerful love to see us through these storms, never doubting his faithfulness."
Meanwhile, the work of the Committee on Home Missions goes on, not only for storm ravaged dioceses but for many others. "As it is every year, the Catholic Home Missions Appeal will be taken up at the end of April," Bishop Sartain said. "The Committee believes that American Catholics will respond generously. Katrina and Rita made us aware in a most frightening way that sometimes helping Catholic communities operate is not enough. Sometimes it is necessary to help them survive."
The Bishops' Committee on the Home Missions was founded as the American Board of Catholic Missions in 1924. In cooperation with the Black and Indian Missions Board (1885) and the Catholic Church Extension Society (1905) the Committee provides financial support for missionary activities that strengthen and extend the presence of the Church in the United States, in its island territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
An Internet journey to a few of the home missions can be found at www.usccb.org/hm. Click on Stories and Pictures from the Field.