Let’s begin our tour in BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS, where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico. The Diocese of Brownsville occupies four counties at the very base of the state. About forty percent of the population lives below the poverty level. As we drive around, you'll see many signs of religious devotion, ranging from pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe to home altars, all expressions of a simple faith that lies at the center of Catholic life here.
The Diocese of Brownsville faces many challenges. One is language. Many of the adults speak only Spanish, while the younger people are picking up English relatively quickly. The diocese needs bilingual ministers to bridge both the generational and language gaps. Another challenge is an increasing number of competing churches. Catholics must invite back their inactive relatives and friends so there is no need for them to turn to other religious groups. A third challenge is sheer numbers. The Catholic population of Brownsville is more than 700,000—86 percent of the total population—but many are not registered in a parish. Laymen and women have taken on many pastoral responsibilities, including parish evangelization and religious education programs. Given the present age of currently active priests and the population growth rate, by the year 2010 each priest will be responsible for ministering to more than 12,000 Catholics. Encouraging vocations to the priesthood is one of the bishop's priorities as he plans for the diocese's future.
We’ll head northwest now. After traveling 1,500 miles or so, we'll arrive in CHEYENNE, WYOMING, the largest diocese in the continental United States. It covers the entire state of Wyoming, plus Yellowstone National Park. Forty-seven priests travel around the state to serve 50,000 Catholics scattered across 100,000 square miles. Until you see it for yourself, you can't comprehend the vastness of the prairie or the isolation of small-town parishes connected only by fifty miles of two-lane highway.
The diocese has meager resources to meet its mission needs. Each year the cost of sustaining parish life--providing the sacraments, offering CCD classes, traveling to outlying missions, paying the electric bill, etc.--continues to rise, while parishioners’ incomes remain constant at best. The people in Wyoming struggle to keep small rural parishes open to meet the spiritual needs of folks in remote areas.
Driving back east, we'll find the roads in southeastern Kentucky a challenge. The Diocese of LEXINGTON serves fifty counties. Thirty-nine of these are in Appalachia, one of the most economically depressed areas in the United States. Many parishes have congregations of fewer than 100 families; they cannot keep the doors open without outside help. Parish priests and religious workers can travel as many as 50,000 miles a year ministering to Catholics in forty-four parishes and twenty-six missions. If you settle in the Diocese of Lexington, only three out of every hundred people you'll meet is a fellow Catholic. In the Appalachian counties, the figure is one in a hundred. While things are better now than they were a generation ago, suspicion of Roman Catholics is alive and well in the mountains.
The good news is that the Church is very active here. Missionaries are reaching out. They help to bring Christ's presence to a people in need, upholding their dignity, easing the way toward ecumenism, and dissolving old prejudices. Even more good news: the Catholic Church is growing in eastern Kentucky. Because as much as 60 percent of the Appalachian population is unchurched, the potential for evangelization is tremendous.
We can't drive to the Diocese of PAGO PAGO in AMERICAN SAMOA. To get there, you go to Honolulu, take a sharp left, and fly another five hours over Open Ocean. Tutuila, the principal island in the chain, is a five-by-thirty-five square-mile mountaintop rising from the blue South Pacific. The tropical rain forest that clothes the island is broken by groups of square concrete-block buildings with tin roofs. Because American Samoa is a U.S. territory, you will find cable TV, e-mail, and the latest movie releases from America here. But life still moves slowly to the rhythm of the sea.
The population of American Samoa is about 60,000, including some 9,000 Catholics. The Diocese of Pago Pago consists of nine parishes, plus a mission on the neighboring island of Manu'a. The largest parish has more than 1,000 families and covers five villages.
Samoan culture is remarkably intact. While trips to the grocery store have replaced traditional agriculture and fishing, life is still organized by village, and the system of local administration by matai, or chiefs, remains strong. Most people speak some English, but Samoan is the language of everyday life. Two of the Church's greatest challenges are training native priests and catechists, and publishing liturgical and religious education materials in Samoan.
Our tour could have touched any of eighty other home mission dioceses in the United States or in its dependencies in the Caribbean and Pacific. The Catholic Home Missions Appeal helps meet the faith needs of Catholics in the missions. It supports the education of priests, deacons, religious sisters and lay people, so the Eucharist and the word of God can nourish Catholics. It supports religious education, so Catholics can expand their knowledge of the faith and hand it down to the next generation. It helps small parishes stay alive.
Please help your fellow Catholics in the practice of their faith. Give generously to the Catholic Home Missions Appeal when it is taken up in your parish.