Identifying the needs of Catholic communities, developing solutions that address those needs and measuring the impact of our work and our donors’ gifts – these are among the many services Catholic Extension provides to the Church in the U.S. On a recent trip to Little Rock, I met leaders from 23 of the 86 “mission dioceses” supported by Catholic Extension to learn about their emerging needs, understand how we can help and evaluate the strategies that have been successful.
I met Fr. Leonardo, director of Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Tulsa, OK. He is solely in charge of the pastoral care of as many as 25,000 Catholics. He drives 600 miles every weekend to visit the communities he supports. From now on, I’ll just think of him the next time I’m tempted to complain that my life is hard. Without a great deal of funding or any support staff, Fr. Leonardo’s efforts are severely limited, especially his efforts to reach out to poor and at-risk youth. Last December, 400 impoverished young people from his diocese signed up for a potentially life-changing retreat, but because he couldn’t pay for the buses to transport these young people and had no staff to coordinate alternative transportation, he had to cancel. “I just need someone who can focus all of their attention on these young people who have nothing,” Fr. Leonardo lamented.
I met the dynamic and successful Jesus Abrego, who works with youth in the Diocese of Beaumont, TX. Just last week, he organized an event which drew thousands of spiritually hungry youth. However, Abrego fears his efforts are not enough. “We have a rich past that we should celebrate,” he said. “But, I am concerned about the future. How many of our young people are in jail, pregnant at 16 or addicted to drugs?” It is his priority to find new and better ways to reach out to those youths.
The experiences of Fr. Leonardo and Jesus Abrego -- those of having too big of a task with too little staff and funding -- are unfortunately not uncommon experiences in our Church today.
Investing in pastoral leaders is a simple and practical solution for our Church. For more than 100 years, Catholic Extension has been providing salary support for pastoral leaders, and the need for this type of support is greater now more than ever.
Currently, Catholic Extension is proposing a $15 million partnership initiative with other funding organizations and Catholic dioceses, which would provide seed money to help establish 100 new positions for pastoral leaders across the country over the next three years. These positions would help dynamic leaders like Fr. Leonardo and Jesus Abrego expand the outreach of the Church to the most vulnerable populations.
This initiative was enthusiastically embraced by the 23 diocesan representatives that gathered with me in Little Rock. The additional leaders will help them engage Catholics on the margins, especially young Catholics.
This solution of providing salary support has proven to be effective. Take, for example, the Diocese of Little Rock, which experienced double-digit growth in its Catholic population over the last 20 years. Catholic Extension invested heavily in the salaries of pastoral leaders in this diocese.
In the town of DeQueen, in the far southwest corner of Arkansas, Catholic Extension provided salary support to St. Barbara. When that effort began, there were about 70 Catholics who belonged to the rural parish. The new pastoral leaders, however, worked hard at building a vibrant faith community, and today the parish has more than 1,500 active Catholics.
Starting this week, Catholic Extension is funding the salaries of pastoral leaders who are moving their ministry across the state from DeQueen to Hamburg, Arkansas. Currently, Holy Spirit Parish in Hamburg is a small community. But Msgr. Scott Friend, the Vicar General of the diocese, knows that the area has great potential to grow, and in two to three years time they expect to have a community that rivals the size of the one in DeQueen.
The future is within reach, but we as Catholics are going to have to stretch ourselves to make it there. What I learned on this trip to Little Rock is that while the needs are profound, there are steps we can take right now to address them and make a lasting difference for so many dedicated Catholics right here in our own country.
— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management