I recently had the privilege of visiting communities in Idaho that are supported by Catholic Extension. The Catholic community is spread across a diocese spanning the entire state of Idaho. Catholics represent only about 11% of the population and many of the communities are rural and working class who are struggling in the wake of this uncertain economy. Needless to say, it’s a bit of a challenge to create a vibrant church experience in these circumstances. Yet, everywhere I went in Idaho I encountered passionate Catholics who are deeply committed to the faith, doing their absolute best to reach marginalized populations, and generate growth in the Church. I visited St. Jerome parish in southern Idaho, where Catholic Extension provides support for pastoral programs. This is a bi-cultural parish that has done an excellent job of figuring out how to welcome everybody.
Just ten years ago, their Sunday Mass attracted no more than 300 people. But today, Mass is attended by 1,500 people, including families that drive as far as 70 miles to get there every week. The parish offers religious education in two languages to hundreds of children, and classrooms are packed to capacity. “We used to have very small classes,” said Katie, the director of religious education who grew up in the parish, “This year we got to the number 300 and I thought, ‘what are we going to do with all these kids?’” Parishioners acknowledge that this type of logistical issue is in fact a blessing. Fr. Ron, the pastor, said that “We just try to meet people halfway.” This mentality of ‘meeting people halfway’ is at the heart of St. Jerome’s effort to feed hundreds of people and families on a weekly basis out of the parish food pantry.
This spirit of welcome also drives their work with local teenagers, many of whom are facing hard decisions about drugs and gangs. A young adult named Gio, who works with the 60+ members of the youth group, had his share of struggles as a teen growing up in Jerome, Idaho. But one parish retreat called “Come and See” changed his life so much so, that thereafter he committed himself to bringing moral strength and faith to today’s young people who face the same challenges that he once did. Up the road two hours, I paid a visit to St. Paul’s Newman Center at Boise State University, where Catholic Extension has provided operations support for the past several years. There too, I learned about all the ways that this ministry is ‘meeting people halfway.’ The worn out, orange carpeting and the musty couches with out-of-style patterns that adorn this facility would suggest that this campus ministry has seen better days. However, the opposite is true. This ministry’s impact continues to increase. I met a group of students over lunch that seemed to have just as much confidence talking about their Catholic faith as they did discussing their beloved university football team.
At least three students shared similar stories about how Catholicism had never been a part of their lives growing up. But, they were invited to St. Paul’s Newman Center by their peers and have decided to become fully practicing Catholics after experiencing the joy of this faith community. As many as 12 of the approximately 300 students who are part of St. Paul’s Newman Center are currently considering vocations to the priesthood and religious life. We met a young woman who came into the Church at Easter Vigil in 2009 through St. Paul’s RCIA program. She is now seriously discerning a vocation to religious life and credits the supportive faith community of St. Paul with giving her the courage to do so. When the Church meets people where they are at, it increases its ability to reach more. The Catholic communities in Boise have figured this out and used this wisdom to their advantage. — Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension