Joe Boland

A little known fact about Catholic Extension is that when it was founded in 1905, it was established as a “Pontifical Society” by St. Pius X.  Now, 108 years and nine popes later, the president of Catholic Extension continues to be officially appointed by the Holy See.

Why does this matter?

Apart from this formality of ratifying Catholic Extension’s chief executive leader, we have come to a deeper understanding of what it means for Catholic Extension to be a Pontifical Society.

A bishop whose diocese is supported by Catholic Extension recently observed that the Latin root for the word “Pontifical” is Pontus, meaning “bridge.”   He concluded therefore that as a papal society charged with the mission of strengthening the Catholic faith throughout America by raising and providing resources to poor communities, Catholic Extension has an additional duty to serve as a bridge-building agent for the Catholic Church in the U.S.

One of the very basic ways that we build bridges is through financial support.  Currently, we fund 91 of the 195 U.S. dioceses, representing 11 million of the 65 million Catholics in this country.  We build a bridge to these communities that do not have the means to support themselves.

Have you ever noticed that you cannot go to the poorest areas of our country and not find a Catholic church?  Even in the most seemingly God-forsaken areas where the presence of a church is needed the most.   Why is this so?  The answer is that we as Catholics have a unique insight on “church.”  We are not part of a member-centered club.  Rather, we are a mission-centered reality.  It means that to be Catholic requires us to be bridged into something greater than just our own parish or school, and to see beyond the limits of our deanery or even our diocese.  The Church, because it is universal and not congregational, calls us into a reality, a community, and a mission that is beyond our immediate parish or diocese.  Catholic Extension serves as a bridge for Catholics to participate in that larger reality.

We’d like to take a look back at five popes who have helped Catholic Extension build bridges during the last 108 years.

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1. St. Pius X (1903-14)

Catholic Extension supports ministries that develop enthusiastic Catholic young adults
St. Pius X, under whose reign and blessing the Catholic Extension Society was founded as an approved institution of the Holy Catholic Church.

This pope is responsible for getting the Catholic Extension “Movement” going in America.  According to Catholic Extension’s Magazine from October 1914, through Pius X’s “own direct and personal action,” Catholic Extension was founded as a Papal Society.  “It was Pius X himself who took the case out of the slow grind of the ordinary machinery…and by his own proper authority, gave the [Catholic Extension] Society canonical existence.”

In those early days, the Holy Father closely followed the work of the American Catholic organization he helped create.  According to the founder of Catholic Extension, Father Francis Clement Kelley, “Never was a report issued by the [Catholic Extension] Society that was not seen and examined by the Pope himself.”

Catholic Extension brought church to people in the early days via chapel cars that were sent around the U.S.’s newly minted rail system.  When the train pulled into town, the traveling priest on the train, would celebrate Mass for the frontier townsfolk in the chapel car.  Pius X looked at a picture of this creative use of what was then cutting-edge technology, and he apparently commented, “Here is a practical idea for the care of scattered people without a church!”

A Catholic Extension Chapel Car, shown here, served the scattered people
across America who had no church where they could practice their faith.


Previous: Introduction Next: Pope Benedict XV

2. Benedict the XV (1914-22)

Catholic Extension supports ministries that develop enthusiastic Catholic young adults
Pope Benedict XV, under whose 8 year reign as Pope, Catholic Extension built many churches.

This pope immediately succeeded Pius X and continued to support this growing movement in America, called Catholic Extension.

During its entire history, Catholic Extension has helped build 12,000 churches in America.  However, never was the pace of construction faster than during the pontificate of Benedict XV.  During those years,  Catholic Extension helped with the construction of an average of 150 new churches a year across America as immigrant populations grew and Catholics moved West in search of work in the mining, railroad and agricultural industries.

In those early days, besides building churches, Catholic Extension also began supporting the human infrastructure of the Church, by supporting vocations to ministry—an effort which continues today with even greater emphasis.

Then-Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Gaspari, wrote to the president of Catholic Extension saying, “In particular, His Holiness [Benedict XV] has been pleased with what the [Catholic Extension] Society has done for the construction of churches and schools—the number of which now approximates two thousand—for the furnishing of equipment for poor churches…Above all, the Holy Father has been moved, in his solicitude as Universal Pastor, in seeing that the [Catholic Extension] Society provides, at its own expense, to safeguard and cultivate in the hearts of many fortunate youths the divine germ of a vocation to the priesthood, and to the apostolate of the Missions.”

Upon Benedict XV’s death in 1922, the president of Catholic Extension reflected,  “To those who work for the Missions of the Church at home or in foreign lands the name of Benedict the Fifteenth will live forever.”

Historical photo of a Catholic Extension-supported mission church.

Previous: St. Pius X Next: Blessed John XXIII

3. Blessed John XXIII (1958-63)

Catholic Extension supports ministries that develop enthusiastic Catholic young adults
Blessed John XXIII, who convened
the Second Vatican Council.

His pontificate was short, but sweet. John XXIII’s convening of the Second Vatican Council gave the Church in America and all around the world an opportunity to speak of our Catholic faith with greater clarity and conviction in modern culture.  The Council was truly the most significant moment for the Church in the past century, and it has shaped the Church ever since.

According to Catholic Extension’s magazine, the global Catholic population at the time John XXIII became pope was more than 500,000,000.  Fifty-five years later, the Catholic population has doubled to more than 1 billion.  In America, the Catholic population continues to grow.  In some U.S. states and in the “mission dioceses” supported by Catholic Extension, Catholic populations have skyrocketed between censuses.

Catholic Extension is helping dioceses in America respond to this growth with critical support.

For example, in Brownsville, Texas, about 85% of the people are Catholic (the most densely Catholic diocese in the country) and the population continues to grow.  Yet, 40% of the Catholics live below the poverty line (the highest rate of poverty for any diocese in the country).  Catholic Extension is funding the construction of new churches and new ministries in this diocese to help accommodate this growth.

John XXIII proved that the church can forge ahead even amid great challenges. The world faced many daunting crises in his day, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and although he was pope for only a short period of time, he set the Church up to evangelize in the modern world, amid the many challenges that it faced.

Referring to his Pacem in Terris [Peace on Earth] encyclical, Catholic Extension’s magazine commented in June 1963,  “Time alone will tell to what extent the Holy Father's great ‘appeal to love,’ will be fully ‘understood,’ by all men of our time.”

Church grows after the Second Vatican Council. The Church’s 500th anniversary Mass in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was concelebrated by bishops throughout Latin America, South American and the Carribbean. The enthusiasm of the crowd and the deep devotion of the faithful are shown here.

Previous: Pope Benedict XV Next: Blessed John Paul II

4. Blessed John Paul II (1978-2005)

Catholic Extension supports ministries that develop enthusiastic Catholic young adults
Blessed John Paul II visits Chicago in October 1979.

During his pontificate, the Holy See appointed three Catholic Extension presidents, including Bishop William Houck, who reflected on
John Paul II’s legacy with the following thoughts, “His commitment to evangelization and his missionary spirit have certainly inspired us at Catholic Extension with zeal for our ‘home missions’ here in the United States.”

In 1979, early into his tenure as Pope, John Paul II visited Chicago, where Catholic Extension is headquartered.  Then-president Father Ed Slattery commented, “Thank you Pope John Paul II for coming to America…Many of these are the people who count on [Catholic] Extension for help and many others support the [Catholic Extension] Society in its apostolic and evangelical work.  Thank you for encouraging us and for your special blessing.”

John Paul II’s nearly 27 years as our Holy Father were certainly worth marveling at for many reasons.  Most importantly, John Paul II spoke the language of “hope” so articulately.   Remember his book of reflections titled, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope?”  It’s that same hope that Catholic Extension references in its tagline: “Building Faith, Inspiring Hope, Igniting Change.”  What it means is that our faith thoroughly transforms us, and one of its byproducts is a deep sense of hope.

John Paul II died just as Catholic Extension was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its dual heritage as an American Catholic institution and as a Pontifical Society.   During the years between 1978-2005, Catholic Extension helped build 3,366 churches- and provided almost $300,000,000 in support of poor communities in the U.S., signifying the ongoing importance of this work to build faith in America.

Catholic Extension President Emeritus, Bishop William R. Houck,
greets Blessed John Paul II on his visit to Baltimore in 1987.

Previous: Blessed John XXIII Next: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

5. Benedict XVI (2005-2013)

Catholic Extension supports ministries that develop enthusiastic Catholic young adults
Current President of Catholic Extension,
Father Jack Wall, meets Pope Emeritus
Benedict XVI at the Vatican

The present Chancellor of Catholic Extension’s board, Cardinal Francis George, was part of the conclave that elected then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict XVI.  And, during Benedict’s pontificate, our current president, Father Jack Wall, was appointed by the Holy See for two terms.

Benedict XVI made a very firm commitment to the idea of “New Evangelization.”  At Catholic Extension, we have noticed that in a short period of time this concept of “New Evangelization,” which refers to sharing the Gospel with renewed vigor and new methods, has really caught on fire in the poor communities we support across America.  Here are some quick examples:

Recently, we visited a parish in the Appalachia hills of Kentucky where 80% of the parishioners are converts to Catholicism, including the pastor.  I didn’t think the Catholic faith could have this kind of appeal in an area where Catholics are less than one percent of the population, but in the age of the “New Evangelization” anything is possible.

I met with Catholic leaders in Arkansas from two different parishes on the opposite sides of the state.  They shared in common a unique evangelization strategy: going door-to-door to welcome Catholics back to the Church.  It worked!  Hundreds came back to the church in each case.  I was not aware that door-to-door ministry was a method utilized by Catholics, but in an era of “New Evangelization,” anything is possible.

Finally, I met with a thriving youth group in rural Montana.  Teenagers got involved by making phone calls and waking up their friends before dawn on Fridays to invite their peers to a Bible study class before school.  I didn’t think teenagers woke up easily for anything, much less a Bible study class, but in the spirit of the “New Evangelization,” I never cease to be surprised.

We are still riding on this wave of “New Evangelization” that Benedict XVI helped create.  For that, we are very thankful to him for this tremendous legacy!  During his eight-year papacy, Catholic Extension provided more than $140,000,000 to the mission dioceses, mostly to support the exciting ministries like the ones described above.

With a newly elected pope as "bridge-builder," Catholic Extension stands ready to continue its mission of providing support to poor Catholic communities in America, so that the gift of faith will be available to all.

New evangelization taking root among youth. College campus ministers gather
in fellowship at the Campus Ministry Leadership Institute’s conference.

Previous: Blessed John Paul II