In this new monthly series, Father Jack Wall offers a unique perspective on Catholicism in America.
My name is Father Jack Wall, and I have a story to tell. It’s a tale of American Catholics who are living in the poorest counties of the United States. It’s the inspiring story of people richly blessed in faith but living far below the poverty line. It’s the compelling story of people with a dream as beautiful and big as the dream that each of our ancestors had for us and for our families. And it’s the enduring story of Catholic Extension — the vital Church link that tangibly connects us American Catholics together in a bond of solidarity that is nation-wide and soul-deep.
Over the past 10 years, I have been privileged to serve as the president of Catholic Extension. We are a Chicago-based papal society that builds churches and strengthens the Catholic Church in America’s poorest places.
In this new monthly blog series, I want to invite you to join me in discovering all the good that is happening in our country’s poorest regions because of the presence of the Catholic Church.
Let me take you to a Texan border town in the Rio Grande Valley — the poorest and most densely Catholic region in the country — where a struggling parish community with meager resources of its own is providing respite and temporary shelter for refugees. Despite their own poverty, Catholics are extending themselves in works of mercy to those who have even less.
Journey with me to eastern Kentucky, where Catholics make up only 0.1 percent of the population. Almost two thirds of the Lexington diocese’s 43 counties are areas of persistent poverty. Yet its small Appalachian Catholic communities are living the Gospel by reaching out heroically to their neighbors. Forgotten people living in poverty know that when they are in dire straits, they can turn to Catholics for help.
Just south of the U.S.-Canadian border, on a reservation in Montana where as many as 30 percent of residents face drug or alcohol addiction, a Native American Catholic community is bringing hope. This parish has an adult spiritual retreat movement, robust youth groups, and an academically successful school that has become a passport out of poverty for scores of Native American children.
The Spirit of God is truly present at what Pope Francis calls the “peripheries” of our society. The Spirit is palpably alive there because poor Catholics are taking responsibility for being the Church. They know that there will be no Church in their communities unless they deliberately and defiantly choose to be Church together.
The Catholics I have met in these communities deeply embody the “joy of the Gospel” that Pope Francis exhorts us to express as hope for the world. They have come to the realization that they are more than the very difficult circumstances they face daily — a message that should remind all of us that we too are much more than our own circumstances.
More than any social programs, the lived reality of being part of a Catholic faith community touches something very profound in their lives. That is why, in his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis says, “The worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. … We must not fail to offer them His friendship, His blessing, His word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith.”
For more than 110 years, Catholic Extension has focused its work on “building faith, inspiring hope and igniting change” in America’s so-called mission dioceses — places in this country where faith is strong but resources are scarce. These 90 mission dioceses — ranging from Portland, Maine, to Brownsville, Texas, and from Fairbanks, Alaska, to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands — include the country’s poorest areas as well as communities where people have limited or no access to churches, priests or sacraments.
With this new monthly blog series, I invite you to come and see, to get to know some of our brothers and sisters in faith from America’s “peripheries.” Every month in this spot we will highlight the work, ministries, efforts and issues of Catholics in America’s poorest places.
Please join me on this monthly journey to America’s margins as we visit dedicated priests, sisters, lay leaders and parishioners who show us the way by embodying God’s life-giving love for all of us.