|July 13, 2015 • VOL. 53, NO. 13 • Oakland, CA|
Strong missionary grounding
belies Pew report statistics
The conclusions of the Pew Research Center's report, "America's Changing Religious Landscape," seem troubling: Christians are declining as a share of the U.S. population, while those unaffiliated with any faith tradition grow.
Cardinal Walter Kasper writes in "Pope Francis' Revolution of Tenderness and Love," that "a self-involved church is a sick church. Francis wants out of the stale air of a church that is self-involved — suffering from its own condition, bemoaning or celebrating itself." The Church can be healthy only when it accepts its missionary identity and becomes "a church that goes to the peripheries." In other words, Pope Francis does not want the Church wasting any energy on self-pity. Rather, he wants us to get out of our enclosures, where we will find the Holy Spirit already at work in the world.
Perhaps we have gotten out of touch with our missionary identity, which according to our Holy Father is the true-life source of the Church. Without a strong missionary grounding, Christianity makes little sense.
At Catholic Extension, we witness the missionary side of the Church in our work to support faith communities located in poor or forgotten corners of our nation.
There are places in our nation where the Catholic Church's missionary spirit is alive and where the Church is growing. We invite all Catholics to come and see where there are seeds of hope. Here are examples:
• The Diocese of Brownsville in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, with 1.2 million Catholics, is the most densely Catholic diocese in the country and the poorest. It is also one of the youngest Catholic dioceses, where the median age is only the mid-20s. Because of this immense growth, Catholic Extension has been collaborating with Bishop Daniel E. Flores to fund the expansion of churches throughout the diocese to accommodate the explosive growth.
• Salinas, California, is known as the Salad Bowl of the world, and the birthplace of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, John Steinbeck. The lush green fields and orchards that surround this town provide the livelihood of the people, who like the characters in Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," still come to this area for low-paying agricultural jobs. The town has four parishes, each of them practically packed to capacity on Sundays, such as St. Mary's Church, where more than 6,000 people attend one of seven Masses each weekend. Catholic Extension recently funded the salaries of four missionary sisters who will reach out to the people on the periphery to ensure that the Church continues to grow in this area.
• Southern Georgia is not often considered the epicenter of U.S. Catholicism. The truth is that Georgia (along with Florida, Texas, and California) has one of the nation's fastest growing Catholic populations. Catholic Extension funds the salaries of pastors who serve rural missions here. One pastor, Rev. Freddy Angel, has seen his community grow by the hundreds in just a couple of years. In one area where there are Catholics but no church facility, he has to rent space from the Methodists to accommodate 200 people. In another place where he provides Mass, 200 people stuff in to a cramped church that scarcely seats 50. Catholic Extension is working with the diocese to help build a new church for this expanding community.
• Finally, don't overlook Alabama. Just 20 years ago, the Archdiocese of Mobile only had four parishes with Hispanic ministry, and only a few thousand Hispanic Catholics in the archdiocese. Today, there are 25 parishes with Hispanic Ministry, and tens of thousands of Hispanic Catholics in the archdiocese. Last month the archdiocese convened 300 lay leaders and pastors, to craft a plan for their archbishop that will attempt to accelerate their missionary efforts.
Christians should respond to any challenging situation in the same way: with hope.
The report on the decline of Christianity is eye-opening and sobering, but Pope Francis reminds us we should never give in to the temptation to be engulfed by self-pity.
There are many opportunities to influence the continued growth of Christianity in the United States. It requires us, however, to adopt a missionary spirit, and to go to the peripheries.
(Joseph Boland is vice president of Mission, Catholic Extension. Learn more at CatholicExtension.org.)
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