Meeting People Halfway

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.

The dedicated Catholics at St. Jerome who serve the poor and the marginalized in rural Idaho.

The dedicated Catholics at St. Jerome who serve the poor and the marginalized in rural Idaho.

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.

St. Jerome Parish food pantry.

St. Jerome parish food pantry, Martha & Mary's.

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.

Jerome, a senior at Boise State, attends weekday Mass at St. Paul Newman Center.

Jerome, a senior at Boise State, attends weekday Mass at St. Paul Newman Center.

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

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Keeping our Traditions Alive

I spent Good Friday in Lenoir, NC, located near the eastern edge the Appalachian Mountain range.  Catholic Extension supports a parish there called St. Francis of Assisi, which has experienced extraordinary growth in the last three years.  During that short span of time, Sunday Mass attendance has more than tripled; religious education enrollments are five times more than what they were just three years ago; and as many as 70 lay leaders are taking on various ministries that serve the parish and the larger community.  If you’re like me, you wouldn’t normally expect to find such a thriving Catholic community in a relatively small town of North Carolina.  But, something special is happening here.

Parishioners of all ages gather early to witness the traditional "living" Stations of the Cross.

The parish’s leaders, Father Julio Dominguez and Sister Joan Pearson, who arrived here three years ago, are both innovative people constantly thinking of new ways for this church community to reach more people and create new leaders.   Although they are always ready to try new things to make the Catholic faith speak to people, I quickly learned that their secret to success has been as much about getting back to the basics of the Catholic tradition and incorporating customs that have proven to sustain the faith for centuries.

That is why parishioners in Lenoir spent more than three months preparing for a “living” Stations of the Cross, which was open to the entire community on Good Friday.  Sister Joan expected attendance to jump this year, and sure enough, 600 people showed up for this mid-weekday Stations of the Cross.  Given that the church only seats about 300 people, the Stations of the Cross had to be done outside.  To enhance the experience, parishioners act out the scenes of each of the 14 stations in full costume and are accompanied by music and brief reflections.

The crowd drops to their knees, moved by the power of the 11th Station of the Cross.

At the 11th station, as the cross and the actor playing Christ were physically lifted up by the Roman soldiers and placed in the ground for crucifixion, I heard a collective gasp sweep through the hundreds of people as they came to their knees on the grass.  Tears filled the eyes of many, as they reflected upon God’s love expressed through the cross and how that cross has been part of all of our lives.

What impressed me the most about this experience, however, was the endless sea of toddlers, children and teens who were present at this event.  Just as the Stations of the Cross were starting, I happened to turn around to see a steady stream of parents pushing strollers across the Church parking lot as they made their way to the stations.   It felt as if they were literally carting in the next generation of Catholics to hear the same stories that our ancestors told.

Traditions like the "living" Stations of the Cross engage the parish youth in a compelling and inspiring way.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the afternoon was when a young boy, no more than five years old, broke ranks with the rest of us and wove his way through the actors to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he was being taken down from the cross.  The boy reached out and tenderly touched the lifeless feet the Jesus.  I have a feeling that for years to come that boy will remember his brief encounter with Christ this Good Friday.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension