America’s Children

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a child over, placed him in their midst…“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18: 2,4)

Their local baseball team was minutes away from winning the World Series, however dozens of local youth came to welcome Catholic Extension (getting updates about their team via cell phone).

This week I was in northern California, where Catholic Extension supports many under-resourced communities, and came face to face with the church’s fervent outreach to children and teens.  The challenges these kids face are mind-boggling and the stakes are high – but I like our odds in this uphill battle.  I like our odds because I’ve seen what the Church’s presence can mean for these kids, and I’ve seen these brave young people answering the call to leadership.

I visited a town with an estimated 3,000 active gang members.   Many young people are caught in the crossfire, and they’ve had enough.  They also realize they hold the keys to change.

We visited a couple of youth groups from different parishes.  What we discovered is that these groups are more than just mechanisms for keeping kids out of harm’s way. They help change the kids’ perceptions of themselves and what they have to offer.

“So, what are your gifts?” I asked them. “An ability to focus,” said one. “An ability to be strategic,” responded another.   One young woman said, “This church represents who we are, and this is where we feel most comfortable.”

I was invited to speak to a group of about 50 teens gathered at one of the parishes we visited.  “I come from an organization that tries to tell Catholics around the country about the challenges that other Catholics are facing in little-known areas,” I said, “and the incredibly powerful things people like you are doing in the face of such opposition.”

Pictured here with his youth leader, this young man said his favorite saint is Martin de Porres, “Because Martin spoke to Jesus as a friend”

The day happened to be Nov 1, the Feast of All Saints.  I told them how appropriate it was to gather on the occasion of this centuries-old feast commemorating all the heroes and heroines of our faith. “After listening to your incredibly powerful stories,” I said, “it is clear to me that there are true heroes, saints, emerging in this very room.”

How fortunate I felt to be hearing their message to America.

“We want people to know that we are good, that we have something to share,” a young woman told me after the meeting.  Then, without skipping a beat, she went to the wall of the parish hall where we were gathered and she pulled down a handmade poster decorated with rival gang colors on either side.  In the middle of the poster was a cross and the word, “united.”  “Take this poster,” she said, “let people know everything we are doing to change our community.”

The young people light candles on a “Day of the Dead altar” during a prayer service, in which they rememberall their beloved deceased. They also pray to God for the fulfillment of their deepest hopes and dreams.

Adult leaders of these parish youth groups are equally impressive.  They believe that faith in a loving God and support from a nurturing church community can transform kids who will ultimately transform the world.  One adult volunteer leader said to me, “I am here working with these youth because I want to develop people of faith and good community leaders.”  He went on, “If I could just save 100 kids I would do this work, if I could save 50, I would do this, if I could save 30, likewise, and if I could just save even one kid, this work would be worth it for me.”

Our opportunity as Catholics to impact young people’s lives across our country is real.  In 2011, as we  celebrate World Youth Day, Frank and I will keep you posted on the many ways Catholic Extension wants to increase support of the Church’s outreach to young people across the country.  They represent many cultures and economic backgrounds.  Yet, they share one thing in common: despite struggles and challenges, they are becoming ready and willing leaders in the faith and in their communities.

It’s going to be an exciting year for all who are Catholic to rally around our young people, and cultivate today’s young saints who will breathe new life into our nation.

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Joe on Twitter.

Leadership as big as Texas

What do a prison chaplain, a retired postmaster, the owner of a lawn care service, a former Navy Commander and the one-time mayor of Canton, Texas have in common? Besides dedication, a strong faith and the ability to wear multiple hats, they share the sacrament of Holy Orders as permanent deacons of the Diocese of Tyler – or as Bishop Alvaro Corrada calls them: one of the two “lungs” that breathe life into the Church of this sizable East Texas diocese.  They’re not the only ones, either. On a recent visit to Tyler, the Catholic Extension team got to meet these and many more Deacons – some along with their wives – and hear stories of their ministries in far-flung places throughout a diocese that spans 33 counties and covers almost 23,000 square miles.

From L to R: Deacon Robert Rhodes talks with Deacon Gregorio Sanchez and Deacon Ruben Natera

The ministries they carry out for the people of East Texas are as diverse as their backgrounds, too. Take Deacon Gregorio Sanchez, for example. Ordained three years, Deacon Gregorio runs his lawn care business while assisting with pastoral ministries for Spanish-speaking East Texans in two parishes. Most days Deacon Robert Rhodes leaves his “day job” at Texas Eastman in Longview to teach high school formation classes and serve the faithful at his home mission in Hallsville, Our Lady of Grace.  Deacon Fred Arrambidez, Tyler’s retired postmaster, has added two stops to his route since being ordained two years ago: assisting at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and selling insurance as a Knights of Columbus field agent.

For others, their livelihood is their ministry. Deacon Richard Lawrence – he’s the former mayor – heads up the diocese’s Office of Discipleship and Stewardship. Deacon Jerry Besze and his wife Mary direct the diocese’s Marriage and Family Life office. Deacon Ruben Natera serves as the diocesan Chancellor after years of service in both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Navy, including a tour in Kuwait.  We met Deacon Dan Rose, a full-time prison chaplain, who serves among the incarcerated men at a maximum security prison southwest of Tennessee Colony when he’s not assisting at his parish in Palestine or its mission in Frankston. While an ordained Catholic clergyman, Deacon Dan ministers to men of all faiths when he visits the Coffield Prison Unit.

And they keep coming , too. Tyler, one of the smallest dioceses in the U.S. in terms of population, has boasted some of the largest diaconate classes in the country in recent years. That’s thanks to couples like Dr. Joe and Marilyn Bianca. The retired obstetrician and his wife are now in their second year of formation, a five-year process during which a deacon-aspirant is joined by his wife for nearly all phases.

The success is no fluke, either. Bishop Corrada has a clear vision for where deacons fit into the diocese’s three-pronged evangelization strategy.  We’re grateful to be associated with the Diocese of Tyler and its deacons by funding half of the annual cost of formation at the University of Dallas. These men, their wives, and the communities that support them, including the bishop and priests of the diocese are bearing witness to what a faithful and committed response to service looks like and what it means to the whole church.

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants Management
Follow Frank on Twitter.

450 miles through Texas

Last month saw the Catholic Extension team visiting our friends in the Dioceses of Tyler and Beaumont. The 450-mile trip started at DFW airport and would end about 48 hours later as my weary colleagues boarded their flight bound for Chicago. What we witnessed between airport runs would leave all of us grateful once again for the privilege of serving the Church off the beaten path. Here’s a quick sketch of the places we visited. Later, I’ll post some more in-depth stories to highlight what we encountered.

Tuesday (October 19th):

  • Lunch with one of the “two lungs” of the Diocese of Tyler: deacons, kicked off by a surprise visit by Bishop Alvarado Corrada.
  • St. William of Vercelli in Carthage for a walk-through of a new parish activity center 17 years in the making conceived as a blessing not only to local Catholics but the entire hurricane-weary region.
  • Last stop: Mass and laughs with Catholic Lumberjacks. That is ,the student leaders of the Catholic community at Stephen. F Austin State University in Nacogdoches, a lively and warm bunch that is proud of their burgeoning community.

Wednesday (October 20th):

  • After a long drive Tuesday night to Beaumont, we were treated to a delicious breakfast with Bishop Guillory at a local favorite, Carmela’s Mexican Restaurant.
  • Some downtime gawking at the interior of the beautiful St. Anthony’s Cathedral  convinced me that it was the perfect home of a Catholic community, rich in faith and history, ready to share its gifts with the entire region.
  • Meetings with talented diocesan staff, old, new and retired, were informative and tipped me off to the breadth and complexity of pastoral needs the Church must respond to with hope and creativity.
  • Last stop, the remarkable young leaders of Cristo Rey Parish – including one 89 years young  – who introduced us to the “new Juan Diegos”.

More on , at least, some of these to come.

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants Management
Follow Frank on Twitter.

Hungry for good news?

The airwaves and printing presses were buzzing last week all around Montana, and even nationally. For a change, the buzz was good. The media, including USA Today and the local CBS affiliate, was telling a story of great hope emanating from a tiny town called Browning, located on the plains just east of the continental divide and 50 miles south of the Canadian border.

Lumen Christi Award

Fr. Wall presents Fr. Kohler with Lumen Christi Award

I was lucky enough to be there, one of a group representing Catholic Extension, the narrator of this amazing story. We had come from Chicago, led by Catholic Extension President Father Jack Wall, to present our annual Lumen Christi award to Fr. Ed Kohler, a hero of Browning. The name of the award comes from Latin, meaning “light of Christ,” and we award it annually to someone who demonstrates the power of faith to transform lives and communities.

Fr. Kohler, originally from Missoula, Montana, has spent three decades working among the Blackfeet Native people in rural Montana. The 64 year-old “Fr. Ed” is pastor of Little Flower Parish in this town of 3,000, where the average income is around $5,000, and the average life expectancy is not much over 50 years. Depression, alcoholism and addiction are rampant. But in the midst of so much hardship, Fr. Kohler and his parish community inspire hope.

Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person

Chief Earl Old Person is the leader of the Blackfeet nation and spoke at the ceremony. Standing before the crowd wearing his magnificent eagle feather headdress, Chief Earl said, “Our ancestors have always struggled to survive,” but added that people like Fr. Ed and the community of Little Flower make him optimistic about the future of his Nation.

Fr. Kohler gives witness to the transformative power of faith. He gathers his people and nourishes hungry hearts, convincing them to believe in themselves and hope in God.

Little Flower Parish Gym

Consequently, this parish community can be proud of so much. It has robust youth groups; an academically successful Catholic school (grades 4-8) that is the “passport” from poverty to a better future for scores of native children; and a nationally renowned spiritual retreat movement, which has helped thousands of adults free themselves from destructive behavior and addiction .

But back to the scene last week: imagine hundreds of people gathered to celebrate. Community members, tribal leaders, parishioners, local civic leaders, the diocesan bishop (to whom the Blackfeet people have given the name, “Holy Warrior”) all packed in a crowded gymnasium, all thrilled for their beloved Fr. Ed.

Extension Team at Little Flower Parish

The community sang traditional Blackfeet songs in their native tongue, along with religious songs, such as “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art,” delivered in a Country-Cowboy style that was slow, smooth, and twangy. Later, we asked Fr. Ed how the nearly half million dollars of financial support provided by Catholic Extension’s donors has helped his ministry at Little Flower parish. He simply wept. Then he said, “Catholic Extension and its donors are really the light of Christ for us.”

We’re all hungry for good news like this. All of us need to know about the Ed Kohlers and the Little Flower parishes that are reaching amazing heights with stunningly few resources, in the face of tremendous social, economic and spiritual challenge.

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Read more about our Lumen Christi Nominee and Catholic Extension.

For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Joe on Twitter.

Sr. Marguerite Bartz

The St. Michael Indian School, located on the Navajo Reservation in the Diocese of Gallup between New Mexico and Arizona, was awarded a $41,451 grant last spring to fund vital renovations for the school. The grant is the first awarded by the Sister Marguerite Bartz Fund, which was created to honor the educator and servant Sr. Marguerite Bartz who was tragically murdered in 2009. Click to read more about how her legacy lives on.