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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An Invitation to Gather: OSU Campus Ministry

We arrived at St. John the Evangelist University Parish and Newman Center, at Oklahoma State University, at 8AM. OSU has had a relationship with Catholic Extension since 1977; and this coming January, the OSU Campus Ministry will be receiving another grant from Catholic Extension. But we were also eager to meet these dynamic college students to see if we could connect them with leadership roles in the Church after graduation.

Our plan was to meet with Fr. Stuart Crevcoure and some of his campus ministry staff, as well as some of the college students who are active in campus ministry at OSU. I had my doubts as to how many students would show up for an 8AM meeting! Remembering my own college days, anything before 9AM was considered to be the crack of dawn.

Fr. Stuart Crevcoure and Fr. Jack Wall, with some of the students who are active in Campus Ministry at OSU.

Yet when we arrived, there were 15 college students already there! Not only were they awake, but they were smiling and eager to welcome us. Just their presence at that breakfast meeting was a witness to how important their Catholic faith is to them. Yet as we listened to their stories, we were even more moved by their passion for their faith and their desire to share their faith with other students at OSU.

The Newman Center sponsors a vast number of opportunities for faith sharing and fellowship: they have Bible Study, Rosary, Wednesday night Mass, and Praise and Worship to name a few. But what’s more incredible is the number of students who come every Sunday night for Mass, followed by dinner. They told us that a couple hundred students show up every week and that number grows during the school year! Many of the students who come aren’t even Catholic but have been invited by friends.

That’s what ran through all of the students’ stories about how they got involved with Campus Ministry at OSU – someone had invited them. Michael, a freshman from Wichita, said, “When I started here a few weeks ago, Anna, who is also from my home town, invited me to come along to Mass and so I did.” Many of the students credited Jenny, a senior, as having called them and asked them to come with her to Mass. To be invited, to be called by name, is so important to all of us, but it’s crucial for young adults. They need to feel welcomed, that their being there matters. It starts with being in relationship with others, making a friend, and then inviting that friend to come share in the faith that you have found. That was the model Jesus gave us, and these students are still following it. Every student there credited another student with getting them involved in Campus Ministry. Many students also mentioned Kelly, a former seminarian who is now ordained, as the reason they are so active in their faith.

Jenny and other students active in Campus Ministry at OSU.

A lot of the students told us about growing up in rural parts of Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas, where they were a part of the only Catholic family in town. I’m from the Northeast, where there are large numbers of Catholics, so it was foreign to me to imagine what it would be like to grow up in the minority, in a place where you weren’t invited to certain events because you were Catholic. But what struck me was that it was that experience of being in the minority that made these young Catholic men and women stronger in their faith, more articulate about what they believe in, more eager to be in community with others who shared their faith. They even volunteered to staff an “Ask a Catholic” table outside the student center at OSU, so that they could invite other students to learn about their faith.

Andrew received his Confirmation while attending OSU this year.

Many people talk about the young people being the future of our church. But in reality, they are the church. Right here, right now. It is up to us to do whatever we can to help support young adults like these students at OSU, so that they can grow in their faith while they are in college; and so that they are able to continue to grow in their faith after graduation, as young adults. Fr. Stuart pointed out to us a large tree that they had painted on their wall, with paper leaves attached to it. Each leaf had the name of a student who had been baptized or confirmed over the past year. Through Catholic Extension, we can help the number of leaves on that tree grow, at OSU and at other colleges across the country.

— Terry Witherell, National Representative for Strategic Initiatives, Catholic Extension

Faith in People: Investing in the Future

In a time of institutional uncertainty for the Catholic Church in the U.S., we are still able to soundly invest in its future.  We do this by investing in people.  This was the observation of Catholic Extension’s Chancellor, Francis Cardinal George, in his remarks to our board members last week.  He went on to say that even if institutions fade, the faith will remain if we invest in people by providing leadership training, adult faith formation and religious education.  My travels this week confirmed this fact.

On June 3, I spent an evening with 120 young Catholics gathered in Philadelphia for the Campus Ministry Leadership Institute, an annual gathering of college student leaders designed to give Catholic students tools and training to be faith leaders on their campuses.  Catholic Extension provided funding so that nearly 50 students from under-resourced and geographically distant areas of the country could be a part of this experience.  Beginning in 2012, Catholic Extension will help regionalize this institute so Catholic university students from the Southeast, Southwest, and Western states will have greater access to this training.

Students

Students from the University of Missouri and Alumni of the Campus Ministry Leadership.

I met an extraordinary group of young people who, with support and encouragement, are going to do amazing things both in the coming academic year and in their future careers.

Alicia, from the University of Colorado in the Diocese of Colorado Springs, plans to implement a peer-to-peer outreach so that her campus ministry can connect more Catholic students to the Catholic Church.  “We are all passionate about our faith and our belief in God is moving us to do this,” she said.

Kristin, a native Texan studying education at Texas Tech in the Diocese of Lubbock, says her faith is impacting her career plans.  Initially, she wanted to try to “make some money.”  But, after teaching in a Catholic School, she decided to dedicate her career to educating the poor.  “Children need to know that they are loved by God,” she said.

Dan, a journalism major and campus ministry intern from the University of Missouri in the Diocese of Jefferson City, admits that campus ministry has changed his life. “It’s made me consider service in the Church,” he stated with great sincerity, explaining that he is considering the pursuit of many ministerial vocations upon graduation, including the priesthood.

It’s amazing to be in a room with so many young Catholics who are fervently faithful and accept the invitation to leadership.  As I spoke with the students about their interests and dreams, Cardinal George’s words resonated deeply.  These are the future leaders of the Church, and we must invest in them now.

Catholic Extension is discussing with campus ministers how we can solidify this leadership pipeline, so that we are investing in the development of young people during their college years, while creating post-graduate leadership opportunities as well. We cannot lose touch with these aspiring young leaders, who are arguably the Church’s greatest assets.

It’s faith-affirming to meet with these young Catholics, who are giving so much of themselves and receiving so much from their Catholic faith.  It reminds us that, no matter what, we must invest in people, because people do make a difference.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Big Hearts in the Heartland

“Go Big or Go Home” is an expression that immediately comes to mind after my recent visit to the Heartland.  Catholics in this region “go big” in many ways; they also “think big” and “pray big.”  I left there with plenty of reasons to be amazed.

During the renovation, this little “prairie gothic” was lifted off the ground to enable the creation of a basement.

I visited Unionville, a town of 2,000 tucked away in the gentle hills of northern Missouri, about 15 miles south of the Iowa border.  The local Catholic mission, St. Mary, has been around for a century and a half and is preparing for the next 100 years.  Just last year Catholic Extension donors helped this mission parish renovate its church.  With a $48,000 grant from Catholic Extension, parishioners were able to completely rehab their aging “prairie gothic” church, which had been built in the mid 1800s, a testament to the longevity of this faith community.  They jacked up the little white church on stilts to replace all of the corroded floor joists and then tunneled through sheet rock and dirt to create a finished basement for a religious education center, kitchen and parish hall.  They tightened the bowed walls of the church as much as five inches, and tore out and replaced all the old plaster and the drop ceiling.  It sounds like a big, complicated and expensive project.  Would you have guessed, though, that they pulled all this off for a mere $100,000?

Local parishioners, who have expertise in construction, lent their time to the project to cut costs.  Some spent as many as five hours a day, seven days a week for a solid six months.  These dedicated souls got local youth and children involved, and even recruited a few non-Catholics who were willing to help.

Parishioners show us the results of their work and Catholic Extension’s grant. The church was rededicated by Bishop Gaydos in October of 2010.

“The purpose of this project was not just to fix the church,” said Gene Brummer, who led the team.  ”The purpose was to get everyone involved and help them see that this is their church.”  Being a small mission, with no full-time staff and a priest who drives two and half hours to celebrate Mass, the parishioners realize they must be hands-on.

Spirituality in these parts is simple but profound:  “What matters here is what’s in your heart,” said Gene.  For the parishioners of St. Mary’s, action demonstrates what’s in the heart.

About an hour away from Unionville is Kirskville, home to Truman State University.  Approximately 5,000 students attend Truman State,  1,500 of whom are Catholics.  In 2007, the campus ministry center burned to the ground after being struck by lightning.  With a little bit of help from Catholic Extension and a whole lot of determination on their part, the campus ministry has rebuilt a state-of -the-art facility.  They have new staff in place and the campus is teeming and popping with energy.

The local campus ministry would make any Catholic smile with pride and hope for the future.   As many as 800 students participate in some way in campus ministry, an impressive statistic for a state school.  The caliber of the students says it all:

“It’s really an awesome privilege to have access to a chapel twenty-four hours a day,” said Ashley, a prayerful and well-spoken sophomore who is a leader of many campus ministry activities.  She wants to work in graphic design and advertising after graduation so that she can be an ethical voice in an industry, which in her opinion, “too often appeals to people’s weaknesses and not their strengths.”

“I plan to apply for the seminary to pursue priesthood after graduation,” said Joe, a junior from southern Missouri.  He explains that the Newman Center has played a pivotal role in affirming that decision.  “There’s such a strong faith community here,” he said.

Students sing and pray in the chapel at the Newman Center, beneath the tabernacle as well as the wooden crucifix that survived the 2007 fire.

As I travel the country, I see that great things come from ordinary, small-town folk who “go big.”  Their work reminds me of how our faith tradition is scripted, a faith in which fisherman, shepherds, and a carpenter shed light on who God is and all that He is capable of doing.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management