Encouraging Trends in Catholicism

This week I was in McKee, KY, a small town in the foothills of Appalachia.  I visited St. Paul Mission, a thriving Catholic community supported by Catholic Extension located in an area of the country where less than one half of a percent of the population is Catholic.

If you’ve ever thought that Catholicism is dying, let me show you where it is rising.  If you’ve ever thought that no one cares anymore about the faith, let me introduce you to the people who care.  If you’ve ever thought that all young people disdain religion, let me introduce you to the ones who fully embrace it.  If you’ve ever been depressed about the direction our Church is headed in, allow me to restore some hope in you.

But, to restore your confidence, you’ll have to go to places off of the beaten path, places like St. Paul in McKee, KY.  The parishioners are all people who live in the “trenches,” witnessing every day the realities of rural poverty, rampant drug use, teen pregnancy and youth growing up in broken homes.  Yet, all the people I met, John, Melvin, Eddie, Rebecca, Monica, Judy, and Fr. Frank, their pastor, see hope everywhere.  Catholics here simply live the Gospel and love their neighbors.

These parishioners don’t have means, but they sure have meaning.  One parishioner, Melvin, said “I can count on one hand how many of our parishioners make over $30,000 a year.” Even though the 25 Catholic families of the parish are small in number and financial resources, they provide thousands upon thousands of hours of service to their local community annually. Catholics have built a reputation in Jackson county for assisting Catholics and Non-Catholics alike.

The humble dwelling of a resident in Eastern Kentucky, where the needs are great, but the Catholic response is heroic.

Rebecca, the young and energetic lay pastoral associate of St. Paul, was recently transporting a sick member of the community to a health care visit when her vehicle slipped off the narrow dirt road into a ditch.  A passer-by, and non-catholic, upon assessing her situation, instructed her to “Give those Catholics a call.  They’ll do just about anything to help you out.”   Had she made that call, she would have been calling herself, as she is the primary contact person for the local Catholic community there.

Judy, a local business owner and parishioner of St. Paul, feels that God has called her to serve the people of McKee.  Judy runs a local factory.  On the surface it looks like a regular for-profit company, but her true mission, she explained, is to provide meaningful employment for people in this economically depressed area.  She arrived in Jackson County Kentucky years ago as a Christian Appalachian Volunteers, an organization founded by the legendary diocesan priest, Monsignor Ralph Beiting.  In the early days, volunteers like Judy earned a stipend of $50 a month and received no health insurance.  Years later, that service experience has never left her, and so neither has she left McKee.  Today as a Catholic business owner, she continues the mission of helping people, to be a source of economic development for their community.

Eddie, a husband and father of five who works at a local saw mill, believes that it has been the parish community which has anchored people in their faith so solidly and enabled them to live their faith so powerfully.  “I will never leave this community, even though it’s a little hard to be Catholic here” he said, “I want my children to grow up here.”

Catholics who live out their faith are transforming the world.  And wherever I go in the U.S. to visit Catholic communities I encounter individuals who live radical lives of service, rooted in their faith.  Their stories are not isolated incidents of good will. Rather, they represent a real phenomenon, that ordinary, yet holy men and women are setting the world ablaze and bringing life to the Catholic Church.  As their pastor, Fr. Frank so aptly observed, “Hey, where there is charity and Love, there God is.”  We Catholics should feel good about that.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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Resourceful Christianity

I have just returned from Eastern Kentucky in the Diocese of Lexington, a trip that included hundreds of miles of travel across Kentucky’s Appalachia Mountains.

St. Martha’s Church in Prestonsburg, KY faces an abandoned coal mine.

This is a place where poverty and social problems are rampant.  We heard stories of families literary starving. We heard about households in which toilet paper is a luxury.  We heard that hundreds of parents cannot afford to purchase underwear and socks for their children, including one account of a young girl who, upon receiving the gift of socks for Christmas from her church, clutched those socks  closely to her face and contemplated the gift with as much delight as a girl getting a pony. We heard stories of horrific living conditions: of uninhabitable, rat-infested trailer homes with the floors falling in. These are the realities of poverty in this country, and many of these tales are hard to accept.  But there is another, much more hopeful reality. We also heard and saw that God is alive and active in these mountains.

Our Lady of the Mountains Church in Stanton, KY.

By the end of my visit, I found myself thunderstruck – not by the dreadful poverty, but by the unquenchable passion of our Church to walk with those who live in poverty. Catholics are a minority in Appalachia, and in some areas they are still not even recognized as Christian.  In many counties in the Diocese of Lexington, Catholics are one in a thousand (or 0.1% of the population).  But, what Catholics lack in numbers, they make up for in their presence to their communities.  Their outreach efforts are simply superhuman.

Over the past few decades, we learned, the Catholic Church has been able to increase its outreach, gain community trust and increase the number of people who practice the faith.  We visited one parish that has slowly built up its base of parishioners over the years.  In fact, 80 percent of the church’s 100+ families are converts, including the parish priest.

What is drawing them to our faith? The mighty deeds of resourceful, joyful, faithful Catholics who represent hope to a forgotten people.

Fr. Bob Damron of St. Martha’s Church in Prestonsburg, KY.

One 87-year-old monsignor from Louisa, Kentucky, whose energy level has visibly increased with age, is gearing up to serve 18,000 families this year. He said to me, “We are going to do something to help people; we’re not going to sit around and talk about it.”

A parishioner at Our Lady of the Mountains in Stanton, Kentucky told me how she feels about her weekly service to struggling mothers, a ministry that is hosted by her church. “I know God has called me here, I just know he has,” she said with the fire of conviction burning in her eyes.

“What is your hope for this parish?” I asked a group of parish leaders at one church. “To be able to help more people,” three of the leaders chimed in with little hesitation. “Here, we know how to live our Christianity,” one woman told me.

In spite of their resourcefulness and intelligence, these hardworking Catholics expressed to me in varied ways how deeply aware they are that all of us are ultimately reliant on divine providence, and that their efforts are dependent on God’s grace and generosity.

At St. Martha’s Catholic Church in Prestonsburg, where Catholic Extension recently helped build an outreach center, many of the parishioners thanked Catholic Extension and its donors for sharing in their mission.  Those of us from Catholic Extension, in turn, shared how proud we are to call parishes like these our partners.  These parishioners demonstrated to us, once again, that Catholic Extension doesn’t provide charity. Rather, it offers support to further the efforts of dynamic faith communities who are, in their words, “carrying on the work of Christ.”  Their resourcefulness in these noble endeavors is perhaps summed up best by one parishioner who told me, “Oh, we can stretch a dollar like you wouldn’t believe.”

As I absorbed all of this information over several days, St. Paul was ringing in my ears: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). Adversity is not impeding our fellow Catholics around the country from putting faith into action; in fact, adversity is ironically driving their action with greater force.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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