Surging Church

When I look at the future of the Catholic Church in the United States, I see a Church that is thriving, relevant, unifying, vibrant and youthful.  I know that this statement comes across as slightly controversial, given the narratives that we are accustomed to being fed about the state of Catholicism today.

However, I believe that on a recent trip to Virginia I gathered enough evidence to back up my assertion. You see, that thriving, relevant, unifying, vibrant and youthful Church already exists today.   You just need to know where to find it.  I witness this vibrant Church in the Hispanic community throughout the U.S., and in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, which is home to a quarter-million Hispanic Catholics.  In fact, what’s happening in Richmond is a microcosm of that larger story.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. is currently experiencing one of the greatest opportunities of its entire history with the rapid growth of the Hispanic Catholic population everywhere.   Hispanics now account for 35-40 percent of the Catholic population in this country, but among U.S. Catholics under age 25, Hispanics are now the majority.   Hispanic Catholics are a community on the rise, not just in numbers, but in leadership.

Volunteers from Sacred Heart in Richmond, one of the first communities in the U.S. to participate in Catholic Extension’s “Hispanic Lay leadership initiative.”

Volunteers from Sacred Heart in Richmond, one of the first communities in the U.S. to participate in Catholic Extension’s “Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative.”

To help capitalize on what is truly a gift-wrapped opportunity for U.S. Catholicism to resurge in this country, Catholic Extension has announced a new Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative, which will establish 100 paid lay leaders in the Church throughout the U.S. to help accelerate this resurgence.  The Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative is a matching challenge that will establish new lay leadership positions by providing 50 percent of the salary cost to the participating dioceses for three years to assist in the creation of these full-time positions.

While Hispanics are as much as 40 percent of the U.S. Catholic population, they currently represent only three percent of paid professional leaders in the Church, signifying that there is work to be done in helping the Church develop and incorporate all the gifts and talents that the Hispanic community has to offer.   It is for this reason that Catholic Extension has launched this special leadership initiative and is working with dioceses across the country.  The goal is to place new professional Hispanic leaders in areas where the need for human resources is significant and where the opportunity for making an impact is great.  To date, 49 dioceses have expressed desire to participate in the Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative.  Among the first to express interest was the Diocese of Richmond.

Dr. Arturo Chavez, president and CEO of the Mexican-American Catholic College in San Antonio, told me back in June of this year that “this initiative has the potential to change Hispanic Ministry as we know it.  It is desperately needed.”   So, you can imagine the excitement at Catholic Extension as we begin to see this initiative become a reality in places like Sacred Heart Parish in the city of Richmond, which the local diocese identified as a site for a new regional Hispanic leader.

This particular parish has about 4,500 active parishioners, and serves very under-resourced communities.  In spite of its limited financial capacity, this parish made tremendous gains in recent years to make its presence known in the community and cultivate new leaders. The parish, which reaches Hispanic Catholics living 45 minutes in all directions, has great potential to do much more.

Maria, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, serves her community with great joy and dedication.

Maria, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, serves her community with great joy and dedication.

I met with a room full of parishioners, whose sense of mission and commitment to the faith was as profound and authentic as I’ve ever seen:

“There is no other place that I want to be other than here in the Church.  This place is marvelous,” said Francisco, a parishioner who skips meals so that he can go directly from his job to serve in the Church nightly as a volunteer for many ministries.

“I used to be very depressed…but now that I volunteer for the Church I don’t have time to be depressed anymore,” said one parishioner, who began helping one year ago to educate adults completing their elementary education.

Maria, who works tirelessly for the parish, said it best, “We see how much we’ve done and those results motivate us.  Your help to [to support a new leader] will enable us to do so much more.”

As Catholics, we are indeed living in exciting times, and Catholic Extension is working to maximize the opportunities that are before us.  Catholic Extension is dedicated to its mission – started more than 100 years ago – to continue to listen to the needs and opportunities of the Church and respond with great energy.

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

Young Adult Leadership Summit

“From all the ‘corners’ of the Earth we gathered, and hearts and minds met.”

Those simple words sum up the experience of one young adult Catholic who attended Catholic Extension’s first-ever Young Adult Leadership Summit.  The Summit, held in Chicago in late July, drew young adult Catholic leaders from 20 dioceses.

They came from California, Texas, Wyoming, The U.S. Virgin Islands, Montana, Ohio, Mississippi, New Mexico, Kentucky, Puerto Rico and Virginia – bright shining faces eager to talk about their Catholic faith.  They were invited to the Summit because of their proven extraordinary commitment to their diocese and communities through leadership and ministry service.

For some, this was their first plane ride or their first trip to a big city. For many, it was also a first chance to meet fellow young adult Catholics with a similar mission – to engage their peers in becoming active leaders and participants in the next generation of the Catholic Church.

Christian Jokinen presenting at the Leadership Summit.

One participant, Christian Jokinen of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has taken on enormous responsibility as a young adult to help build community and faith at his parish. He selflessly volunteers for 30 hours a week in multiple roles. He serves as a Eucharistic minister, teaches pre-Confirmation classes, trains altar servers, coordinates religious education and more. “Wherever they call me is where I end up going—it keeps me busy,” he said. “It’s a lot of time, but it’s fun.”

For Ana Hernandez of Monterey, California, another Summit participant, ministry to young adults and youth is a family activity. “We’re working together – my dad, mom, younger brother and I are all involved in the youth group,” she said of her family’s work at their parish.

“We want to tap into the energy and enthusiasm that young adults have demonstrated for the Church, for the service of others and for the faith,” said Joe Boland, senior director of Grants Management for Catholic Extension, who led the Summit activities. “They are here to help us understand and discover how we can multiply that energy and enthusiasm beyond this group of dedicated young leaders into the greater community of young adult Catholics across the country.”

Attendees meeting for small group discussions. Left to right: Maggie Warner, Samuel Bugueno, Ana Hernandez and Jermain Wair.

Through workshops, presentations, small-group discussions, faith-sharing sessions and even some social activities, Catholic Extension invited these young adult leaders to share their feelings about their faith, goals for their ministries and ideas for the church.

“Everywhere we go, we are inspired by the young leaders we encounter who are the bright light of the future of the Church in their diocese,” said Fr. Jack Wall, President of Catholic Extension. “Many of these young people lack financial resources for their ministries; however, their genuine faith and conviction are moving them to do great things.  We thought it would be very powerful to bring these young leaders together, to learn what inspires and motivates them and to see how Catholic Extension can support them in their efforts.”

Even though the Summit wrapped up just a short time ago, Catholic Extension has heard that the ideas the young adult leaders gathered from the event have already inspired them to take action. Upon returning to her hometown, Ana Hernandez sent the following note to her deacon: “It was an awesome experience. Now I think I’m in the wrong Major. Now I want to study Theology.” Another participant, Marsha Howe from the Diocese of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was so moved that she has met with several local diocesan priests to share her experience. She also met with local youth group leaders to create a youth leadership program to ensure the participation in the faith from young Catholics on each of the different islands.

Attendees after celebrating Mass at St. James Chapel in Chicago, IL.

“Catholic Extension is committed to building a network of young Catholic leaders,” Fr. Wall added.  “We were blessed to have this opportunity to come together to share ideas that will ultimately strengthen the Church’s outreach to young adults.”

Catholic Extension provides grants to dioceses throughout the United States to empower Catholic communities by funding a variety of building projects and ministries and investing in lay, religious and ordained Catholic leaders. Last year it supported youth ministries with more than $2 million in grants exclusively in underserved or under-resourced dioceses.

Catholic Extension

The True Jewels of the Diocese

One of the most common questions we are hear from Catholic leaders across the United States is “how can we keep our young people involved and excited about the Church?”  Parishes and dioceses alike are focusing on building youth ministry programs geared to providing youth with spiritual and personal growth alongside Jesus and in their faith communities.  On a recent trip to the Diocese of Helena, I was able to witness a robust youth ministry program that is “connecting the dots” between the parish, diocese and universal Church.

Entrance to "the jewel of the diocese," Legendary Lodge.

Our first stop, often referred to by locals as “the jewel of the diocese,” was Legendary Lodge.  Legendary Lodge is a beautiful campground located on a pristine river valley nestled between seemingly mile-high Montana mountains.  Each summer, nearly 900 youth from the Diocese of Helena travel to the campsite for a unique Catholic experience, unrivaled by most.  The camp is run all summer long with week-long sessions divided by age group.  “It’s a family tradition—many campers have been coming for nine years, just as their siblings did,” said Dan Bartleson, Seasonal Director of Legendary Lodge.

As we were ferried across the river by the head camp cook, sounds of high-school students laughing echoed through the trees.  The evening’s main activity was a game in which camp counselors assumed the personas of characters from various fairy tales, each exemplifying specific virtues and vices.  Campers raced around the grounds in teams working to identify each virtue or vice and complete a task designed to build teamwork.  In fact, this summer’s theme for all Legendary Lodge camp sessions is “virtues,” and the kids love learning about them, no matter what their age.

Legendary Lodge counselors use activities to teach about the virtues.

While the sun set behind the mountains, a campfire was carefully lit by the water’s edge.  Bleachers circled the fire pit and were quickly filled with campers excitedly laughing and talking amongst themselves.  Each night, a camp counselor tells an interesting story or a testimony about their personal faith.  After a few ice-breaking campfire songs, we learned it was Oliver’s night to share his faith testimony, and everyone hushed to listen.

Legendary Lodge Campers

Oliver explained his personal journey and ultimate decision to attend seminary school in the fall at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.  He said that he felt a natural calling to the priesthood during his youth, but “didn’t have friends interested in discussing their faith,” and he put those thoughts on shelf.  When Oliver attended a small Catholic college in Helena, he became immersed in campus ministry, and found many other youths interested and engaged in their Catholic faith. During this time, Oliver was pursuing a career path in medicine; he also hoped to have a family some day.  Throughout this time, he knew he was still interested in the priesthood, but “I was always waiting for my big sign,” he said.

Oliver tells the story of his journey to become a seminarian.

Then, while visiting the Vatican with classmates from college, it happened.  While his close friends knelt down and prayed at St. Peter’s tomb, Oliver stood quietly in the back and felt a great love open from deep within him.  “At that moment, I was overwhelmed with my love for the Eucharist,” he explained through tears.  “It still chokes me up today—I’m getting used to being this emotional when I speak about it.”  Oliver’s overwhelming experience led him to contact Fr. Marc Lenneman, a trusted priest and mentor with whom he spoke with often.  Fr. Marc, who was present at the fire that night, knew Oliver from his college campus ministry and is also the Chaplain at Legendary Lodge.  After prayer and reflection, Oliver fully realized and “opened himself up” to his true calling, the priesthood.  It was not an easy process, but he now feels God’s plan has been fully revealed to him.

After Oliver’s heartfelt story, many others opened up around that very fire and spoke about their hopes, dreams, fears and faith.  Humorous stories and laugher intertwined with the deeply personal and profound.

Fr. Marc Lennemen, Legendary Lodge Chaplain

For the counselors and leaders at Legendary Lodge, it’s their goal that this experience does not leave when camp is over.  They work closely with the Bishop, area priests, youth ministers and parents to ensure the themes and ideas discussed are built upon throughout the year.  Based on the impactful camp experience, parishes are seeing their youth continue church involvement year-round.

The Diocese of Helena’s youth ministry program is truly connecting the dots between small, rural faith communities and the universal Church.  As I drove away from Legendary Lodge in the morning, I could feel the powerful momentum built throughout the diocese by their youth programs.  It seems to me very likely that tomorrow’s leaders of the Church are being cultivated in Montana.  And those young leaders, are the true jewels of the diocese.

— John Bannon, Manager of Digital Communications

Priest soars high above adversity

Tuwan Bowden in Fr. Garrett's plane, Levelock, Alaska

In Alaska, isolated communities and harsh weather conditions are no barrier for the Catholic faith. Father Scott Garrett recalls a powerful story from his ministry in the Spring issue of EXTENSION magazine. Click here to read how Fr. Garrett soars above obstacles to serve the Archdiocese of Anchorage.

The Power of Youth Outreach in Montana

Dan Thies, right, is the program coordinator for C.Y.R.O and helps kids like Alex Neu, left, embrace their Catholicism.

It began a decade ago as a vision shared by the leaders of a small Catholic parish in Bigfork, a remote community in northwest Montana in the Diocese of Helena: a program to connect local high school youth across the small churches throughout the region with their Catholic faith. Today, with support from Catholic Extension, this simple vision has become a reality: the Catholic Youth Rural Outreach (C.Y.R.O.) program.  Read this article from the Spring issue of Extension about how CYRO is creating a new generation of leaders in the Church and inspiring parishes throughout the region.