The National Catholic Review

Growing up Catholic in the 1950’s, my first understanding of the term mission centered around pagan babies, milk-carton penny collections and stories of religious in full habit harvesting souls abroad. Only later did I discover that the term included Home Missions in the United States.

These missions are in Appalachia, the deep South, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain states and are supported by the Catholic Home Missions Appeal.

Home Missions dioceses are typically characterized by the following: low assets that limit pastoral programs; relatively small numbers of Catholics, often less than 10 percent of the total population; greater distances separating isolated parishes and missions; few or no Catholic institutions; larger numbers of Hispanic, African American, Asian and Native American populations in need of pastoral attention; higher instances of poverty and unemployment; and more hostility in the local culture toward Catholicism in general. There are currently 87 such dioceses in the United States.

Here are a few examples. There are only four Catholic high schools to serve the combined Catholic population of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming; there was a 665 percent increase in the number of Hispanics in the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., between 1990 and 2000; there are 8,573 Catholics per active priest in the Diocese of Brownsville, Tex.

I spent a large part of last year doing an ethnographic study of America’s Home Missions dioceses for the Committee on the Home Missions, an office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was founded as the American Board of Catholic Missions in 1924. The research included far-flung journeys around the respective dioceses, numerous interviews, round-table discussions and informal conversations with bishops, priests, deacons and laypeople.

Visits to the U.S. Home Missions dioceses present a unique opportunity to acquire a more expansive sense of the changes and opportunities confronting the church in the United States today. While Home Missions dioceses encounter many of the same challenges and issues that face the church as a whole, they also accentuate key changes that prefigure Catholicism’s future in the United States. Not surprisingly, the most compelling of these are the Latino presence, the priest shortage and an expanding lay ministry.

Latinos

Although Home Missions dioceses typically include an array of immigrants (especially Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipinos), the growing Latino presence is the most salient demographic reality. Because of the undocumented status of much of this shadow population, the true number of Latinos in many of these dioceses remains unknown.

Most of the Latinos in Home Missions dioceses come from Mexico. While not uniformly an underclass, many of these Mexicans have jobs that are dirty, dangerous and undesirable. In addition, the Latino influx often occurs in smaller, rural communities where their presence is more conspicuous, and where the local sense of family, tradition and, in some cases, ethnic identity is strong and therefore more resistant to outsiders of any stripe.

While some dioceses and parishes are proactive in responding to the growing Latino presence, others are more reactive. Virtually none have adequate personnel or financial capabilities to meet this reality. There is also an obvious and unresolved tension in many places between the ideal of assimilation on the one hand, and the provision of separate services and structures on the othera situation recapitulating debates over the question of national parishes in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Most Latino immigrants come to North America with a different experience of the church. They are less likely to have been catechized, and they lack the parish experience of a middle-class American Catholic. Many are baptized Catholics, but fewer are churchgoing ones. And while large numbers are Catholic in sensibility, they are not so in practiceeven where their personal faith is deep, abiding and communally and culturally oriented.

Most Home Missions dioceses have some form of Latino ministry including some Spanish-language liturgies. Requiring diocesan seminarians to have a functional knowledge of Spanish, the sponsoring of Spanish-speaking Cursillos and the publication (and/or broadcasting) of Spanish-language pastoral and catechetical materials are also widespread.

Shortcomings, however, are systemic. These include language and cultural barriers, insufficient personnel, a shortage of catechetical resources and the lack of sustained and culturally appropriate pastoral programming. Widespread illiteracy and the difficulty of accommodating a population that is transient and often has work patterns that are diverse also make pastoral programming difficult.

Identifying and developing ministerial leadership within Latino communities is another challenge, although the Cursillo experience is helpful. Mandatory documentation and background checks, which are now required for virtually any diocesan employment because of the sexual abuse crisis, are problematic for a population suspicious of such probing. This is a systemic impediment to fostering Latino leadership in parish and diocesan settings.

Those who work directly with Latinos in diocesan and parish settings tend to have an acute sense of the problems of poverty, acceptance, assimilation and cultural identity confronting Latino immigrants. They are more likely to feel that Latinos have not been given appropriate attention or resources by the church. Occasional tensions also arise with black Catholics in mission dioceses, where it is perceived that Hispanics are receiving diocesan resources and attention that were rarely, if ever, directed with the same enthusiasm and commitment toward black Catholic communities.

Conflicts between Latinos and Anglo-Catholics in the dioceses I visited often centered around the perception that Latinos are taking over a local parish, consuming an inordinate amount of parish and diocesan resources or failing to carry their share of financial responsibility at the local level. These tensions are exacerbated by racial stereotyping, class differences and cultural conflicts over social and lifestyle behaviors. Language differences are an obvious and additional problem.

Many Latinos, in turn, arrive in the United States with a weak sense of obligation to support a parish financially. They often feel more like guests and visitors than rightful owners of parish life. Feelings of being the other work against parish involvement. While many Latinos attend Mass, they are otherwise absent from the parish administrative infrastructure or involved in parish life in only marginal ways.

In virtually every diocese I visited, I heard repeated concerns about proselytizing by non-Catholics, especially evangelical and Pentecostal groups, Baptists and, to a lesser degree, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Irenic ecumenical sensibilities currently stand at the level of official dialogue, but it was obvious in many places that Pentecostals in particular are aggressive and single-minded in their efforts to win over Latino Catholics.

When these Pentecostals succeed, it is because an array of factors has come into play: adaptation to Latino culture; persistent and aggressive outreach; meeting practical needs, such as transportation to church and social, medical, financial and immigration services; making Latinos feel welcomed and integrated into the community and providing them with occasions for social conviviality; conducting highly emotional services; emphasizing the Bible; and providing Latinos with immediate opportunities for ministerial roles devoid of formal credentialing burdens. Importing ministers from Mexico specifically to target Mexican migrants/immigrants living in the United States was also offered as a contributing factor.

Some non-Catholic sects in Home Missions dioceses also proselytize in ways that are perceived as predatory and not beyond the use of deceptive or misleading stratagems. These include co-opting the Guadalupan image as a recruiting tool, posting misleading Misa signs on their churches and linking social or immigration services with the obligation to join a particular church and/or its religious education programs.

Priest Shortage

The clerical shortage is a serious and growing problem in virtually every Home Missions diocese. In a few, the situation is acute. The shortage is three-pronged: a declining number of priests available for ministry, an increase in the average age among them and multiplying demands placed on the time and energy of those who remain in active ministry.

Depending on the particular diocese, the impact on a priest’s workload can also be exacerbated by the Latino influx. At precisely the time the number of priests is steadily declining, the number of Latinos in some dioceses is growing exponentially. Many priests are experiencing additional pressures to be bilingual and bicultural in their ministry. At the same time, opportunities for professional educational enhancement and for socialization with other priests becomes increasingly rare.

I heard repeated expressions of concern from both clergy and laity about priests burning out in their ministry. A number of younger priests I interviewed have also become pastors of a parish (or in some cases, multiple-mission parishes) with limited mentoring by an older priest, or with only a short period of service as an associate pastor.

One harried pastor noted wistfully how he increasingly saw himself as a Pony Express clericriding in, delivering spiritual wares and riding out again. Although widely appreciated for their sacramental services, these priests can find themselves disconnected from the parish or mission as a community of faith and from a wider array of potentially rewarding ministerial functions that are not strictly sacramental in nature.

Some dioceses have responded to the declining number of priests by recruiting clergy from abroad. While these priests were often described as good and well-intentioned individuals, virtually no one with whom I spoke considered this practice a long-term solution to the current problem. Concerns typically centered around cultural differences in the attitudes of these priests toward women, living arrangements, conflicts over the role and authority of the priest in American parish life, language or accent difficulties, and around questions about the justice of foreign recruitment and the motivations behind the service of some foreign-born priests in the United States.

Lay Ministry

The emergence of lay ministry is an outgrowth of the Second Vatican Council, a practical response to the declining number of priests and religious and one of the most significant transformations of contemporary Catholicism. Given the exacerbated priest shortage in many Home Missions dioceses, Catholic laypeople in these settings have assumed an increasing number of roles and responsibilities in the governance, worship and ministry of parish life. In so doing, various issues are accentuated.

One is the challenge of properly educating and training laity for this new leadership and responsibility. The rural settings and vast distances in many Home Missions dioceses compound the logistical problems involved in running courses, seminars and workshops for this purpose. Attending a workshop or training program may require traveling long distances, risking inclement weather and giving up entire weekends.

In addition, few of the Home Missions dioceses have a Catholic college or university that could function as a local resource for lay ministry programming. Speakers must often be imported, or distance learning or telecommunications programs must be arranged.

Another issue is the reception of lay ministry. Overall, lay Catholics in the parishes and missions I visited were supportive ofand in some cases genuinely excited aboutthe opportunities posed by collaborative ministry and the assumption by laypeople of many tasks previously performed by priests and religious. There is enthusiasm and willingness in the air. Attitudes are positive, commitment is strong, and exemplary programs have been initiated. While some Catholics approach lay ministry with a Father’s helper sensibility, others see it as a more imaginative and theologically rooted expression of vocation, empowerment and responsibility for the mission of the church.

But while the receptivity toward greater lay ministry in Home Missions dioceses is generally high, some priests still do not want to give up clerical power, share authority or involve the laity in decision-making processes. A few refuse to take lay ministry seriously, or do so only begrudgingly. Others simply don’t know what to do with lay ministers or deacons and adopt a hands-off approach that creates problems of authority and leadership.

The emergence of lay ministry, particularly in liturgical roles, has naturally required some adjustment. One can hear occasional comments about having real priests, about the spiritual efficacy of participating in Communion services as opposed to a real Mass or about feeling that attending a Communion or prayer service in the absence of a priest is just not like going to church. Over time, most of these concerns have evaporated.

I was reminded on a number of occasions that lay ministry in Home Missions dioceses (and elsewhere) is not simply a stopgap reaction to the current scarcity of priests and religious. In several of the dioceses I visited, initiatives toward more laity involvement in the pastoral and administrative life of parishes or missions go back several decades. Catholics in these dioceses are long accustomed to nonclerical parish or pastoral administrators, many of whom were initially women religious. The commitment to promoting lay ministry in these dioceses evolved as a direct consequence of an initiative on the part of a particular bishop to implement a more collegial and collaborative vision of the post-Vatican II church. This recognition of the integrity of lay ministry and its legitimation in a post-Vatican II ecclesiology naturally raises concerns where there appears to be a reclericalizing of parish or mission life, especially where lay ministry roles are reduced or eliminated, or where a popular lay administrator faces replacement.

A New Vision

Although currently engulfed in one of the most serious institutional crises in its history, the Catholic Church in the United States is also experiencing a profound internal transformation that is inevitably having an impact upon its public life. New ways of being and experiencing the church continue to appear in the form of both changing demographic and ethnic realities and of emergent forms of ministry and responsibility. These changes are nowhere more obvious than in the Home Missions dioceses.

During my travels and interviews I came into contact with many dedicated individuals who were grappling with a complex array of administrative and ministerial issues, some of which are daunting. However, although hampered by a perennial shortage of resources, these laypeople and members of the clergy remain deeply committed to a life of service and ministry in the church and to the ecclesial challenges and opportunities of our time.

Historically, the phrase mission diocese has connoted a place where people cannot pay for themselves. It suggests an ecclesiology of welfare, a place that is deficient and in need. A new vision conceives of a mission diocese as a missionary diocese, a place where all Catholics are challenged to assume responsibilities for service, renewal and ownership in the church, and for proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. This vision of the opportunities opening up in Home Missions dioceses is especially evident in the innovative and collaborative ministry arising in these settings and in the responseseven where currently underdeveloped or insufficientto the challenges and opportunities of growing ethnic and cultural diversity.

The image of a mission diocese as a beacon of the church of the future, not just a place of need, shifts the focus. In this new vision, the Home Missions office is not a welfare agency, but a vital mechanism for facilitating new models of church, ministry, cultural adaptation and evangelization in the 21st century. With adequate funding and creative leadership, Home Missions dioceses play a critical role in leading the way into the future. They are the church of tomorrowtoday.

William D. Dinges is an associate professor at the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.