How to deal with the evangelical challenges of a vast geographical area is a central focus of the current Pan-Amazonian Synod in Rome — but the Amazon isn’t the only part of the world where Church leaders are ministering to large territories.
While some states in the U.S. have many Latin Rite dioceses — California, for example, has 12, and New York eight — in 12 states, the entire state (or more) is a single diocese: Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.
In the states with a large geographic area, it can make for major logistical challenges for bishops, but it can also allow these same bishops to put themselves in the traveling shoes of their earliest predecessors, journeying to the far-flung locales of their dioceses to be with their flocks in the same missionary and apostolic spirit that first spread the Gospel message around the world.
Bishop Robert Deeley heads the Diocese of Portland, which encompasses Maine in its entire 35,385 square miles. He puts 50,000 miles a year on his car and sometimes takes the ferry to celebrate Mass on the islands off the coast of the Pine Tree State.
When Bishop Deeley was new to the diocese, he learned that gas stations can be few and far between in the remote regions of the state. Once while driving with his vicar general, he noticed he was low on gas. By the time he eventually found fuel, “We coasted into a station on fumes. Lesson learned!”
Despite the vast area, he has found Portland “unlike any other ministry.”
As he explained to the Register, “It is a special place unmatched in its storied history, caring people and beautiful scenery: sprawling canvases of rural life, urban development, welcoming beaches, the unmistakable aroma of the ocean while driving along its coast and the swishing of skis in its many mountainous areas. Maine is rich in its natural beauty!”
He tries to avoid driving to the far ends of the diocese during the winter months, but if the need arises, he goes: “It’s just part of life in a big state. You get in the car and drive.”
As the landscape varies, so do the people, as attitudes vary in the rural north versus the urban south.
But he has learned to minister to all: “It’s enjoyable to be with both groups of people and to see the things that are of interest to them and to learn what is happening in their lives.”
Bishop Robert Deeley blesses a Catholic Charities field in Caribou, Maine (far north part of the state), as part of the ‘Farm for ME’ program helping those in need obtain produce and visits a student at St. Thomas Catholic School in Sanford, Maine (far south part of the state).
“Life as a priest in the diocese offers the opportunity to explore and enjoy the many fruits of the state and its benevolent residents, but also requires a desire to serve large and varied social and geographical regions,” he continued. “These regions each have their own characteristics that priests in our state come to know and love. The people in some of our rural areas, in the ways in which they help each other, really display what our faith is all about. They care for each other, as we are called to do.”
Green Mountain Travels
Bishop Christopher Coyne is bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, which encompasses the entire state of Vermont. The state is bordered by Canada on the north and is divided by the Green Mountains, which run through the center of the state. The chancery is in the city of Burlington, which is in the northwest end of the state.
He told the Register, “It is important that I get around, so that people all over the state feel I am present to them.”
It takes him four hours to drive across the state; if he has to drive more than two hours, he likes to find a volunteer to drive him, so he can work in the car. When he visits the southern end of the state, he likes to stay in a rectory in the region for several days, so he can make the most of his time there. He usually does not let winter impede his pastoral visits around the state, noting that his car has all-wheel drive, and “when you live in Vermont, you get used to snow.”
He enjoys Vermont’s beautiful landscape when he’s on the road and noted he was a member of the “802 Club,” in which drivers go online to check off the different cities and towns they visit across the state (802 is Vermont’s area code). As bishop of Burlington since 2015, he has visited every parish in the diocese. But, as some parishes have multiple church buildings, his next goal is to visit every Catholic church in the Burlington diocese.
Bishop Christopher Coyne joins students at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington, Vermont, as they package meals with Catholic Relief Services’ Helping Hands program and wishes Vermont Catholic Charities’ St. Joseph Home resident Ada Torrey a happy 104th birthday.
It’s an ongoing challenge to spend so much time on the road, but, as he said, “The people are glad to see me, and I’m glad to see them.”
High Desert Bishop
Maria Cruz Gray is a spokeswoman for Bishop Oscar Solis of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, which encompasses the 84,899 square miles that make up the state of Utah. She described him as a “traveler bishop” who “enjoys going out to meet as many people as he can.”
Bishop Solis travels mostly by car and has a deacon come along both to help with driving and for safety. Utah is known as the land of “sun and salt,” Gray said, referencing the state’s Great Salt Lake, but noted that other parts of the state are known for their beautiful forests, grasslands, high desert cliffs and wind-sculpted sandstone.
Bishop Oscar Solis of the Diocese of Salt Lake City snaps a photo at Kolob Canyon, one of the wonders of Utah that he sees as he traverses the state and ministers to his flock, which includes a young parishioner (below) at St. Joseph parish in Monticello, Utah.
The diocese is also implementing a greater use of technology, such as videoconferencing, added Jean Hill, diocesan director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace, which “allows us to talk to each other despite the hundreds of miles between parishes and the diocese.”
But people still want to see their bishop in person, Gray noted, which means Bishop Solis is frequently on the road visiting the state’s 51 parishes and 18 missions, which serve 300,000 registered Catholics (and many more unregistered faithful).
It can be hazardous making it to some portions of the state in winter. Heading to St. George in the southwest end of the state, for example, means passing through canyons in the midst of a massive snowstorm. When he goes to Moab in the eastern part of the state and Kanab and other locations in the south, it means traveling over icy, two-lane roads.
But despite the challenges, Gray said, “He loves it, and the people love seeing their bishop.”
Spud State Sojourn
Bishop Peter Christensen has served as bishop of Boise, Idaho, since 2014. He is the only bishop serving Boise, which encompasses the entire state, 83,642 square miles. The state has 150,000 Catholics, or 11% of the population.
Logistically, it is a challenge, he said, as he spends a third of his time on the road. Driving from the parishes in the north to those in the south of the state takes nine hours. He noted that when, in 2014, the papal nuncio called to inform him that the Holy Father was moving him from the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, to Idaho, the nuncio said, “You’re used to a mission diocese and don’t mind driving.”
Occasionally, when Bishop Christensen is in a hurry to get somewhere, he’ll go by airplane, but most of the time he drives. “If I were in a metropolitan diocese, and people could come to a hub with ease, I wouldn’t spend so much time on the road. But people are spread out in Idaho and can’t travel as far, so I go to them. I do 30 confirmations a year, as well as many celebrations; I don’t expect them to come to me.”
While Boise and a few towns have significant populations, most of the state is rural. There is a large Hispanic population, many Mormons in the south, and five nations of American Indians. There are 110 churches and chapels across the state, of which he’s visited about 90%. “I especially like going to the small clapboard churches, which really maintain a sense of community. It reminds me of the Church of long ago, where hospitality is key. Some may not even have a full-time pastor.”
The parishes extend warm hospitality to him, which he finds “quite sweet.” In a recent visit to the small parish of St. Jerome’s in Riggins, he was told, “We want you to know that you’re the first bishop we’ve seen here in 45 years.”
The state’s scenery is spectacular, he said, with features such as mountains, high desert, lava beds, quaint farms, rivers, meadows, hot springs and an abundance of wildlife.
But winter can be a challenge. While Boise might only get a few inches of snow in the winter, Bishop Christensen can drive north a few hours and hit regions of the state that get 300 inches.
Despite these challenges, though, the bishop likes to travel by himself. “I like the solitude. I don’t listen to music. I pray the Rosary or think about things. It gives me a lot of time to myself.”
He’s had pastoral trips that can put him on the road two weeks or more, but he doesn’t mind. “I love the state and its people, who have been extremely kind. I’m most grateful to the Holy Father for sending me here.”
Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.