Home Missions Collection

NEW CASTLE, Wyo. — Father Bruce Clapham was a mail carrier before becoming a priest. So he's used to driving. That's a good thing, because as a pastor in Wyoming, he spends a lot of time in his car.

Typically, he'll begin his Sunday by celebrating the 8 a.m. Mass at Corpus Christi Church, the main parish in New Castle, Wyo. After that, he drives 50 miles north to Sundance to say Mass at St. Paul's Home Mission Church at 10:30 a.m. Then he's off to St. Matthew's Home Mission Church in Hulett, 40 miles further north, for the 12:30 p.m. liturgy. And the 5 p.m. Mass is a 60-mile drive south of there, at St. Anthony's in Upton.

Second Collections

By the time he gets home to New Castle, he said, he's “pretty played out.”

There are 240 people in his parish, which covers about 5,000 square miles, most of it forest and prairies. The parish car — a 1993 Buick LeSabre — had 180,000 miles on it when he first arrived almost five years ago. Now it has about 305,000.

Welcome to the world of home-mission ministry.

Recognizing there were parishes where Catholics were few and lacked the kind of support churches need for evangelization (schools, hospitals and retreat centers), the U.S. bishops founded the American Board of Catholic Missions in 1924. Funds were raised as part of a Mission Sunday collection, and a certain percentage went to home-mission dioceses in the United States and the rest to foreign missions overseas.

In 1997, the bishops designated the last Sunday in April as Catholic Home Missions Appeal weekend, with the funds raised going specifically to U.S. home-mission dioceses and to organizations and religious communities doing home-mission work, said David Byers, the executive director of the Committee on the Home Missions.

In 1998, the appeal raised $4.5 million. In 2001, it raised about $8.5 million, and that amount has remained steady ever since, he said. This year's goal is to regain the momentum that was lost because of the downturn in the economy and the fallout from the sexual-abuse scandal, Byers added.

“The idea is to strengthen the Church where it can't handle the situation by itself,” he said. “You can also think of it in terms of Robin Hood. We receive most of our funding from the wealthier dioceses and it goes to the poor ones.”

Where the Money Goes

The appeal helps to boost and extend the presence of the Church in the United States — mainly in Appalachia, the deep South, the Southwest and the Rocky Mountain states — and in its island territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific, Byers said. More specifically, it goes toward diocesan evangelization efforts, parish religious-education programs, seminarian education, lay ministry training and the pastoral care of growing ethnic and migrant communities.

About one-third of all the grants go to ministry of the growing numbers of Hispanics in the United States, he said. For instance, in Charlotte, N.C., the Hispanic population mushroomed by 600% during the past decade. About 25 dioceses get the office's maximum grant: $175,000, he said.

“By their own account, they would have a tough time managing without us,” Byers said.

William Dinges, a professor of religious studies at The Catholic University of America, traveled about 55,000 miles in 2002, going to 10 home-mission dioceses to do a study, which hasn't been released yet, for the Committee on the Home Missions.

“We shouldn't think of home-mission dioceses in a kind of negative way,” Dinges said, “that this is a kind of handout ecclesiology. … Yes, that's part of the reality of these dioceses, but also, in a more positive way, there are a lot of things going on in these dioceses that are, in a sense, harbingers of the future of the Church — in regard to, for example, more lay people being involved in the life of the Church, ministerially speaking. In that sense, they are the Church of the future. … The home-missions office isn't just a welfare agency. It's a vital mechanism for facilitating how the Church is emerging in the 21st century.”

Some observers of the Church in the United States think the shortage of priests will usher in a greater ministerial role for the laity.

But not the Holy Father. He recently called greater ministerial involvement by the laity in the parish a “distraction” from the real role of the laity, which is to transform the secular world.

Last year, Father Clapham received almost $17,000 from the Committee on the Home Missions that helped him pay for a part-time deacon and transportation costs, said Jim Vance, financial officer for the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo.

The diocese, which covers 100,000 square miles and has a Catholic population of about 50,000, also receives monetary help from the committee for its migrant-worker programs, seminarian education and religious education, Vance said.

Facing Struggles

The diocese struggles with financing operations in the face of inflation — the same struggle mission churches have across the country. In Ripley, Miss., the only Catholic presence in the county is St. Matthew's Church, housed in a former drugstore and part of a Glenmary Home Missioners outreach, said St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Kathleen Regan, pastoral coordinator of the mission.

Since arriving at the church in 2000, Sister Regan has seen the number of parishioners — about 80% of whom are poor Hispanics — go from 15-20 people attending Mass to about 150, she said.

Two nearby priests, each of whom has to drive about an hour, celebrate Mass in English and Spanish during the month. Sister Regan conducts a word and Communion service twice a month.

Last year, Glenmary received $20,000 from the Committee on the Home Missions that helped Sister Regan pay part of her salary and the salary for a Spanish-speaking lay pastoral assistant, she said.

“It's a step in faith,” she said. “We don't know how sometimes we're going to meet these needs, but somehow we do. I keep saying if this is of God to have this mission here, we will get what we need. It's through these collections and grants from people from the larger Catholic community — that's the only way we can exist right now. We would like to be self-sufficient. You know, the American way. It's very humbling to ask for help.”

Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.