U.S. Catholics Find Missions Close to Home

In One Diocese, There Are 9 Priests and 400,000 Square Miles

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WASHINGTON, NOV. 27, 2002 (Zenit.org).- The United States was mostly mission territory in the 19th century. Much of it still is.

According to data from the U.S. bishops’ conference, 85 out of the 195 dioceses of the country are considered mission territory, in that they receive direct support from the Catholic Home Missions Appeal.

Their needs and assets vary widely, from the Diocese of Caguas, in Puerto Rico, with 800,000 Catholics in 737 square miles (1,900 square kilometers) and only 56 diocesan priests, to the Diocese of Cheyenne, which covers Wyoming’s almost 100,000 square miles (260,000 square kilometers) — and has about 200,000 Catholics.

The Diocese of Fairbanks, in Alaska, has 17,000 Catholics spread over 400,000 square miles — over 1 million square kilometers. It has nine priests.

The Diocese of Knoxville boasts a mere 2.4% Catholic population. Some people in East Tennessee have never met a Catholic.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, in Louisiana, has always had special needs, in a largely Catholic, mostly French-speaking area. But recent economic development has led to a rapid influx of thousands of Spanish-speaking Catholics from Mexico and Central America. English is rapidly becoming a third language in the diocese.

Some of the Eastern churches also face geographical challenges.

The Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle, based in San Diego, California, is a huge Eastern Catholic diocese that covers 19 Western states. The Melkite Eparchy of Newton, based in Massachusetts, faces an even bigger challenge, ministering to Arab Catholics nationwide, across the 50 states.

The trying circumstances show faith and fervor in clergy and laity. Catholics in Wyoming routinely travel up to 50 miles on dangerous winter roads for Sunday Mass.

In the Fairbanks Diocese, priests must travel to over three-quarters of the diocese’s parishes by bush plane.

In Selma, Alabama, when the Edmundite missionaries started eucharistic adoration some years ago, they experienced a tremendous response — though few of those present at adoration were even Catholic.

Dioceses in less obviously dramatic situations also benefit from help from the bishops’ conference and the Home Missions Appeal.

Even the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory, has seen his own home Diocese of Belleville, in Illinois, benefit from mission help.

«Without the Committee on the Home Missions’ support, many of our programs would have to be eliminated or reduced substantially,» he said, in a statement of thanks for the organization’s support.

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