51,922 square miles!
For the past four months I have been traveling the vast and beautiful Diocese of Helena. Shortly after I arrived in June, I promised that I would invest my early time in the diocese visiting the parishes, missions, institutions, and faith communities scattered across the wide open spaces of the Big Sky Country. This past Sunday, I visited my 50th community, gained my fifth pound of extra weight and racked up the 13,000th mile on my car. This has been a time of grace and blessing as I become reacquainted with the marvelous people in the Diocese of Helena.
The purpose of these parish visitations has been simple and uncomplicated. This is a time for a ministry of presence, and an opportunity for attentive listening, pastoral outreach, and bridge building. This has also been a golden opportunity to express my gratitude to God and my thanks to Pope John Paul II for offering me the opportunity to serve as Bishop of the Diocese of Helena.
Our diocese is divided geographically into five major regions, called, in church parlance, Vicariates. Clearly these regions are characterized by a number of commonalities as well as striking differences. Everywhere I traveled I have experienced in our people a deep hunger for holiness, a longing for Eucharist and a yearning for sacramental life. This blessing is coupled with a commonly held anxiety: “Will there be enough ordained priests available in the future to provide for the sacramental and pastoral needs of our community? Will our own parish exist in the future, be suppressed or consolidated into a cluster of parishes?”
Across the diocese I experienced a sense of pride in the individual parish community and a spirit of gratitude for the selfless ministry of clergy and laity who serve in our parish communities. Our senior priests were singled out everywhere I traveled as men of wisdom and grace who continue to serve beyond the call of duty. Our rural communities have a rich and distinguished history of volunteerism and community pride which has contributed mightily to the viability and vigor of these parishes. The foundational work of the vowed religious women and men of the Church is spoken of with reverence and gratitude.
In our day, lay women and men share meaningfully in the work of religious education, Eucharistic ministry, outreach to the sick and homebound as well as the upkeep of buildings and grounds. This is a source of pride and ownership across the diocese.
Across the board, the diocesan parishioners expressed anxiety about the local and regional economy and its effects on family life and parish vitality. In particular, parents and grandparents voiced concern that the young adults in our communities are forced by a lack of sustainable employment to transfer to the larger cities in search of work. Our parishioners also expressed concern over the growing divide between the affluent and the working poor. How many families are presently unable to afford basic healthcare, childcare, and housing, while other heads of households are re-quired to maintain two jobs just to meet the basic needs of the family?
In every venue, parish leadership asked for assistance in providing ministry and outreach to our youth and young adults. Pastors and parents alike are seeking ways and means to assist the children and young people of our communities to remain engaged in Catholic life. Young adults have expressed the desire for more opportunities to socialize with other Catholic young adults, as well as more opportunities for Catholic formation. A question I heard frequently was, “Will Legendary Lodge be maintained and enhanced as a resource for our youth and young adult ministry?”
In nearly every parish I visited, our people expressed a desire for catechesis in liturgy, moral theology, and Catholic social teaching. There is a hunger for adult faith formation and a hope that the Church will provide substantial opportunities for adult learning in various regions of the diocese. So too, our priests have expressed the desire for continuing education to enhance the quality of liturgy, preaching, and pastoral care among their people.
I also heard the priests, deacons, religious and lay leaders requesting assistance as they contend with the social problems and issues of the day. Complex problems like domestic violence, alcohol and drug addiction, mental health issues and sexual abuse were of particular concern. Also, our parish leaders are asking for help preparing young couples for marriage, strengthening family life, and assisting troubled marriages.
In every community I visited, I heard the desire to cultivate more vocations to priesthood and religious life. In every Vicariate I also heard the same question, “Will the Diocese of Helena call forth a new class of permanent deacons to assist in the pastoral care of our communities?” Underneath these questions I felt a shared hope that the diocese will make vocations awareness a priority and find concrete and creative ways to promote vocations to priesthood, religious life and lay ministry.
Among the challenges that were expressed was the feeling that our communities are isolated from one another and from the wider Church by distance or ideology. At the same time, I heard expressed a desire for greater communion with the universal Church and greater sense of solidarity among all our communities. A renewed vision of unity is particularly important in a diocese that is comprised of communities that are rural, urban, Native American, Caucasian, rich and poor, but are bound together by our love of Christ and our desire to be a Church that is “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.”
To this long list of hopes and dreams I will add a number of additional values that I have gleaned from my travels or from personal observations. I observed the need to increase and enhance the purview of Catholic Social Services of Montana as a vital component of outreach and advocacy in our community. In due season I believe that we should carefully consider a more coordinated diocesan effort geared toward expanding regional services for the poor and vulnerable. In some dioceses, these include enhanced services like skilled pastoral counseling, family preservation, migrant and refugee assistance, low-income housing, hot meal programs, etc.
So too, the Montana Catholic Conference has the potential to increase its mission of advocacy in the name of the poor, the unborn and the vulnerable in an era where social and health services are subject to reduction or elimination. In the words of Pope John Paul II, we “must never be content to leave just the crumbs of the feast.”
In addition, we need to assure that our policies regarding sexual abuse are reviewed and updated on a regular basis and that our pastoral outreach for survivors remains pastorally sensitive.
As we look for ways to provide resident pastors in all our communities, we need to ask a very important question: “How do we provide quality pastoral care for our communities?” The injection of the word ‘“quality’” changes the nature of the discussion and its potential outcomes. I see the need for a pastoral plan that is theologically sound and attentive to the recruitment, screening and formation of qualified persons able to share in the pastoral care of the parish under the guidance of a duly appointed priest.
In our diocese we are blessed with the presence of Native American communities who were the first to hear the Word of God in the Northwest. Building on the legacy of my predecessors, I believe that we should create ways to celebrate the gift of our Native American communities and attend more closely to the way their wisdom, insight and perspective enrich the Church. This will require special dialogue with Native American leadership as an integral part of our pastoral plan.
The Diocese of Helena is also home to a significant number of rural communities. One of our pastors proposed the possibility of creating a Vicar for Rural Life position so that the needs of our rural peoples remain in the forefront of our pastoral planning. I believe that this proposal merits serious consideration as we move into the future.
One of the characteristics of a healthy and vital diocese is found in the ministry of evangelization. In the past I have described the laity as “the sleeping giant of evangelization.” I believe that one of our priorities will be to find ways to invite discouraged or disenfranchised Catholics to come home, and to invite spiritually hungry people to take a closer look at the Catholic Church.
An equally important evangelization resource is found in Catholic education. The sad reality is that Catholic education is economically out of reach for many families, and I pray that Catholic schools, both elementary and secondary, will have a new and important role in our diocesan future. In addition, our pastoral planning accords us the opportunity to celebrate the remarkable resource we have at Carroll College, which is actively seeking ways to enhance its own Catholic identity and affordability. I believe that everyone will benefit from this important dialogue.
Into the Future
Within the year I intend to convene a Diocesan Pastoral Council whose purpose is to 1) systematically and formally listen to our communities; 2) help me as diocesan bishop to establish pastoral priorities; and 3) assist in articulating a new vision statement and a long-term diocesan pastoral plan. I will venture to say that many of the initial impressions I have gleaned from my pastoral visitation tour will re-emerge in the formal Diocesan Pastoral Council listening process, and will become integrated into the diocesan pastoral plan.
As I continue on this mission journey, I have been deeply touched by the inspiring commitment of our clergy, the dedication of religious women and men, and the collective desire of the laity to build upon the vigorous and healthy Church that is already in place.
Shortly after my arrival in June, one of our priests observed, “Bishop, you have a lot of challenges on your plate.” I quickly retorted, “No, we have a lot of challenges on our plate.”
I come here with a deep conviction that together we can address and overcome virtually any obstacle, and with God’s grace build upon the legacy that continues to serve as our foundation. The Diocese of Helena has a long and stellar history of collegial and collaborative ministry. We are a Catholic community eager to work together to build up the Body of Christ. I have said it before and I say it again, “Ours is a future filled with hope.”
Sincerely yous in Christ,
Most Rev. George L. Thomas
Bishop of Helena
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 20, No. 11, November 19, 2004.