Extension Magazine is the publication of the Catholic Extension Society, an organization that "exists to sustain and extend the Catholic Faith in poor and remote mission areas of the United States." In that context, then, I wasn't surprised to find recently an article about the Church in Alaska. The story was an eye-opener, though, and reminded me of how easy it is, how convenient it is to practice our Catholic Faith here in Rhode Island.
First some statistics.
There are presently three dioceses in Alaska: Fairbanks, Juneau, and the Archdiocese of Anchorage.
The numbers describing the Diocese of Fairbanks are mind-boggling. It's comprised of 409,000 square miles. (In case you're counting, that's almost 400 times the size of Rhode Island!) In this vast expanse there are 18,600 Catholics, 46 parishes or missions and 25 priests.
The Diocese of Juneau is the smallest of the three. It includes 37,500 square miles, 5,500 Catholics, 11 parishes or missions, and just eight priests, not even enough to field a baseball team.
The Archdiocese of Anchorage covers 139,000 square miles, 32,000 Catholics, 29 parishes or missions, and 27 priests.
Now, compare the Alaskan numbers to the Diocese of Providence: 1,085 square miles, 650,000 Catholics, 150 parishes, and a total of 400 priests, about 300 diocesan and 100 religious – a tiny territory, but loads of people, priests and institutions.
The raw numbers just begin to tell the story of the Church in Alaska though. Some missions are so remote that the parishioners can go several weeks at a time without having a priest visit for Mass and the Sacraments. In one area, parishioners can attend Mass only when the rivers and lakes freeze because they travel a distance of thirty miles – by snowmobile. Sometimes glaciers of snow slide from the roof and block the entrance of the church. On occasion the faithful who manage to arrive safely at church have to wait outside because several large and intimidating moose have gathered around the doorways.
The Extension article mentions the plight of one religious sister in Valdez, Alaska who stepped off the porch of her residence one Sunday morning and sank waist-deep in a snow drift. She had to be rescued by parishioners. Valdez averages 300 inches of snow each winter. (Wonder how they deal with school closings and rush hour traffic?)
The article also describes the ministry of one priest who serves in the Archdiocese of Anchorage. He drives from his parish base to a remote mission one weekend a month – a three hour drive in good weather and seven or eight in bad. He says, "We leave the tabernacle full of hosts because the congregation might go several weekends without a priest."
In his first weekend in Alaska the thermometer recorded 38 below and the mission's water and sewer pipes froze solid, remaining that way for most of the winter. During his overnight stays he survived on bottled water provided by local parishioners and had to make use of outdoor "facilities," at 6 below zero!
All this to provide a context for the question at the beginning of this article: Are Catholics, (meaning local Catholics, you and me) spoiled by the convenience we enjoy in the practice of our Faith?
I suspect, wherever you're reading this, there are at least a dozen Catholic churches within a half-hour driving distance. On any given weekend you can choose from scores of Masses, at convenient times. You can receive the Sacraments as often as you like. Catholic schools and religious education programs are readily available, and there are many opportunities to socialize. If classic church architecture doesn't appeal to you, you can find a more contemporary building. If you don't like one priest, you can go to another. And very seldom do you find the entrance of your church blocked by glaciers or moose!
And by the way, in thinking of the example of the religious sister and parish priest cited in the article, I have to admit that we bishops and priests have it pretty easy too. One young priest I spoke to recently, recognizing the clerical blessings (aka "perks") he frequently enjoys, said, "I know, I'm a spoiled brat." But hey, aren't we all? Of course we encounter challenges and problems in our ministry too, but they're of a different sort. For us a really long and arduous trip is from Providence to Westerly, from the East Bay to the West. Our living accommodations are very comfortable, sometimes even plush. And it's been a long time since I've had to go outside at 6 below to use the "facilities."
What does all this mean for us?
Well, first it means that we should thank God for the convenience we enjoy in the practice of our Faith. It's really important that we not become presumptuous, too lazy in our religious practice. Treasure the opportunity to attend Mass every Sunday, receive the Sacraments, learn about the Faith and socialize with other Catholics.
Be patient and cooperative if the Church asks you to make some sacrifices. As the institutional Church responds to changing pastoral needs, it might be necessary to change a Mass schedule, affiliate with another parish, or share a pastor. Sometimes it's even necessary to merge or close a church or a school. When those things happen, it requires sacrifice and perspective to keep our eyes fixed on the bigger picture.
And finally, pray for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life so that the Church will have plenty of ministers to serve the Lord, especially in remote places. Pray for those who do respond to the call, that they will serve with generous and loving hearts, always placing the needs of God's People ahead of their own.
In short, let's be grateful for the convenience we have in the practice of our Faith. And when you attend your nearby parish church this weekend, just be glad that you don't have to walk in someone else's snowshoes!