By Matt Hadro     4/21/2020

Washington D.C., Apr 20, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA) – Many U.S. Catholics have limited or no access to the sacraments during the coronavirus pandemic, bringing to many parishes a reality faced in other parts of the country on a regular basis.

Kevin Day, director of the Catholic Home Missions national collection of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told CNA on April 20 that Catholics in American many dioceses were experiencing circumstances “not unlike” the situation in mission territories around the world where Catholics might see a priest once or twice a year to hear confessions, bless marriages, and offer Mass in person.

“One of the things that I find interesting, is that everyone is facing this reality of being cut off from the sacraments, the physical sacraments, and the physical communion of the Church community,” Day said.

He added that it’s an “educational opportunity” for U.S. Catholics to learn about life in “mission” territory—including “mission” dioceses in their home country.

“Home missions” are U.S. dioceses that require outside assistance to provide basic pastoral care to Catholics, often because they are located in rural parts of the country or in the predominantly-Protestant South where Catholics are a small minority.

These situations are more common than one would think, Day told CNA, making up around 40 percent of U.S. dioceses. They include dioceses in more sparsely-populated regions like Alaska, the Mountain West, and West Texas, but also in other areas such as Alabama, Mississippi, Northern Louisiana and Appalachia.

These dioceses do not have the “critical mass” for an independent financial foundation, Day said, and they rely on outside financial assistance for pastoral needs, for which the USCCB set up the Catholic Home Missions Appeal in 1998.

Normally held on the last weekend of April, the special collection provides millions of dollars—more than $9.4 million in 2019 grants—of aid for purposes such as Hispanic ministry, evangelization, aid to mission parishes, and seminary education.

The 2020 collection was scheduled for the weekend of April 25-26, but as the recent pandemic forced the cancellation of public Masses across the U.S., “we expect this year to have a significant decline in revenue,” Day said.

For many dioceses reliant on outside funding, with parishes which are perhaps not equipped for online giving, the pandemic could pose another significant funding problem. Parishes in dioceses not considered mission territory were already feeling the squeeze in March once public Masses were cancelled, with parish staff already reporting furloughs and cuts.

Some parishes are better equipped than others to survive the economic downturn, Day said, as some mission parishes have no reserves and a small congregation.

The bishops’ conference has already been working with home mission dioceses to help them weather the storm, expediting the delivery of FY 2020 grant payments and allowing them to pay for pastoral needs or general operating expenses rather than the original specific purposes, said Day, and dioceses have already expressed appreciation for this “flexibility.”

Some of the unique challenges facing mission dioceses during this time are technological—“the learning curve that the dioceses and the parishes are going through to go online,” he said.

In many parishes, pastors eligible for retirement are still serving out of necessity. These in particular may not have the technological expertise to conduct video conferencing or virtually communicate with parishioners and staff, and in some cases some younger high school and college-age parishioners have already stepped in to help them get up to speed, Day said.

Ultimately, the current pandemic and the resultant social distancing and spiritual communion of the faithful is a lesson that the church is “more than the structures of our buildings,” he said.

“If anything we’re coming to understand that yes, the sacraments and being cut off from the Eucharist is something that we haven’t experienced, and we’re going to value the Eucharist more. But at the same time, we know now that our church is more than the structures of our buildings and the walls that contain the tabernacle. Our church is greater than that.”