| By The Most Reverend Steven J. Raica

A unique and intentional witness

My sisters and brothers, I grew up in a very small village in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (commonly called “The U.P.”). It was a large area with towns and villages dotting the coast and inland territory. It was a remote area where family life was strong and, as young people, we created our own fun activities.

In the summertime, one could feel the fresh air wafting from Lake Superior — a natural air conditioner — along with the smell of pine trees. In the winter, massive amounts of snow entertained us as we created slides and built forts. There is nothing that speaks of “periphery” like many of the rural communities, many of which had a small or modest parish as a point of reference. Oftentimes, residents in rural communities were distanced from the hustle and bustle of big urban centers, where several parishes complemented each other in pastoral ministry. In some cases, the Catholic parish was the only Catholic institutional presence in the county, or over several counties. Indeed, some Catholic parishes were far from the cathedral.

In the rural areas here in our diocese, the parishes are either small with few parishioners or large due to a unique cultural population in an area. Nevertheless, rural parishes and missions play an important role in the life of a local community, even if there is only one Mass on Sunday or limited pastoral services as in mission territories.

Almost 40 years ago, I had the joy of visiting the Holy Land. Walking in the footsteps of Jesus, reading the Gospels again, and seeing what our Lord and the Apostles saw was something truly moving and astonishing — a moment of great spiritual renewal. Yet, that desire to go where Jesus “was” — to walk in the land where He lived — was a moment of nostalgia.

Today, as Catholics, we believe that the words of Jesus are true even today. We are not bound to the land as much as we are bound to a person — namely, Jesus Christ. Our churches, whether they are grand and majestic or modest and simple, have something very special that cannot be found elsewhere. We have the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus present with us. During the celebration of Mass, and in tabernacles in our remote parishes, the ineffable presence of Jesus is there. Every rural parish is the presence of Christ planted among the people of God. Every rural parish is truly an amazing place because the parishioners who attend there are dedicated, faithful, and intentional parishioners. In a particular way, I thank them for their vibrant witness in the local communities.

In addition, I thank the pastors and pastoral workers in these communities. Many wear several practical “hats,” making sure that everything gets done so that the sacraments are celebrated and the faithful are fed with the Word and Eucharist. With this issue, I give them a shout-out because they sustain our faith journey, too.

I pray that the unique witness of our rural parishes may enable us to grow in the love that God has for us. Every rural parish is a reminder of Jesus’ presence: “I am here! … Come and follow Me.”