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A look at a mission diocese

NCR Staff

It was Saturday. Bishop William Houck was in a pastoral center whose walls were filled with sepia-toned and black-and-white photographs of early bishops, priests and gatherings. Houck presides over a 38,000-square-mile diocese that is mission territory. Much of his life is spent fund-raising. The population is 2.2 percent Catholic. There are 74 parishes and 27 missions. The median size is 287 -- that’s people, not families. Yet the catechumenate program flourishes, with 372 new Catholics welcomed last Easter.

“One reason we’re a mission,” said the Alabama-born, 74-year-old Houck, “is we’ve never been able to support ourselves financially or personnel-wise. Fifty percent of our 49 active diocesan priests are native-born Irish, another 25 percent are from other parts of the U.S. Only 25 percent are from Mississippi.”

“We have about 23 active religious order priests, which helps us,” he said. “But when I came here as auxiliary in 1979, Society of the Divine Word had seven historically black parishes. Now they have three. How do we provide the Eucharist for all these small communities?”

One answer is resident pastoral ministers, nonordained people running the parish. There’s a husband and wife team, Gene and Mary Helen Grabbe in Europa, Miss. Amy Giorgio, a young mother with three children, with her husband, John, started the small but flourishing faith community in Bruce, Miss. She has now left to return to her native Nebraska so her children will know their grandparents.

“Black people still suffer in our society,” said Houck. “One of the big things is education, which our new governor is dedicated to improving. In what I would call racial justice, we have continued to make progress. We have changed laws, but we still have to change hearts.

“At times,” he said, “white people are still unconscious of how black people suffer in our present society. In the Delta, towns like Shaw, it’s just like deserted. Sometimes the white people may feel, ‘We’ve done this, we’ve done that. How much more do you want us to do?’

“The challenge,” said Houck, “and I suppose it’s got to come, hopefully, from religious motivation, is to get more people to try to understand the lack of privilege and opportunity black people have had, the institutions that still keep them out of certain places and the racism that still exists.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001