Many Faces, One Church Diversity in Our Midst: A Gift and a Blessing
I recently gave a talk titled “Celebrating Diversity in Unity” at St. Patrick Parish in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The topic was germane because of growing tensions among parishoners over the changing face of the parish. Like many Catholic parishes in the United States, St. Patrick’s is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse.
The community comprises three distinct groups: Anglos, Hispanics, and Vietnamese. Different though they are, they try to work together and respect one another’s cultural differences. However, it hasn’t always been easy. Different customs and practices often lead to conflict and tension. A simple issue such as which statue of Mary should be placed in the church—Our Lady of Fatima, Guadalupe, or La Vang—can prove to be contentious and problematic. Fortunately, the pastoral team—also culturally diverse—helps ease most tensions. The pastor is a Vietnamese American who is fluent in English and Vietnamese. Another priest, an Anglo American who speaks perfect Spanish, was brought in to help with the growing demands of the Hispanic population.
As I walked out of the church that day, I noticed all three statues of our Lady were placed prominently in their respective locations. I must admit my visit opened my eyes significantly to the many faces of the Church. While rich in diversity, we remain one holy Catholic Church that is steeped in tradition. Thus, we have many reasons to celebrate!
A Marvelous Rainbow
America was and is built on the backbones of immigrants. Initially those new Americans came from European countries. In concert with their arrival and commitment, Catholicism in the United States has greatly benefited, and all of us can be proud of America’s multicultural heritage. This mosaic of cultures becomes increasingly more evident as the Church in the United States continues to welcome immigrants from around the world, particularly from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. At our Sunday celebrations, we notice and should marvel at the many nations and continents represented in our pews. The Anglo, African, Asian, and Hispanic faces form a magnificent rainbow of colors.
The face of the priesthood is also changing. On any given Sunday, thousands of internationally born priests preach from the pulpit. While an exact count is not possible, it is estimated that there are about 8,500 internationally born priests currently serving in the United States. Each year, about 300 new priests from many nations come to America to begin a new ministry. The majority of these newly immigrated priests come from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for example, the Mass on any given weekend is conducted in forty-five different languages.
Unquestionably the face of the Catholic Church in the United States is changing, and it shall continue to be fashioned and enriched by newcomers, many of whom are Catholic immigrants. Its transformation, however, brings ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity in our liturgical and sacramental celebrations, influences our religious devotions, and even alters our theology and spirituality. Different cultural practices and expressions of faith can cause tension and disturb the unity of the Church. The reality of today’s Church might cause many Catholics to experience, more acutely perhaps than in previous times, an uneasy tension. But we should question: Is it a healthy tension that ought to prove enriching, or does it cause more misunderstanding and greater separation?
Diversity: As Old as The Church
Diversity and the often-accompanying tension are not contemporary phenomena. The Church has been diverse since its inception. Although the earliest followers of Jesus Christ were only Palestinian Jews, soon after Pentecost, Hellenistic Jews also became followers. The list of those present at Pentecost indicates people came from all over the Roman Empire. There were “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9–11). The Book of Acts also records that the Hellenist believers became numerous and caused a bit of tension within the community. Thus, the apostles chose seven deacons to attend to their own ethnic group (Acts 6:5–7).
Eventually, the Gentiles also joined the mix. Through the success of the preaching of Paul and Barnabas, many Gentiles turned to the Lord. While Paul and Barnabas readily embraced the Gentile believers into the Church without many restrictions, some Jewish believers forced the Gentile believers to follow the Mosaic Law, especially the circumcision ritual. In other words, Gentiles had to become proselytized or fully Jewish in order to be Christians. This obligation obviously would not allow Paul, Barnabas, and other missionaries to associate and have table fellowship with Gentiles. This rigid restriction would surely interfere with the missionary work of the Church. The issue concerning the inclusion of Gentiles, particularly enforcing circumcision, was no small matter, for it could have divided or even destroyed the Church (see Galatians 2:11–14 and Acts 15:1–2). The heated debate led to the convening of the Jerusalem Council, the first council of the Church. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the testimonies of Paul, Barnabas, and Peter, the Church imposed only minor conditions on Gentile converts (see Acts 15:1–29). The decision was monumental for the Church’s growth and development.
Since its beginning, the Church wisely recognized unity was neither a cause for separation nor uniformity, but rather that there could be diversity in unity. Diversity wasn’t seen as a threat of disunity but as a gift and a blessing that fostered the enrichment of the Church. The Church accepted that there were two different ways of spreading the Gospel, one to the circumcised, entrusted to Peter, and the other to the uncircumcised, entrusted to Paul (Galatians 2:7–9).
Importantly, faith in Jesus Christ kept the Church tied together as one body. Interestingly, Paul often used the image of the body and its members to confront the various party factions in the Churches (see Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). Paul recognized that diversity is indispensable, he writes, “as a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12–13). Paul accepts the differences of members as an enrichment of the body, and since each is unique, the Spirit distributes its gifts to each person as it chooses.
Again, Paul says, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit”
(1 Corinthians 12:4–7). Diversity that produces such marvelous gifts and comes from the Spirit cannot become disorder. Rather, unity is guaranteed by God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit through faith and love.
The Apostle Paul saw a deep bond of unity between particular churches. The preaching of a common truth united all believers. Furthermore, baptism and the Eucharist also created and fostered communion among Christians. The words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper—found in
1 Corinthians 11:23–26 and in three of the four Gospels (Matthew 26:26–28, Mark 14:22–24, and Luke 22:17–20)—may infer that the Eucharist was fundamentally the same in Corinth as in Antioch or in Rome.
The Church then as well as now is a communion, modeled on the love among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It seeks to imitate that communion of the oneness of the Trinity. Moreover, the Church is catholic! In its universality, it welcomes and gathers all people without exception—“from every tribe and tongue, people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). It is a communion in diversity, not in uniformity.
Church as Communion and Catholic
Interestingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) speaks much about unity and diversity (CCC 1200–1206). The Church recognizes that the mystery celebrated in the liturgy is one, but the forms of its celebration can be and are diverse. The various traditions express the richness of the mystery of Christ; they complement and enrich one another. The purpose of the sacraments is “to sanctify [people], to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God” (CCC 1123).
Furthermore, in the act of worship, believers are united through the sacraments of faith. This principle, which refers to the relationship between worship and belief, is considered very important in Catholic theology. The Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi is loosely translated as “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” This ancient Christian principle provided the theological framework for establishing the creeds, the canon of sacred Scripture, and other doctrinal matters. The catechism states: “The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles—whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi” (CCC 1124). This axiom is an adaptation from St. Prosper of Aquitaine, a fifth-century Christian writer and a contemporary of St. Augustine. The original version is ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi (“that the law of praying establishes the law of believing”), which simply means that the Church’s teaching (lex credendi) is articulated and made manifest in the celebration of the liturgy and prayer (lex orandi). In other words, in an act of worship every faithful member is connected to all others as members of the mystical body of Christ in the Holy Spirit. Though the form might be different, believers are all united as one holy Catholic Church.
New Evangelization Today
The Catholic Church in the United States is experiencing a profound demographic shift as communities of non-European origin are on the rise. Hispanics, for example, comprise more than 35 percent of all Catholics in the United States, and more than 20 percent of all Catholic parishes have Hispanic ministries. Recent studies suggest that the Latino composition will continue to grow for decades to come. Consequently, mono-cultural parishes are being replaced by “shared parishes,” that is parishes in which more than one language, racial, or cultural group worship together as one Christian community.
As “multicultural” or “shared” parishes become the norm, everyone must be prepared to embrace this reality and learn to appreciate its extraordinary variety. Ministers and pastoral workers are especially encouraged to prepare themselves to work in diverse environments and to foster the right knowledge, attitudes, and skills in order to be effective in the diverse vineyard of the Lord.
In 2007, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) established several priorities for action. One was the “recognition of cultural diversity.” The bishops were concerned beyond the practical matter of diversity. They saw the issue as something “integral to the Church’s very identity and mission.” They said, “Proficiency in matters of culture and intercultural relations is an essential feature of the ongoing process of conversion by which the Gospel becomes life for people.” They stressed an urgent need to grow in knowledge and develop appropriate attitudes and skills to carry out the Church’s mission to evangelize. Greater cultural diversity in the Church has become part of the new evangelization today. The bishops encouraged the establishment of programs that reflected intercultural competencies. A manual, Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers, is available online and in print to help ministry leaders achieve a basic level of awareness and proficiency in the area of intercultural competency. Please visit usccbpublishing.org/productdetails.cfm?sku=7-301.
A Blessing and a Challenge
We are living in a time when ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is more evident and intense than ever. Like it or not, the face of the Church in the twenty-first century will continue to be even more ethnically diverse. Diversity is not a thing to overcome but an essential component to foster. This can be an hour of great opportunities or an hour of tragic disaster. As a people of God, we must learn to pray, work, and live together as an intercultural (not just multicultural) Church in which diversity provides an opportunity for growth and enrichment rather than separation and disunity. Indeed, the Church is experiencing the dawn of a new day. We do not need to go far to find people “from every tribe and tongue” (Revelation 5:9). It is a blessing and a challenge!