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A Catholic moment at Union Theological

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

Union Theological Seminary, the 133-year-old Gothic-spired bastion of progressive Protestant theology on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, looked transformed February 8. Among the the unusual guests on campus were Our Lady of Montserrat and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Present, too, were the patroness of the Dominican Republic, Our Lady of Altagracia, and Cuba’s patroness, Our Lady of the Caridad del Cobre. Images of four of the Latino faces of Mary glowed from large candles that greeted visitors at the entrance to Union’s James Memorial Chapel.

The event was the inaugural address of Ana Maria Diaz-Stevens, who became Union’s first fully-tenured Latino professor.

Inside the chapel the spirit was loud, festive and Latino. Liturgical dancer Sandra Rivera of Omega Dance led a corps of dancers and a score of Union faculty, each of them carrying a colorful carnation. The white-robed dancers and the professors -- dressed in the crimson robes of Harvard; the varied blues of Columbia, Duke and Yale; the red of Union and maroon of Fordham -- swayed toward their chairs.

Mary and rosary beads

Instead of the usual “Pomp and Circumstance” processional common to such occasions, the group sang “De Colores.”

In front of them stood a huge, high-beamed cross with a blue cloth flung over its wide arms. Below were more statues and paintings of Mary, with an outsized set of rosary beads draped over a portrait of Guadalupe. An Afro-Dominican ensemble strummed guitars, banged on bongos and serenaded Union’s scholars and staff, a group itself whose members looked more like they were attending a Puerto Rican Day parade or street fair than a lecture.

Diaz-Stevens, a sociologist, is in her sixth year at Union. She can point to other women and other Roman Catholics who’ve won tenure at Union, but for the little girl from the poor mountain village of Moca, Puerto Rico, the day brought poignant memories.

When Ana Maria Diaz made her way to St. Rose of Lima Church on West 165th Street in 1953, she was a newly arrived immigrant child. The Irish-American nuns at St. Rose were none too pleased with how she made the sign of the cross, dipping her hand in the font, and blessing her forehead, eyes, nose and mouth -- all the while addressing the Trinity -- before finally kissing the cross she had made by placing her thumb over her index finger.

“Sweetheart, what is that noise?” Diaz remembers the sister asking. “You are now in the U.S., and in our churches we do not do things that way,” said the nun.

St. Rose is only 40 blocks north of Union, which is situated between Columbia University and Riverside Church, but 45 years later Diaz said they seem a continent apart. From that early encounter with U.S. Catholicism, she learned to obey the sisters at school and practice her traditional religious habits at home.

Scrutiny was always a part of her intellectual makeup, she told NCR. “Everything has to be scrutinized. Just because popular religiosity is based on tradition doesn’t mean it’s superstitious or stupid. Just because we’re Catholic, we’re not idolaters,” she insisted.

While Diaz-Stevens’ inaugural celebration was not the first academic or liturgical fiesta to be held at Union, it was “uniquely Catholic and uniquely Marian,” she said. “I did it purposely -- not so much to challenge my colleagues (four of 24 Union faculty are Catholic, and 14 percent of the student body is also Catholic) -- but to be a witness.”

Diaz-Stevens admitted that her subject matter, “Memory, Imagination and Tradition: Diasporic Latino Spirituality,” is conservative by Union standards. Union’s admirers and critics alike view the seminary as being on the fringe theologically, politically, sexually and liturgically. “I took something that can be seen as conservative and gave it a radical twist,” is how the new professor conceived her inaugural.

Madly in love with Catholicism

Referring to Union’s reputation, she said, “Liberalism doesn’t mean discarding all the old. It means being tolerant of traditions and of the riches of the past. I’m madly in love with being a Catholic and madly in love with being a Christian, but that doesn’t mean I accept everything my church and the other churches do.” Looking to the past, whether it be to 20 centuries of Christendom or half a millennium of New World existence, requires humility, she said. “We don’t have all the wisdom.”

She wants to show her peers and most of all her students “where we are as a Latino community, especially as Latino Catholic women.” Diaz-Stevens believes that popular religiosity has sustained Latinos during periods when they lacked sufficient clergy. They looked to their tradition for support at times when they were immigrants or migrants in a strange land.

Having kept devotions linked to the Passion and Incarnation alive in their new lands, Latino Christians have frequently returned to their home country and have “revitalized” the religious and spiritual life of the home community, she said.

For Puerto Ricans, the sung rosary has remained a popular devotion and has served to hold the community together whether in rural villages or in the urban sprawl of New York and other American cities. As a footnote to her lecture, Diaz-Stevens’ husband, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo sang a part of the rosary to the Union dons and students.

Stevens-Arroyo has a cantor’s voice that he uses to lecture at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, where he is professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies.

Diaz-Stevens describes her husband, a married priest, as “a former Passionist who is now passionate.” She was once a Dominican nun. The couple met in graduate school at Fordham in the late 1970s and since have collaborated on research and publications. The couple has a son, Adam, 16.

Together they published: Recognizing the Latino Resurgence in U.S. Religion: The Emmaus Paradigm (1997) and An Enduring Flame: Studies of Popular Religiosity Among Latinos (1994). Diaz-Stevens won the annual award of the Cushwa Center for the study of American Catholicism for her 1993 book: Oxcart Catholicism on Fifth Avenue: The Impact of the Puerto Rican Migration Upon the Archdiocese of New York.

For Union board member Justo Gonzalez, the tenure offered Diaz-Stevens is a recognition of her scholarship and of Union’s “profound ecumenism” as well as an indication that many lay Catholics are studying at Union. “Theology is less and less a fixed canon and more and more fluid in how it is being done,” said Gonzalez, a retired historical theologian from Emory University in Atlanta.

He pointed to different approaches to the study of theology, noting that the social science method is highly relevant to the preparation of seminarians and lay and clerical urban ministers. Diaz-Stevens and Union are trying to respond to the multicultural, multi-religious New York reality, he said. “She’s not here as a token.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999