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Catholics show their diversity

Los Angeles

It’s often said that Mass in Los Angeles is celebrated in more than 50 languages every weekend. But even in this city where diversity is taken as much for granted as traffic jams, it was anything but worship as usual when some 5,000 believers, speaking in their native languages, recited the Lord’s prayer in unison at the Mass for Sunday, July 9. Rather, for a few short days it was the norm, one of the many experiences exhilarating participants in Encuentro 2000 as surely as if they’d headed for Malibu Beach to ride the towering waves.

For many who gathered at this July 6-9 event, parish and diocesan representatives from all over the country, this unusual experience of speaking in many tongues - one that was repeated at several liturgical events - was proof positive of the way the Spirit is moving in the U.S. church today.

“This is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s what we have to keep working toward,” said Immaculate Heart Sr. Dora Vizcarra of Miami. For her, she said, Encuentro - the Spanish word for encounter or meeting, had put a face on “the theoretical” - on the growing body of data about waves of new immigrants who in just a few more decades are expected to dominate the Catholic church in the United States. “Life will go back to the way it was before [the Encuentro], but at least people will have a sense now of how broad the U.S. church is,” Vizcarra said.

Vizcarra referred not only to talks and workshops where participants shared stories of discrimination, faith and struggle to diversify parishes, but also to vibrant liturgies where prayer was expressed in a mosaic of song, symbol and dance. Senses feasted on call to worship blown through conch shells, processions moving to the thump of African drums, petitions in Tagalog, readings in Apache and Chinese, hallelujahs to a salsa beat, worshipers decked out for the gift-bringing in feathers, shells and flamboyant headdresses, in delicate lace and tropical cloths. Smatterings of European music served to assure Anglos that, though their grandchildren will be a minority in the U.S. church, they could expect to retain an important place.

Side by side

During opening ceremonies, Bishop Gabino Zavala, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and chairman of the event, gave the script for what lay ahead for the next four days.

“As we stand side by side, we will see that the music of the Latinos makes the Anglos’ feet move, the incense of the Asians reminds Europeans of the transcendence of God and the drumbeat of the Native American pulsates in the hearts of all,” he said.

Zavala was among more than 80 bishops, including three cardinals (Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Bernard Law of Boston and Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia) who attended at least some of the weekend events.

The national gathering was more than a celebration of the mosaic of nationalities that is the U.S. church. It served as a strong appeal to prepare for the hard work ahead - the work of making the whole church in the United States a Los Angeles in its acceptance of diversity.

Greg Chandra, an Indonesian-American from Redlands, Calif., has experienced that acceptance. “Here, even at work, people just want to know if you’re from Orange County, San Bernardino or Los Angeles,” he said. “Nobody ever asks about your country of origin.” Chandra was among hundreds of volunteers keeping the gathering on track.

Jim Albright, who works in migrant ministry for Richmond, Va., diocese said he hoped people would be energized to look around their own areas to determine what needs to be done. “A lot of legislative work is needed to improve the lot of workers and to improve immigration laws,” he said.

And Rita Mount of Visitation Parish in Philadelphia said the event had taught her “to go up to people and say I want you to come” to parish events, “to give a personal invitation” rather than expect a general invitation to suffice. “Vietnamese people are very shy,” she said.

Cardinal Mahony, who celebrated the closing Mass, drew applause when he urged “new initiatives for amnesty for immigrants,” whose illegal status brings problems ranging from unemployment to imprisonment without trial to deportation, sometimes for minor offenses. At the end of the Mass, he directed worshipers to tie a ribbon around the wrists of their neighbors, a Hmong custom that serves as a reminder of hospitality shared on the journey home.

“People saw a different model of church here, and they liked it,” said Ronaldo Cruz, executive director of U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs. Cruz said he hoped the event would motivate “people of color” to get involved in ministry. “We were aiming this at leadership of dioceses, because that’s where change takes place,” he said. “I hope this has pushed the Hispanic people to go beyond the safe zone … to realize they have a place.”

Sponsors of the national gathering, particularly Cruz and his staff, have been preparing for years for demographic change, laying groundwork that led to the broad representation in Los Angeles - 150 dioceses, Cruz said. That groundwork has included three previous encuentros aimed at Hispanics, in 1972, 1977 and 1985. Meanwhile, Cruz’s office has developed a national infrastructure for pastoral outreach among immigrants who, though they quickly become contributors, may arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs and their multiple needs. Since the early 1970s, 24 Hispanic bishops have been appointed to U.S. dioceses, and Bishop Patrick K. Flores was elevated to archbishop of San Antonio.

A broader embrace

Despite justification, given the growing stream of arrivals from Central and South America, Cruz said bishops had recognized that to aim another national event at Hispanics would be too narrow an approach. Even though Hispanics are by far the biggest new immigrant group, other ethnic and racial groups are also clamoring for acceptance.

Sponsors decided to broaden the millennial year event so that every group that makes up the U.S. church today would be represented, from the well-established Irish, Germans, Poles, Italians, Native Americans and African-Americans to the newer immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific and the many countries and cultures of Latin America.

“No other organization in the world, except perhaps Coca Cola and McDonald’s, has such a widespread visibility and identification with so many cultural groups” as the U.S. Catholic church, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza said in a statement prepared for the press. Fiorenza, of the Galveston-Houston diocese, is president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. One of the goals, he said, is to find out what has to be done “to avoid creating religious communities where Africans, African-Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Caucasians and Hispanics pray separately.”

How to avoid such divisions is the problem faced by a number of bishops who have emphasized that they want to integrate new immigrants into established parishes rather than repeat the 19th-century pattern of ethnically divided parishes.

Some immigrant groups realize, though, that overcoming divisions isn’t just a problem for church leaders. Bartholomew Chung, leader of a workshop for Korean-Americans that was being conducted in Korean, said in an interview, “We need to open ourselves to engage others, but it’s hard for us to do.” Chung said Koreans are “one of the most closed” of all ethnic groups because of Korea’s long isolation from outside cultural influences.

Some of the dozens of small-group sessions were conducted in Spanish. One was conducted in sign language for the deaf. Two focused on homosexuals. A common theme was how to break down barriers and build bonds.

Responding to a recent call from Pope John Paul II for the church, during the year 2000, to “kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters,” Cardinal Law presided over a reconciliation service, asking forgiveness for sins of the U.S. church. Many cited that service as a high point.

During the service, five members of often-marginalized groups described the pain that prejudice and discrimination had caused them. The five included Bishop Donald E. Pelotte of Gallup, N.M., the nation’s first Native American bishop, who spoke of growing up in “dire poverty, dilapidated housing … with an alcoholic, physically abusive father who ended up a suicide like so many of our Indian people today.”

Although Pelotte personally ordained his twin brother a priest last September, he said his two older brothers, like his father, had not survived the struggle.

Tales of discrimination

Oblate of Providence Sr. Mary Paul Lee said she was forced to leave her home in Philadelphia to become a nun because no women’s order in that city would accept an African-American. Later, when a member of her order became critically ill in Charleston, S.C., the black sister was refused treatment in a Catholic hospital there. Lee, granddaughter of a slave owned by Jesuits, noted that the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866 had debated whether slaves had souls.

K. La Verne Redden, president of the National Council of Catholic Women, said, “I grieve when women tell me that they are not permitted by pastors to serve in ministries in the church that are open to them.” Redden, an African-American, sobbed as she described discrimination on that score. Redden said she had avoided drinking from the Communion cup in many parishes because she knew that once she had, “nobody else would touch it.”

Maricela Fruto, a union organizer, described her struggle to find decent employment after emigrating from Mexico 21 years ago. Mary Jane Owen, who is blind, hearing-impaired and uses a wheelchair, described being whisked off, over her protests, to sit with other handicapped people at a Vatican meeting, even though she was one of the featured speakers. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she rolled her wheelchair with one hand, held a candle high in the other and placed the candle at the foot of a wooden cross.

As speakers placed candles in turn, an African-American vocalist sang the familiar spiritual about “a balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole.”

“Intolerable situations have caused great pain and sometimes caused alienation from the church,” Law said in his remarks. “There are the obvious cases of sexual abuse, which have so seared us all, and the less celebrated cases of harsh words, as well as rough and unjust treatment that have affected clergy, religious and laity. … As Catholics, we have too often been exclusive in our love and concern, defining ourselves erroneously by race or language or land of origin.”

Law recited petitions naming specific sins. He asked forgiveness for racism and discrimination against Native Americans, African-Americans, Japanese-Americans; hostility toward Protestants and Jews; for failing to reach out to people alienated from the church; for failing to welcome new immigrants, people with disabilities and people living and dying with HIV-AIDS, and for tolerating sexual misconduct of clergy “especially toward minors and women.”

Piarist Fr. Mairo Vizcaíno, a Cuban-American from Miami, said Encuentro 2000, though “a prophetic gesture … a glance of the kingdom,” was “only a beginning.” Vizcaíno is one of eight regional directors who oversee Hispanic affairs in the U.S. church.

“Multiculturalism is one of the strongest signs of the times, but it is being ignored by the church,” he said. Vizcaíno thinks blending the many cultures into one comfortable whole - into a creation he likens to “an orchestra, a salad, an Irish stew” rather than a melting pot - will take at least 50 years. The melting pot concept, which suggests that people lose their identity, “is against human dignity,” he said.

Meanwhile, Vizcaíno said, there’s the hard road of overcoming not only separation but hostility and prejudice. “Cultures create prejudice, but we cannot be afraid of each other as Catholics,” he said. “We cannot be this way in the church.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2000