Facing Change: The U.S. Catholic Church Today Is Undergoing Profound Cultural, Social, and Leadership Transitions. It's at the Parish Level That Conflicts Arise and New Pastoral Approaches Are Created

Article excerpt

Three Catholics--one white, one Hispanic, and one Vietnamese walk into a church on Sunday. (If you thought that I was going to say that they walked into a bar, I know a few of those stories as well.) These Catholics and their families are members of St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which serves Catholics in three different languages: English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.


St. Patrick's has been my home parish for nearly a decade. My wife and I came to the parish to work in Hispanic ministry, and from the time we arrived until now it has been a source of transforming experiences.

St. Patrick's experience is not unique. In parishes throughout the United States today, families from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds come to the same church to celebrate the sacraments and to nourish their faith in different languages. They are active members of the same community while belonging to networks of relationships shaped by their particular cultural traditions.

That such multicultural parishes are becoming more and more common, of course, does not mean that no tensions arise, but these are natural to the transitions that these communities are undergoing.

This is not the first time that the American Catholic experience has been deeply transformed by cultural diversity; neither will it be the last. Many older Catholics still remember the vibrancy of national parishes, where families celebrated their faith in their own languages and affirmed their varying cultural identities. These close-knit, almost independent communities shaped the identity of millions of European-born Catholics and their descendants.

By the middle of the 20th century millions of American Catholics moved out of their close-knit neighborhoods and joined middle-class society. Access to higher education, a more professional workforce, and deep changes in the life of the church helped shape a new phase for Catholicism.

Catholics employed a stronger voice in society, their schools became highly respected, their political presence increased significantly, and whole families transitioned into the middle class. That transition meant greater social and political participation and was about being both fully Catholic and fully American.


In the past 10 years, we have witnessed the acceleration of a profound demographic shift. Only five decades ago the vast majority of Catholics in the country shared a mostly European American background. Today the U.S. Catholic landscape looks quite different. Approximately 2.7 percent of U.S. Catholics are Asian and Pacific, 3.7 percent are African American, and the fastest growing group is that of Hispanic Catholics, who already make up 40 percent (possibly more) of the total American Catholic population. It is estimated that in about 15 years half of all U.S. Catholics will be Hispanic.

Clearly the church in the United States is undergoing rapid and profound changes that are already transforming the cultural, social, and religious identity of Catholics. While some are determined to replicate or to hold on to past models of being church, such attempts will only prevent us from being creative in responding to the challenges of our times.

In today's church I see three major transitions that require attention:

1. Cultural transition

As U.S. Catholicism is rapidly moving from a European American cultural experience to one that is largely His-panic and multicultural, celebrating liturgies in two or more languages while integrating different cultural traditions has become increasingly common. However, similar to the nativist calls for "English only policies in the larger society, this development has caused some parishioners to demand that Mass be celebrated in English--in what they define as the "traditional way."

Even if it is true that U.S.-born generations of Hispanics are already integrating into a commonly shared experience, this does not mean that they should have to abandon their cultural traditions and their families' languages. …


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