Growing diversity pushes parishes to adapt

The days when Irish-Catholics worshipped in their own parish and Italian Catholics attended Mass in their own church a few blocks away are just about gone.

Today, more than ever, Catholic parishes in the United States are multicultural and comprised of people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. That reality presents new challenges for parish leaders as they work to integrate those communities into the life of the whole parish.

What the numbers say

The Catholic Church is one of the most culturally diverse institutions in the United States, and all indications are that it will become even more diverse in the future. Mar Muñoz-Visoso, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church, said that while there is a growing awareness of the Church’s diversity, bishops and Church leaders are really just now starting to realize the impact.

“It’s very important for pastors and parish leaders to be culturally literate,” Muñoz-Visoso told Our Sunday Visitor.

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, made that exact point in a Nov. 15 presentation during the U.S. bishops’ fall General Assembly in Baltimore.

Archbishop García-Siller presented a report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University that found culturally diverse parishes are the fastest growing type of parish in the United States. The study, commissioned by the USCCB, found that in all, 6,332 parishes were identified as being multicultural or serving particular groups of Catholics.

That figure represents nearly 36 percent of all parishes in the United States, and that number increased by three percent in just two years. In 2000, 22 percent of the country’s parishes served ethnic, linguistic and culturally diverse communities.

Growing diversity is the result of several factors that include immigration from Central and South America, as well as Africa, Asia, nations from the Pacific Rim and elsewhere. Internal migration — mainly people moving from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and the West — and state population shifts also have led to scores of parish closings and mergers over the last 20 years.

The CARA study found widespread agreement among respondents that “having people of different cultural backgrounds enriches the parish,” but it also indicated some areas of which pastors and parish leaders have to be particularly aware.

The study found that foreign-born parishioners are more likely to say the parish should provide pastoral care to immigrants and refugees. While few respondents said they feel like outsiders in the parish, about 36 percent of foreign-born Hispanic or Latino parishioners were more likely to feel that way.

Also, according to the CARA survey, 51 percent of Korean Catholics and 28 percent of Hispanics or Latinos said they were more likely to “strongly” disagree that they have a role in the “decision-making” of their parish.

A national model

Assisted by the USCCB, several dioceses across the United States have taken steps to acknowledge the Catholic community’s growing diversity and to integrate new ethnic and racial communities into parish life.

The USCCB’s Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers (BICM) program encourages parish leaders to frame issues of diversity in terms of the Church’s identity and mission to evangelize, to seek an understanding of culture and how it works, to develop intercultural communication skills in pastoral settings, to be aware of the obstacles that can impede intercultural communication and dialogue, and to foster a sense of integration instead of assimilation.


Muñoz-Visoso said the process consists of reaching out and welcoming communities, assuring them that they belong and that their traditions and culture are valued.

“At the same time, you have to have a sense that there is larger community here, so you develop common educational and faith formation opportunities where the membership goes through the process of formation while also learning how to communicate, work and relate to one another, in ways that are respectful, constructive and where everybody can develop a sense of stewardship,” she said.

“We’re very good at welcoming individuals, but sometimes we struggle welcoming entire communities of people,” said Muñoz-Visoso, who suggested that the Church in the United States has at times lost “entire generations of immigrant communities” because they did not feel welcome.

While suggesting that the old model of single ethnic parishes — established in the 19th and early 20th centuries by European Catholic immigrants — is largely no longer sustainable, Muñoz-Visoso added that ignoring cultural differences today can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts in the parish.

Success in San Bernardino

The Diocese of San Bernardino, California — one of the largest and fastest growing dioceses in the United States — began piloting the BICM program in 2011. An influx of immigrants into the diocese includes Filipino, Vietnamese, and African Catholics. And many parishes that were once mostly Anglo are today largely Hispanic, said John Andrews, diocesan communications director.

Deacon Mike Jelley, director of the Office of Ecclesial Services and vice chancellor for the diocese, told OSV that the diocese has organized more than 15 BICM presentations, adding that Mass is celebrated in the diocese in at least 14 languages, including Arabic. About half of all parishioners are Hispanic.

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“We find ourselves in a situation where many of our folks, if they’re not Spanish-speaking, they have to learn sufficient Spanish to interact with the people,” said Deacon Jelley, who stressed the importance of parish employees interacting with new parishioners in their own language.

“You don’t want to homogenize, but you do want people to integrate and speak with one another and learn from one another,” Deacon Jelley said. “There is a great gift in the different cultures that we have.”

Referencing Archbishop García-Siller’s remarks to the bishops, Muñoz-Visoso said the Church’s diversity in the United States can be seen as a reflection of the Trinity in that Catholics of all backgrounds are called to live, walk, and grow as “unity in diversity.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.