Did you hear the one about the parish where the pastor on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe had the Hispanic community celebrate Mass in the basement because the choir wanted to practice in the main church?
How about the parish that told its Hispanic Catholics on Ash Wednesday to go to the next parish over for their ashes?
How about the pastor who insists that there be no Spanish language Masses because “you are in America now. We speak English.”
In my travels around the country in recent months, I’ve been hearing stories. Our Church is undergoing a profound demographic change, and not everyone is handling it well. The U.S. Church is growing today because of its new immigrants — from Asia, from Africa, but primarily from Latin American countries.
This growth is upending the Church in countless ways. As Dr. Hosffman Ospino has pointed out in his study on Hispanic ministry, while the bulk of Catholic institutions and buildings are in the Midwest and the Northeast, the bulk of the growth now is in the South and Southwest. Church leaders in Atlanta and Houston say they could be opening a new church every month if they had the resources, while dioceses in the Midwest and Northeast are trying to figure out how many to close. This demographic shift is reflected in the mood of the respective regions. In the boom areas of the Southwest, there is a spirit of optimism. The churches are bursting at the seams. Children are everywhere. The primary challenge comes from church programs and services being overwhelmed. In the Northeast, by contrast, shrinking populations and the loss of the young mean fewer people and less energy, even when needs may still be great.
These are gross generalizations, of course. There are terrific parishes everywhere, and there are moribund parishes everywhere. At a macro level, however, the epicenter of Catholic life is moving.The shift comes with challenges. In past days, we had many ethnic or national parishes where distinctive communities once gathered, speaking their native languages and celebrating their native customs. On the negative side, they could be rigidly separatist. A colleague of mine recalls the day she was not allowed to attend her friend’s first Communion. Her friend was Polish-American, and she was Irish-American. The pastor of the Polish parish, which was down the block from the Irish parish, had her wait on the steps until the Mass was over.
The national policy now is not to have ethnic parishes. Instead, we have what are called “shared parishes.” These demand far greater cultural sensitivity on the part of pastors and parish staff, but sometimes they lack the training, the resources or the instinct to be welcoming to new cultures.
There is no denying that some folks feel displaced. If the newcomers are first generation or second generation, there can be all sorts of differences — not just language, but attitudes toward stewardship, festivals, religious education, vocations.
What has struck me recently as I visit different regions of the country is what a well-timed blessing our newest members are. When the larger Church is struggling with great societal issues such as the decline of the family and waning religious practice, in come our new neighbors with a profound sense of family, of festa, of popular devotions. This is a God-given opportunity for the larger Church to be enriched by being welcoming, to recover some of what it has lost.
To borrow the language of Pope Francis, the periphery is coming to us. What I hope we may grow to see is that this is not just a challenge to serve but a blessing to receive.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.