|Father Marneni Bala, right, pastor of St. Philip Church in Franklin, talks with Bishop Alexander Salazar, Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Bishop Salazar, along with three other men of his archdiocese, Father Joseph Wu, Dr. Humberto Ramos, and Mr. Louis Velasquez, led a panel on cultural diversity in the Catholic Church. The men made their presentation to the Priests’ Assembly at the Catholic Pastoral Center on March 8. Father Bala’s parish, St. Philip, represents the new face of cultural diversity in the Church, with priests from India, Kenya and Mexico serving there. Photos by Rick Musacchio|
As the Catholic Church in the United States undergoes huge changes in demographics, it will continue to become more like the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which is 40 percent Hispanic and is home to more than 40 ethnic and national communities, each with their own particular ways of expressing their love of God.
That cultural diversity can be a strength, according to Bishop Alexander Salazar, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and Vicar of Ethnic Ministry for the archdiocese. “We learn so much from each other. We come together to become one community, one body of Christ,” he said. “We want to pray to the Holy Spirit who always can bring unity out of our diversity.”
Bishop Salazar was one of four speakers from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles featured at the priests’ assembly for the Diocese of Nashville on Tuesday, March 8. They were invited by Bishop David Choby to give some insight to how the Diocese of Nashville can better serve the Catholic people of Middle Tennessee who are becoming more culturally diverse.
As the Latino population of Middle Tennessee has exploded in recent years, so has the Latino population among Middle Tennessee Catholics. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Nashville and the Sagrado Corazon Hispanic Ministry Center both serve large Spanish speaking congregations, and at least 20 parishes in the diocese have regular Masses in Spanish.
The diocese is also home to several ethnic Catholic communities that worship together in their native tongue, including Koreans, Vietnamese, Nigerians, Sudanese, Haitians, and Coptic Catholics from Egypt and the Middle East.
As the Catholic population in the diocese has become more diverse, so has the roster of priests. More than 30 priests in the diocese were born outside the United States, from countries including Mexico, Brazil, Vietnam, Korea, India, Nigeria, Kenya and Ireland. Some have been ordained as priests for the Nashville diocese, others are religious order priests, and still others have been assigned to Nashville by their bishops in their home countries.
The Catholic Church in the United States remains a Church of immigrants, Bishop Salazar said. The Church must be open to these new waves of immigrants from Central and South America, Africa and Asia, “learning to value that every single person has something to bring, that everyone is welcome,” he said.
It’s not always easy to serve people from so many cultures, according to the panel of speakers from Los Angeles.
“Demographic changes are always painful,” and people can be fearful of others who are different, said Humberto Ramos, Ph.D., the parish life director of St. Marcellinus Church in East Los Angeles, responsible for administering the parish.
|Diocese of Nashville priests Fathers Edwidge Carre, Pat Kibby, Dexter Brewer, and Steve Wolf listen to the Priests’ Assembly panel discussion at the Catholic Pastoral Center.|
Some communities prefer to die rather than accept a new community of people, Ramos said. “Parish leadership is very important” in combating the fear of change, he said.
Father Michael Joseph Wu, O.Carm., is pastor of St. Raphael Church in South Los Angeles. When the parish was founded in 1925, it was an Anglo congregation, with many of its members working for the companies and factories in the neighborhood, Father Wu explained. When the companies moved out of the neighborhood, the parishioners followed.
The next wave of immigrants into the community were African American, many of them from Louisiana. St. Raphael became one of the most famous African American Catholic churches in the country, known for its use of gospel music in the liturgy and other aspects of African American culture.
But as those parishioners began moving to the suburbs, they were replaced by Hispancis, Father Wu said. “St. Raphael changed again from Gospel music to mariachi,” Father Wu said.
Today the parish is about half African American and half Latino. “These changes are the reality of what life is,” Father Wu said. The question becomes how you deal with the changes, he said.
“There are always problems. In those problems, you can find grace,” said Father Wu, whose family emigrated from Taiwan first to Ecuador and then to Los Angeles.
When he became pastor, he had to learn about the two cultures in the parish, he said. “The African American community had to teach me … about their struggle to be in the society and their struggle to be in the faith.” And though he speaks Spanish, that doesn’t mean he knew everything about the Latino culture of his parishioners, said Father Wu.
He had to give the two communities their own space to practice their faith according to their cultural norms, Father Wu said, and continue to invite them to join the larger parish community.
At St. Marcellinus, the congregation is Latino, but some of the families are recent immigrants whose primary language is Spanish and others have been in the United States several generations and they speak English, Ramos said. The parish has separate Masses in English and Spanish, he said.
“Bilingual Masses are good for bilingual people,” Ramos said. If a person is not bilingual they can be lost during parts of the Mass, he explained.
But sometimes it is important for the whole community to come together and on those occasions, the parish will have a bilingual Mass, Ramos said.
When he arrived at St. Marcellinus the parish was in decline and no longer had a priest in residence. “People were faithful, but afraid.”
Ramos began working to rebuild the community. “The secret is forming disciples, empowering them to go out and share the gospel.”
The parish has adopted a model based on Cursillo with ongoing formation and leadership training. Parishioners are invited to participate in a weekend retreat, and afterward to join a small faith sharing community that meets weekly to pray together, share their faith, and to commit to one “act of mercy” they can do together, Ramos explained.
“It has to be gospel based and mission driven,” said Ramos, who has overseen a revival at St. Marcellinus, which once again has a resident priest.
Growing culture diversity affects not only the parishioners but their priests as well as more and more foreign born priests are serving in the United States, noted Louis Velasquez of the Office of Vicar for Clergy in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Foreign born priests also can experience culture shock when they first arrive in the United States and loneliness as more and more priests live alone, Velasquez noted. “Be welcoming to priests coming in,” he said. He also encouraged priests to spend time together to fight that sense of loneliness. “The load is on you to visit each other,” said Velasquez, who works with foreign born priests serving the various ethnic communities in Los Angeles.