By ANN CAREY, CNS | Published May 13, 2010
The universality of the Catholic Church and the cultural diversity of the church in the United States were on display at the University of Notre Dame May 6-8 in the person of 300 church leaders, including Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, with cultural heritages that span the globe.
The Catholic Cultural Diversity Network Convocation produced a joyful energy as laity, priests and religious discussed how to build unity in this diversity to enhance Catholic identity.
The convocation was the first step toward developing and disseminating intercultural competency guidelines in the U.S. church, a priority set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The 18 bishops who came to listen included five members of the bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, which sponsored the convocation, along with the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life and several other entities.
In opening the convocation, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., chairman of the cultural diversity committee, said the church needs to engage the culture in order to live the Gospel to its fullest. However, the church can’t engage the cultures of a pluralistic society without working with diverse cultural communities, which he called “the hearts, hands, eyes and talents, vision and vitality of the whole body of Christ.”
Bishop Soto told the gathering that the bishops were there to listen to the voices of the diverse cultures and to dialogue with them, assuring the people that “we are determined to restore a social regard for the dignity of the human person, as well as foster a solidarity for those most vulnerable in our society, from the unborn to the immigrant, from the incarcerated to the war-ravaged refugees.”
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, was on hand to convey the blessings of Pope Benedict XVI. The nuncio noted that the convocation reminded him of what the first Christian community was like, for it welcomed people from many different places. And he called for a renewed effort to develop Catholic leaders from all cultures, which he said was necessary for the growth of the entire church.
In his homily at the convocation Mass May 7, Archbishop Gregory said, “The Catholic Church is most perfectly herself when all her children display that rich diversity that God has fashioned into the very heart of humanity.”
He called the May 6-8 convocation “the latest chapter in a long history of reminding all of the members of the church that we all belong to Christ and in him we belong to one another through the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
“We need not, indeed we must not neglect our individuality and the uniqueness of our heritages,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Yet these differences must never be barriers that separate us from Christ or one another.”
The 300 leaders invited to the convocation were asked to identify with one of six cultural “families”—African-American, Asian Pacific, European American, Hispanic, Native American and people served by the bishops’ Subcommittee on Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers. People falling into the latter category include immigrants, people who have left their home countries, migrant workers, seafarers, airport/airline workers and circus and carnival workers.
At the start of the convocation, a representative of each family gave a witness statement about who the people in that family were, the blessings they’ve enjoyed, the obstacles they face, the opportunities they embrace and their vision for the future. Many people seemed surprised but comforted to learn that they shared many common experiences and concerns with people in other cultural families.
Some of those common experiences were a strong faith maintained in diversity but also a sense of invisibility or even exclusion in the Catholic Church; a lack of priests and church leaders from their own cultures; and a lack of resources at the national and diocesan level for pastoral outreach to their communities. Most of the groups were also concerned that their young people were being torn between their cultural and religious values and practices, and the prevailing secular values of American society.
At the end of the convocation, a panel of eight bishops reflected on the meeting, all expressing pleasure that the convocation had sparked a contagious energy among the participants. In a question-and-answer period with the bishops, members of the assembly expressed concern about how to transfer back to the home dioceses the very positive experience of the convocation.
Bishop Soto announced that the cultural diversity committee was developing a manual for cultural competence that will help train people at the regional and diocesan level.
Marilyn Santos, archdiocesan director of youth ministry and inculturation, was among several lay ministers invited to participate from Atlanta. She said, “Those of us who were part of the planning committee knew we were going to be a part of something special but I do not think we really knew how special until the actual event.” Inspired by her experiences at the meeting, she said, “I believe we all came away feeling enriched because of the differences in our expressions of faith rather than feeling diminished.”
Santos added, “The coming together of the diverse Church in the true spirit of ‘Catholicism’ was something I hope to carry with me throughout my ministry and work.”