Get ready for a thumbsucker.
What do we reporters mean when we apply the word “diverse” to religious congregations? Do we mean diversity in the pews at a service or diversity at a house of faith? Also, don’t Catholics operate by a different type of diversity: one that’s diverse but not integrated?
I ask these questions because of an interesting Christmas story in The New York Times. Reporter Jennifer 8. Lee wrote about an old Roman Catholic church in Manhattan whose parishioners have been made up of differing and succeeding ethnic groups:
The preparations to celebrate Christmas at the two-century-old Church of the Transfiguration in Chinatown, like the history of the church itself, were multilayered, reflecting the nimble adaptation of a church once dominated by Irish and Italian immigrants that now claims the largest Chinese Roman Catholic congregation in the United States.
The English-language Mass, scheduled in part for the Italian-Americans, was said early, at 6 p.m., because those parishioners are now old enough that their children have long since grown up and moved away to Long Island or Staten Island. They do not like to stay out too late.
Lee’s implied thesis was that the Cantonese and Fujianese revived the urban parish. A fair point, but it’s not exactly news. Reporters write often about the changing ethnic character of Catholic parishes. Witness the rash of stories about Hispanic churches.
Even so, Lee’s story raises questions about what constitutes diversity in American religion, especially Catholicism.
Certainly, the nature of diversity in American Catholicism has changed. Before Vatican II, when all Masses were said in Latin, each urban ethnic group had its own parish. A German Catholic parish would be around the block from an Italian Catholic one. Wasn’t the local diocese diverse but its parishes not so?
After Vatican II, when the Mass was generally said in the vernacular, each ethnic group attends a service at which its native language is said. At the church in Lee’s story, the Catonese Chinese attend the service in Cantonese, while the Fujianese attend the service in Fujianese or Mandarin. Isn’t the local parish diverse but its services not so?
We at GetReligion have written some intriguing stories (examples here) about how conservative churches tend to be more diverse than progressive or liberal ones. But Catholics seem to have their own type of diversity.