Diversity, Catholic-style?

catholic 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.

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  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    In southern California you might imagine that there are a number of “diverse” neighborhoods where a Catholic parish may be found. In one of the diocese, a recent reassigning of the assisting bishop who happens to be of Mexican descent has created an empty chair that will no doubt be filled as was Thurgood Marshall’s on the US Supreme Court — with another priest of Mexican descent.

    That’s a clue to the reality of the congregates that form the “Body” in this area. Many churches have services as you describe, English, Spanish, Vietnamese. Where space allows, all the groups have separate cabinets in which they can keep their separate stuff, pulled out for the various activities not held, or sometimes held in the sanctuary.

    Fr. Richard Neuhaus in the December issue of First Things comments on another “diversity” of sorts going on with a Christian megachurch in Redmond, WA. There they will modify the four services presently conducted and create a choice between “the contemporary and the edgy.” Well, at least the Catholics aren’t that diverse.

    But for those Catholics who still shake their heads at the vernacular Mass, Newhaus offers readers this ending quip. “And you thought you were bearing your cross by putting up with the guitar at the five o’clock Mass.”

  • http://www.splendoroftruth.com/curtjester Jeff Miller

    Though you forget the Easter Catholic churches so before Vatican II not all Masses were said in Latin.

  • Palladio

    “Wasn’t the local diocese diverse but its parishes not so?”

    Wrong question, wrong terms.

    What the parish was was a neighborhood, drawn up as neighborhoods were through the twentieth century: nationality and income.

    But neither the neighborhood (recall the quaint term, “ethnic neighborhood”) nor the parish was hermetically sealed, especially by the sixties.

    I am surprised that that is not obvious.

    The real story is the decline of neighborhoods.

    As for the sentence, “But Catholics seem to have their own type of diversity,” I cannot parse it at all.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Jeff Miller makes a necessary emendation to my post.

    Palladio makes an interesting point: the decline of (Catholic ethnic) neighborhoods is the real issue, not the changing nature of Catholic diversity. I’m not fully convinced, though. If a neighborhood’s demographics was the determining factor, why were so many ethnic parishes literally within a few blocks of each other?

  • Fr John R Blaker

    My diocese (Oakland, CA) is one of the most diverse in the world, with Masses said in 17 languages every Sunday. My current parish has only Masses in English. We have Italians, Portuguese, Latin Americans, African Americans, Africans, and many Filipinos. Our Pre-K through 8th school is similarly diverse. We are a very small parish, about 350 active families (about 800 on the books).

  • Palladio

    “If a neighborhood’s demographics was the determining factor, why were so many ethnic parishes literally within a few blocks of each other?”

    Outstanding question, with apologies for my terse post: I was writing in haste.

    My own two cents–having lived in a few ethnic and Catholic neighborhoods–is twofold: ethnic neighborhoods exist on condition of deselection–with rare exception, the immigrant Catholics live and dwell where the natives (Protestant in the main) do not, largely due to entrance cost. So they cluster, dividing (remember, too, that families support each other no only from the New to the Old country and vice versa but also within the New Country itself–my own Catholic family’s story) by nation and by language. It’s a lovely idea: being foreign yet catered for by family, friends, and countrymen, under the aegis of mater ecclesia. As you know, many a Catholic church in America is modeled on specific European churches (e. g., Il Gesu).

    You would be fascinated to see St. Stanislasz in Buffalo, NY (it has a stunning website). I am amazed it is still there, the mother parish of immigrant Poles, since it is surrounded by a wasteland.

    The second cent of mine is perhaps clear enough: the vast numbers of Southern Germans, Italians, Irish, and Poles necessitated the clustering, especially as they arrived within a relatively short time of one another.

    So, on the one hand, the Catholics could not really live in Protestant neighborhoods, on the other would close because they were so many.

    In my old neighborhoods, the scene was textbook Medieval: the church the highest building by far, everything arranged around it, everything within walking distance–including lunch at home, not at school.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Christ said: “Go therefore and baptize all nations” and has been the Catholic missionary creed for 2000 years.
    It is diversity within orthodoxy.
    I am anglo-Irish serving as the deacon in an Italian ethnic parish and have served in a Polish Catholic ethnic parish. I was ordained by a Portugese-American Cardinal (Medeiros) and go on my annual retreat to a Maronite Catholic monastery where the chanting is in a mystical Arabic (The Maronite is a Syriac Rite Catholic Church centered in Lebanon). And one of my children is married to a Catholic Indian.
    This diversity within orthodoxy is rarely covered or appreciated by the MSM. Orthodox Catholic teaching is what helps provide the glue that makes us feel part of the same family no matter our language or culture. Christ is Truly present “Body, blood, soul and divinity” on our altars whether we are Maronite, Chaldean, Coptic, Byzantine or Roman Catholic.

  • Palladio

    Fr John R Blaker: God bless you and your ministry.

    My own parish is diverse, the piety of immigrants is telling and, without exception, strict and beautiful.

    It was instructive to hear in the church hall about the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexicans who had been there constantly.

    The back story is that Catholic means universal. Universality–the truth and beauty of the Catholic Church–includes diversity. It’s an ideal moving to see.

  • http://www.catholicradiointernational.com Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The true surprise for me (not really, though) is that journalists are surprised at the diversity of the Catholic Church. They think of her simply as a white man’s church and haven’t grasped the concept that the Church is truly universal. That diversity within orthodoxy concept that Deacon Bresnahan mentions is very true.

    Which brings me to another point – many journalists are also surprised at those attracted to the old Latin Mass after Benedict’s motu proprio. But what it does for Latin rite Catholics is to bring a unity out of that diversity. Diversity for diversity’s sake is worthless.

  • http://christian-apologetics-society.blogspot.com Timothy

    Our Southern U.S. parish is a well balanced ethnic mixture. Often I shake hands with first generation Africans from Nigeria and Cameroon, turn around and bow to folks from India, then step across the aisle to resume shaking hands with Vietnamese Americans. Our parish is one of the most integrated and is often called the “Stained Glass Parish” due to our ethnic diversity at all services. Every Sunday it’s like attending Mass at the United Nations. I love it.

    This past Christmas Day, our parish did host an extra Mass in Polish for the many recent Polish immigrants to our area. Our priest is not diocesan, but from a Polish religious order. While the service was entirely in Polish from start to finish, the Mass was attended by many non-Polish parishoners, each of us praying and responding along in our preferred language. Fortunately, the unity of the Catholic liturgy allows anyone to attend and participate in the Mass anywhere in the world regardless of language.

  • liberty

    If a neighborhood’s demographics was the determining factor, why were so many ethnic parishes literally within a few blocks of each other?

    We have to remember the very, very cramped nature of those neighborhoods. Here in Chicago there was a Polish parish that was at one time the most populous parish in the world (8,000 families). It was split off and other (very large) churches were built just blocks away.

    When ethnic groups moved to the suburbs the incoming groups were not living quite as densely packed together… leading to less of a need for 3 churches seating over 1,000 within a miles of each other.

    I think the untold story is the diversity in the suburban parishes like I grew up in. With the move to the suburbs the ethnic clusters broke up. There were Italians, Irish, Polish and Mexicans all in the same parish. That meant that we grew up celebrating a mix of traditions from the different groups. I was recently talking to a friend who was raised Methodist who commented that she had no sense of different ethnicities in her world at all.

    Now I often attend a parish with Catholics from all sorts of backgrounds and I don’t blink when the EMHC is an Indian woman in a beautiful sari, or a Nigerian student at the local university. We are all Catholic regardless of our ethnicity.

  • Julia

    I grew up in an Irish parish which long ago was once placed under interdict for refusing to accept the German priest assigned to it by the German bishop. Our pastor had been born in Ireland and I learned to do the River-dance type dancing and singing. My blue collar town also had parishes that were predominantly Lithuanian, Polish, African-American parishes. One nearby village parish was predominantly French and another village parish was half Polish and half Mexican. And a town a bit further was mostly Italian.

    I moved with my family to a more prosperous community up on the bluffs and there are no ethnic parishes at all. Out in the country-side there are still predominantly German parishes but the folks have been in this country so long that there is nothing distinctive about them any more except for their parades, fish fry’s and beer festivals.

    You are right – it used to be diversity in the diocese and now it’s diversity within the parish itself.

    A wedding we sang for last year in my parish had a Filipino bride and a Catholic Coptic groom. Very interesting to see the customs involved.

  • Jimmy Mac

    I, too, live in the Oakland diocese. Recently I saw in the diocesan paper the pictures of 7 (I think) new ordinands and not one of them was Anglo. If my memory service me, there were 2 Filipinos, 3 Latinos and 2 Asians. So much for the Irish-dominated clergy in this diocese! Of course, these ordinations also reflect the strength of the parishes that are surviving and thriving.