Construction of a multimillion-dollar Roman Catholic church named for Vietnam’s patron saint has been delayed indefinitely because of a dispute over who should be pastor of a congregation that is now mostly Hispanic.
Bishop Todd Brown of the Diocese of Orange wants to replace the parish’s current pastor with a priest of Vietnamese descent. The parishioners want the current pastor to stay.
The dispute underscores a deeper tension for the Catholic Church in 21st century America as it attempts to accommodate its increasingly diverse flock.
“The only reason the Catholic Church in the U.S. is still growing is because of immigration,” said Michael Foley, a professor of political science at Catholic University who studies religion and immigration. “There’s a very clear teaching now that the various cultural expressions have to be respected if possible.”
The Diocese of Orange wants to replace Our Lady of Lourdes, a tiny, crowded church built in the 1920s for Mexican farmworkers, with Our Lady of Lavang, a parish with a name acknowledging Orange County’s large Vietnamese-American community.
The new parish was supposed to be an example of the church’s effort to bring together the two cultures. Now it has become an example of the difficulties in doing so.
Or maybe I should say the re-balkanization of Catholic parishes. As immigrant groups initially came into the United States they setup parishes with the priests they brought along and then worked hard to have those churches built. No matter how much we talk about the values of multi-culturalism, people still flock to those places where people share the same culture or country orgin as themselves. With the latest growth of the Catholic Church in the U.S. we are seeing this process repeat.
Those variance in the liturgy due to local custom in various countries normally does not present a problem until those variances are brought into a larger cultural context like the U.S. and increasingly other European countries. While it is well and good to have the Mass in the vernacular when everybody speaks the same language it becomes a problem when either they don’t, or they want the Mass to be in their native language. Thus we end up with churches that add Masses for other languages and we end up with a desecration of parish life.
Initially I thought that perhaps going back to the universal church language of Latin for most parts of the Mass might be a cure. I am biased toward that view because of my love of the Latin Mass, but Masses were in Latin during the first increase of Catholic immigrant populations into this Country and that didn’t seem to make a difference. I firmly believe that immigrants should learn the predominate language of the country they are in, but even if they do it does not totally solve the problem of the balkanization of parish life. The devotional life and other cultural biases also come into conflict. Since we are all humans who have fallen and suffer from the effects or original sin we normally look for ways to separate ourselves from others. Cultural buzz words like “Celebrate difference” sound nice, but in no way reflects our natural aptitudes.
The main church I attend has diverse populations of Spanish, Filipino, Lebanese, and others. Our pastor does much to ensure both the devotional faith life of these groups and at the same time including them into the wider parish life. My wife is Filipina and I have learned much from the faith life of her and other Filipinos. Even though I do not speak Tagalog the example of the Filipino community in my church has been a great example to me. I have also learned from the Pastor, who is originally from Spain, many of the difficulties of integrating groups and the petty squabbling and misunderstanding that occur. So as with most things that involve humans they are no complete solutions and that we must continuously work together in striving for holiness to overcome cultural stereotypes.