Monday, December 5, 2011


The Church Making a Comeback?

Recently, a reporter was interviewing me about the Diocese of Orange acquiring the famous Crystal Cathedral and turning the landmark into a cathedral for the Catholic Diocese. I had to laugh because the reporter asked whether this event signaled that “the Catholic Church was making a comeback” after facing the challenges of the sexual abuse of minors and serious financial implications over the past several years. I was tempted to say that having survived any number of disasters over the last 2,000 years, the Church was not really going to disappear any time soon. Of course, my saying that would have depended more on the Lord’s promise that the Church would endure than just the historical fact that it has endured, at least up to now!

Well, maybe in a way, one can say that “the Church is making a comeback”! Consider what I have witnessed as executive director of the USCCB Secretariat of Cultural Diversity. On January 1, 2012 the Secretariat will celebrate its fourth birthday. Heir to the pioneering work of the Secretariats of Hispanic Affairs and of African American Affairs going back several decades, the new department added subcommittees for Asian and Pacific Islanders, and for Native Americans, as well as another subcommittee for the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers. What have been the highlights of the past four years? I find myself asking this question as my service as executive director comes to an end on December 16th. I will be moving back to Los Angeles to accept the Casassa Chair of Catholic Social Values at Loyola Marymount University. For me it is hard if not impossible to say that this experience has not been one of great hope and excitement. Here is why.

New Life in the Making

For one thing, the Catholic Church is gaining a new lease on life as a result of migration and relatively higher birth rates among immigrants, especially Hispanics/Latinos. While significant numbers of baptized Catholics of European origin are not going to Mass on Sundays very often and have expressed discomfort with some aspects of their Catholic identity, that loss and lack of enthusiasm for the faith is being made up for by a rising Hispanic/Latino and Asian and Pacific Islander presence together with vibrant and youthful communities of Catholic people from all over Africa and the English, Spanish and Creole-speaking Caribbean. This reality is being marked by the coming of what Fr. Brett Hoover, CSP calls “shared parishes,” that is, parishes that are made up of at least two distinct cultural and language groups and often by three or more.

While there continues to be a need to serve each cultural group as much as possible in contexts where it is truly comfortable and provide opportunities for leadership to emerge proper to each community, the limitations of ministers sometimes means that these groups must be served in intercultural or shared contexts. The Secretariat of Cultural Diversity is an effort to respond to this growing reality in creative ways since what we see now seems to be the “wave of the future.”

Note Dame University Event Profoundly Life-Giving

The Catholic Cultural Diversity Network Convocation held at Notre Dame University in May 2010 was by most peoples’ reckoning a marvelous experience that contributed something of value to the U.S. bishops’ priority on recognition of cultural diversity. The methodology used which is summarized in a resource titled Convocation Notebook and available on the USCCB/CDC website set the tone for efforts to move communities in the direction of ecclesial integration, a term the bishops use to designate the goal of parish and diocesan pastoral efforts at a time of remarkable demographic change in the make-up of our Catholic parishes, schools and organizations. The Notre Dame gathering showed that one of the simplest but most effective ways to begin sound intercultural relationships is through story-telling. People need to be recognized for who they are and given a chance to tell their stories. Amazing as it may sound, we have too many Catholic communities today that are made up of people who really do not have a grasp of their neighbor’s story. As a result, people are often reacting to others, the “outsiders”, negatively and defensively. The current season of immigrant-bashing is a prime example of this sad and sorry situation that sows seeds of bitterness in our civil society as well as in the Church. The Notre Dame event provided a template for another more creative, positive possibility. I am happy to hear that parishes and dioceses have begun to implement some of the methods and practices of the Notre Dame event in their own situations.

Focus on Intercultural Proficiencies

Flowing directly from the Catholic Cultural Diversity Network Convocation was the workshop titled Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers (BICM) which the Secretariat designed and piloted in three locations in 2011. At the November 2011 General Assembly of the U.S. Bishops in Baltimore the Committee on Cultural Diversity enthusiastically endorsed the five Guidelines for Competency and the workshop consisting of five modules that accompany the Guidelines. The bishops’ goal is to promote greater participation of diverse communities in the life and mission of the Church. The growing numbers, youthfulness and real enthusiasm for the faith found among these diverse communities is nothing less than astounding in an age of considerable indifference and even cynicism about Christ and his Church.
The Committee on Cultural Diversity approved the dissemination plan for the Guidelines on Intercultural Competency that consists mainly in training trainers to form parish, diocesan and school leaders in these proficiencies/competencies. For too long we have been hearing about “multiculturalism and diversity” and giving a knee-jerk endorsement of them without necessarily grasping what it is really all about. The five modules of BICM begin to unpack the world of intercultural relations and communications for ministers who daily are challenged by it in parishes and other church and societal venues throughout the country.

Getting Beyond the Silos

While different cultural/racial groups find themselves at different moments in their histories and it is appropriate and wise to respect the integrity of each cultural group, it is also necessary to invite interaction and mutual learning experiences among all. For the Church this is becoming quite crucial because it is a question of leadership. Will the Church form reliable leadership cohorts from among the diversity of emerging cultural groups? We are living a moment of dramatic transition, for example, the European American Catholic middle class is aging and numerically in decline everywhere in the country. As a result, leadership opportunities in dioceses, parishes, schools and Catholic organizations should now be going to Hispanic/Latinos, Asian and Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Africans, Haitians, Caribbean peoples and to Native Americans. But are they--at least in adequate numbers? More critical, however, is the question whether these emerging new leaders are capable of serving not only their own cultural groups but the entire Catholic community. That will not happen unless growing numbers of all our diverse communities gain access to the education and formation needed for leadership and gain a vision beyond that of their own particular cultural group. Silos are useful but they have their limitations. Today we must struggle to move beyond them to some extent at least for the sake of the greater good of the entire Church and civil society. It seems to me that the bishops Committee on Cultural Diversity and its Secretariat have a mandate to keep this agenda before the eyes of all Catholics as we manage our way through a virtual demographic and leadership see change.

Bottom Line: Evangelization, The Church’s Mission and Identity

In looking back at the first four years of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity what stands out the most for me is the integral connection between cultural diversity and the Church’s identity and mission. In a real sense, it is not about diversity per se but about catholicity and mission. The Church cannot accomplish its universal mission to transform cultures without ministers who are “experts in culture”, that is, people with knowledge, attitudes and skills that enable them to relate to others, especially persons of other cultures, races and ethnicities, with the Gospel message. When we talk about Evangelization and the New Evangelization we are talking precisely about the engagement of the Christian message with cultures, including modern, secular culture. So when we stress cultural skills we are simply providing the necessary tools to accomplishing the mission given to us by the Lord.

Those skills need to be sharpened more than ever in the context of so many intercultural encounters in today’s Church and society. We also need to be spiritually formed in how to discern what is good and what is bad about today’s secular culture. My heartfelt desire is that all ecclesial ministers and pastoral agents –bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity alike—attain new levels of intercultural proficiency for carrying out their baptismal calling to be missionary disciples of the Lord.

Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck, SJ, Executive Director
Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops